Backlash, breakfast, and fans: life as a Herald cartoonist

Controversial political cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon

By Kathryn MacDonald

The Chronicle Herald’s Bruce MacKinnon celebrates his 25th year with the paper by releasing his fourth book, PENetration.

MacKinnon works on a cartoon at his office.
MacKinnon works on a cartoon at his home office. (Photo: Peggy MacKinnon.)

By Kathryn MacDonald

A young couple hovers over the table where Bruce MacKinnon sits. He’s surrounded by copies of PENetration, his new book of cartoons. Half-a-dozen other fans are lined up behind them for a copy of the book, an autograph and a chat.

“Write something funny,” says the young man, glancing down eagerly to where MacKinnon has poised his pen. “Go ahead and write something rude,” adds his girlfriend. “We won’t mind.”

MacKinnon, seen here as a self-portrait, rarely looks at his published work.
MacKinnon's self-portrait: he often criticizes his own work. (Courtesy Bruce MacKinnon)

MacKinnon raises his eyebrows and smiles. He looks back down at the page and chuckles. “I wish all my readers were like that.”

The book launch is taking place in a side room of The Hart and Thistle, a Halifax microbrewery. Its windows look out at the grey churning waters of the Atlantic. The solid wooden table in the centre of the room is covered with a spread of shrimp and Atlantic smoked salmon. A fishy smell lingers in the air. The room is cut off from the rest of the pub by two big dark wooden doors, but the rumble of laughter and conversation seeps through, drowning out many attempted speeches. In his speech, MacKinnon apologizes for this. It was his idea to have the book launch at a pub.

PENetration is a collection of his work from the past 25 years. In those years, he has won nine “Best Political Cartoonist” awards in the Coast’s “Best of Halifax Reader’s Survey”, so many that the category has been retired and MacKinnon honoured in the Coast’s Hall of Fame. He has won 13 Atlantic Journalism Awards, two National Newspaper Awards, and second place in the 2004 World Press Cartoon competition.

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MacKinnon held a book signing the week before at St. Francis Xavier University, his alma mater. He arrived to find a lineup of people out the door. He sat down to sign and didn’t get up for two hours. Talking of it now, MacKinnon grins and shakes his head in disbelief. He doesn’t seem to understand his own popularity.

“He’s incredibly humble. To a fault,” says Bob Krieger, a close friend of MacKinnon and the editorial cartoonist for the Vancouver Province. “I honestly believe he has no idea how much talent he has. On the one hand it’s very disturbing; it’s a pain in the ass. On the other hand it’s pretty endearing.”

MacKinnon and Krieger are in contact almost every day. MacKinnon usually works from home, only going into the office once a week to consult with editors. Krieger is one of MacKinnon’s many sounding boards. “It is a solitary profession and in a lot of ways it’s harder to work when people are around,” MacKinnon says, “and yet you need people to consult because humour is so subjective. What you think is hilarious when you first think of it might not mean anything to anyone else. It’s always good to get a second and third opinion.”

MacKinnon’s routine

Most mornings, MacKinnon sits at the kitchen table with copies of the Chronicle Herald and the Globe and Mail spread out in front of him. He’s dressed in his usual outfit: black shirt and black pants. He used to get a lot of ink stains on his clothes; now he just wears black all the time, so they don’t show. His wife, Peggy, his most important sounding board, sits across from him. She’s a petite woman with dark hair and twinkly blue eyes. She administrates his Facebook fan page. It has more than 1,300 members.

They brainstorm between sips of coffee. MacKinnon makes his two cups half-strength because he doesn’t want to get too jittery. He nibbles toast. He doesn’t like to eat much in the morning because it might make his brain sluggish.

Once MacKinnon comes up with five or 10 ideas, he presents them to Peggy from weakest to strongest. She gives him her opinion. “If he’s not going to get an honest answer from me,” she says, “he’s not going to get it from anyone.”

MacKinnon then whittles the list down some more and contacts his editors with a few ideas for approval. In the early days of his career, MacKinnon would come up with a story idea and run with it, often finishing his drawing before speaking with his editors. This led to a lot of cartoons judged too vulgar, libellous or in poor taste—and getting axed. So MacKinnon started to clear his ideas before picking up a pen.

Cartoon backlash

A few years ago, when former U.S. President Bill Clinton came to Halifax, MacKinnon had an idea for a cartoon of Clinton standing at the podium saying, “I’m SO excited to be in Halifax!” with a pair of high heels poking out the bottom of the podium. He knew that was a little out of line. While his editors found it funny, they wouldn’t print it. “It’s a family newspaper,” says MacKinnon. “Little Johnny’s reading the paper with his parents and they have to explain what this lady is doing under the podium. It’s a judgment call. It might get into another paper. It won’t get into this one.”

