1935 - | South Australia, USA | Political Cartoonist
Oliphant was the world’s most widely-syndicated political cartoonist for decades. The South Australian-born Oliphant moved to the United States and won a Pulitzer Prize and racks of other awards. Oliphant began as a copy boy at The News in Adelaide before shifting to the art department at The Advertiser. During a visit to the US he realised “nothing much happens” in Australia, but America was a stimulating nation packed with issues, turmoil and pompous politicians. He moved to Denver and skewered American politicians for half a century with a scathing eye and a scratchy pen, a style mimicked by hundreds of his successors.
Having the capacity to be outrageous has not stopped Pat Oliphant from being one of the most important cartoonists to have worked in America over the past half century. In 1990 The New York Times called him the most influential editorial cartoonist working in the country. At the time, his cartoons were being syndicated to more than 500 newspapers.
While Oliphant’s cartoons can seem harsh, he likes to think of himself as being ‘liberal’ in American terms, or left wing in Australian terminology – a cartoonist who’s an equal opportunity offender. He delights almost with a sense of disbelief at what he sees as the absurdity (at best) of the things most political figures say and do. “They create this stuff; all I have to do is illustrate it,” he says. “I just sit back and it comes at me.”
Patrick Bruce Oliphant was born in the Adelaide Hills in 1935. He grew up in a three-room house with no telephone, no radio, no electricity or running water. After completing high school in 1952 he got a job as a copy boy on The News. Oliphant then moved to The Advertiser and within a year started a cadetship in the art department. In 1955 the daily cartoonist Dan Russell left, and at the age of 20 Oliphant was given a trial to see if he could handle the job.
Oliphant met West Australian cartoonist Paul Rigby in a pub in 1960 and over a beer or two he suggested Oliphant should try cartooning in the United States. It took him five years to find a spot. “I heard there was a vacancy on The Denver Post and sent a load of originals. I had the call from them on the Friday and had to start the following Monday.” In 1965 his cartoons became national when syndicated by The Los Angeles Times.
Refusing to work in colour or use a computer, Oliphant took a freer drawing style to America, which set a different direction for American cartooning. “The cartoon dictates the way you work,” he says. “The line has to be in tune with the image. I could be using a brush on this and get it all black, but I want to have daylights through it and I want it to look scraggly and tattered and torn.” He says he likes to bring as much art as he can to his cartoons. "I think it is an art form, a terribly neglected art form these days."
In 1975 Oliphant started work on The Washington Star and in 1980 switched the syndication of his cartoons to the Universal Press group. When The Washington Star folded in 1981 he worked on his own, continuing to syndicate through Universal Press and becoming one of the first cartoonists in America not working for a newspaper.
Just three years after arriving in America, he won the nation's highest journalistic honour - a Pulitzer Prize. Since then he has won the National Cartoonists Society Editorial Cartoon Award seven times, the Reuben Award twice, has twice been voted cartoonists of the year in the Washington Journalism Review and won the Thomas Nast prize in 1992.
Oliphant regards himself as a journalist who draws: “In fact, I wanted to be a journalist when I first started work.” He sees the role of a cartoonist as a great privilege: “I can say things that people want to say. I'm fortunate enough to have a forum in which to say it - and express the feelings of many people.”
Included in every Oliphant cartoon is a small penguin known as Punk. He introduced Punk as a smart-ass in some weather cartoons he was drawing in Adelaide. Following a good reaction, Oliphant has kept him in every cartoon since, saying Punk represents his alter ego.
Having cartooned on every US president since Lyndon Johnson, he has unleashed his ink dip pen on them all without mercy while both Democrats and Republicans have regularly disputed his claim of political neutrality.
He said in 2009: “I don’t like changes of administrations because I have all my villains in place, and then they are taken away and replaced with faceless wonders nobody knows. You need villains to get yourself angry.”
Drawing for a huge and diverse audience has had its challenges. “When a cartoonist works for an individual paper you get to know the readership and it is easy to thrash things out with the editor,” he says. But with his work being syndicated, “I just put my head down and send them out, I don’t think about it. It’s up to them whether or not they actually print it.” However, he laments: “If it were not for the fact that editors have become so timorous in these politically-correct times, I would probably have a greater readership than I have.”
Editors are one thing; self-criticism is another. Oliphant said in 2009: “I don't think there's more than half-a-dozen cartoons that I've been really truly happy with in all the time I've been doing it.”
He is winding down a little, having moved from Washington DC to Santa Fe in 1997. After retiring in 2015 he briefly returned to cartooning in 2017. These days he looks like an absent-minded professor with his woolly white hair and wry, bespectacled quizzical look.
While he still retains most of his Australian accent, his wife Susan says: “He’s well and truly American now. People are surprised to learn he was originally from Australia.”
Lindsay Foyle is a cartoonist and journalist and a past president of the Australian Cartoonists Association. He was deputy editor of The Bulletin and Australian Business Monthly back in the 1980s and 1990s.
Courtesy of Fairfax
Famous Nixon cartoon. Courtesy Pat Oliphant
'Legacies'. Courtesy of Pat Oliphant
Cover of Seven Presidents: The Art of Oliphant
2017 cartoon. Courtesy Pat Oliphant
‘Legendary Cartoonist Pat Oliphant: “We Are in a Forest Fire of Ignorance”’, The Atlantic, Les Daly, 3 September 2014
'Sketching US History', Dateline, David Bill, March 2009