Sometimes a cartoon will pass the Herald’s standards, but offend readers. Roy Peterson, former president of both the American and Canadian Associations of Editorial Cartoonists, worked as an editorial cartoonist for the Vancouver Sun for 47 years. He knows what reader backlash feels like. “You can read a cartoon in seven seconds—and a lot of people have a mistaken impression as to what they have seen in those seven seconds. They take the wrong slant or they get the wrong idea.”

When Swissair flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 1998, MacKinnon decided to draw a serious tribute to the fishermen who helped search for debris from the wreck. He drew a fisherman pulling up nets, and a thought bubble reading: “…Never thought I’d be praying for empty nets…” The response was overwhelming. Many readers didn’t understand it was meant to be sombre. “I got blasted for that cartoon. Probably more than any I’ve ever done.” 

MacKinnon uses current events and wit to push his cartoons to a higher level
MacKinnon misunderstood: when he draws a serious comic, he's not taken seriously. “I got blasted for that cartoon," he says. (Courtesy of MacKinnon)

“People love his cartoons,” says Jane Purves, one of MacKinnon’s former editors. “But occasionally they’re offended because when he’s trying to be serious people think he’s trying to be funny. Sometimes he would do very serious cartoons that weren’t meant to be funny and people wouldn’t get that… Sometimes also, you know, people aren’t that bright.”

MacKinnon has never been sued and says legal action has only been taken against him once. One of the Toronto 18, a group of men accused of plotting to behead the prime minister and blow up the parliament buildings, had a Nova Scotian wife . She threatened to sue the Canadian government for millions of dollars. MacKinnon drew the woman in a hijab (as she appeared in the front page photo the day before) holding a sign—“I want millions”—with a speech bubble saying, “I can put it toward my husband’s next training camp…”

A few days later MacKinnon was informed that a local group called the Center for Islamic Development had launched a complaint; he was under investigation by the police and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. The investigation was analyzing the criminal code section which outlaws advocating or promoting genocide. His cartoon was being weighed as hate propaganda.

“That was a bit of a shock.”

The investigation was eventually dropped. The man referred to in the cartoon was required to sign a peace bond placing him under strict conditions and oversight.

MacKinnon likes to poke at political issues. This cartoon in particular caused him a lot of heat. (Courtesy of MacKinnon)

MacKinnon doesn’t take any reader backlash personally. “When you start off your day with someone calling you a nasty name, well maybe that doesn’t get your day off to the best start. But I take shots at politicians…  they have a thick skin, I should have a thick skin too. If I don’t, I’ve got to develop one.

“Some people,” he admits, “have a way of getting through.”

MacKinnon knows of editorial cartoonists who have had their offices trashed, who have been beaten up and sent death threats. It makes him a little apprehensive. “I always think: You stick your head out of the gopher hole a little too long, someone’s going to shoot it off.”

Despite that, Chronicle Herald Editor-in-Chief Bob Howse says more people call to get copies of MacKinnon’s cartoons than to complain.

Aside from Cartoons

It’s Saturday afternoon and the Elephant and Castle pub in downtown Halifax is packed. The place smells like beer and sweet potato fries, and the crowd is a little rowdy. MacKinnon and his son Jamieson are playing “Sweet Caroline”—MacKinnon strums the guitar while his son plays the drums. People are hooting, hollering and swaying to the music. They are wearing matching shirts with caricatures of the two of them that MacKinnon designed. MacKinnon and his son play every Saturday afternoon and have a number of loyal fans. Despite their success, MacKinnon prefers a career in cartoons to one in music. “It’s been a lot easier to feed myself with cartoons.”

MacKinnon tapes the band’s performances every week and listens to them at home while he draws. Sometimes he takes notes on areas they might improve. He’s kind of a perfectionist.

MacKinnon plays in a band when he has time off. (Photo: Kathryn MacDonald)

MacKinnon’s studio is crowded with art and musical equipment. Guitars, mandolin, banjo and bass are surrounded by papers and ink bottles. His old black draftsman’s desk has two of the Coast’s “Best of Halifax” stickers in the top corners. With one incredibly freckled hand he scratches out a sketch with a mechanical pencil; in the other, he clutches a big black eraser. It’s mid-afternoon and MacKinnon is only now starting to work on the day’s cartoon. He spent the morning perfecting his concept.

He never takes a break

Out West, Bob Krieger says that a lot of cartoonists rest on their laurels after a while—but not Nova Scotia’s favourite. “Bruce never takes a day off. He never settles.”

Once MacKinnon has finished outlining his cartoon with a Micron felt pen, he’s still not done. He has to sign off on the photocopy of his drawing for the Herald. If the photocopy isn’t true to the original, he won’t sign it. He wants it to be perfect.

“Most mornings he’ll open the paper and look at the cartoon and the first thing he finds is a flaw.”
–Peggy MacKinnon

His wife says, “He’s not one of those perfectionists that are overbearing and impossible to live with. He’s hard on himself, he’s not hard on anybody else.

“It’s rare when he’ll open the paper and look at his cartoon and be really satisfied with it. Most mornings he’ll open the paper and look at the cartoon and the first thing he finds is a flaw.”

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