Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Steve Breen visits
Jesse Richards - October 23, 1998

Ask Steve Breen, and he'll tell you there's one trick to making a great political cartoon: clarity. "There are lots of things that make up a great cartoon. But clarity is the most important thing. You want to make sure your opinion shows through and that it speaks clearly to the reader." And he should know. Last April, the 27-year-old cartoonist received the first Pulitzer Prize to be awarded a New Jersey journalist in 24 years.

Breen, the editorial cartoonist for The Asbury Park Press, recently visited the journalism class at Drew to share some of his newspaper experiences and cartooning know-how. Breen brought in slides of his work and also sketched some drawings for the class.

The artist has been the full-time cartoonist at the Press for two years, and he also contributes frequent caricatures for the Press's popular Celebs section. His recent Pulitzer win catapulted him into the spotlight, catching many by surprise, including Breen. Breen's winning the award was something of an upset, and there was debate in the Pulitzer cartooning category. Of 130 submissions, there were three finalists, with Breen being only in the second tier. The Pulitzer committee members were not satisfied with the judges' suggestions for finalists, and decided to look at Breen's work instead. Breen says that had the committee looked at all of his work instead of the 20 best cartoons he sent in, he might not have won. But not everyone agrees with his modesty. Drew's journalism professor, Bruce Reynolds, a long-time friend of Breen's, says he definitely expected Breen to win the prize — just not this quickly. "Breen certainly deserved the Pulitzer, and it won't be the last one he wins," Reynolds said.

The Pulitzer, awarded annually by Columbia University, comes with a monetary award of $5,000, and this amount was matched by the Press's former owners as well as the paper itself. Breen explained that the win couldn't have come at a better time for him, since his wedding was the following month.

Originally from California, Breen attended the University of California at Riverside, where he started drawing cartoons and gag illustrations for the student paper, the Highlander. Breen mentioned what he called "an early milestone" — a cartoon of his published in Newsweek in 1989, during his sophomore year. The cartoon shows two Russian soldiers commenting on how changes in their country are occurring too quickly. In the background stands a remodeled St. Basil's Cathedral, now a shopping center called K-Marx.

Reynolds, Breen's professor and the Highlander's staff advisor at the time, encouraged him to pursue a career in editorial cartooning. Inspired, Breen began spending long hours in the library researching cartooning methods. He drew inspiration from the work of such famous cartoonists as Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant.

In 1994, Breen was working on attaining a high school teaching credential when the Press responded to cartoons he had sent. The newspaper offered him a job as a paginator, working on computer layouts. Describing himself as a "technical idiot," Breen said the job was terrible. Still, he moved out to New Jersey, contributing a cartoon a week to the Press in addition to his layout duties. Breen added, "Getting your foot in the door is the most important thing for anyone trying to become a cartoonist, or any other job, really. Just keep plugging away and something will come along. That's how it worked for me." In 1996, the Press gave him a full-time cartooning position to counter an offer Breen received from another paper.

Breen creates five cartoons a week for the Press. He says he draws most of his ideas from reading the newspaper and keeping track of current events. He likes to vary his topics, making half of his cartoons nationally or globally relevant, and the others local. He explains that readers get sick of too much Washington-related politics in cartoons. He adds, though, that the current Clinton scandal is a godsend of ideas, and that Clinton himself is ridiculously easy to caricature.

The cartoonist finds that clarity, brevity, and a great graphic image are what make up his best cartoons. In fact, most of the cartoons in his Pulitzer portfolio are single-punch visual puns, with few words. Breen uses his drawing ability and the nature of the medium to create striking, memorable visual images. His best cartoons are biting, controversial and even shocking, and Breen explains that there have been many "squeakers" — cartoons that barely make it past his editor into print.

Breen says that the amount of mail he receives about his cartoons has increased dramatically since he won the Pulitzer. He says readers are always sending in ideas for cartoons, but until recently he never used one. As an example, he showed the journalism class a letter describing an idea that was so vague, confusing, and unfunny that it was easy to see why he didn't follow the suggestion. He then drew for the class the only reader-inspired cartoon he's ever used. It showed Clinton, his arm raised and pants around his ankles, holding a copy of the Starr report. The caption, with Breen's trademark succinctness, read, simply, "The Statue of Libertine."

While Breen loved the idea so much he couldn't pass it up, that cartoon is also an example of a problem in editorial cartooning, according to Breen. He worries that sometimes his cartoons might go over reader's heads. Breen explained that if the word ‘libertine' had not been integral to the cartoon, he would have used a more well-known word. He also said that this is a problem when it's a slow news week and he reaches for more local or obscure topics. This is another reason why clarity is essential, he explained.

The journalist's work appears in hundreds of newspapers and magazines each week through syndication by the Copley News Service. A Breen cartoon was reprinted in Newsweek less than two weeks ago. In regards to the reprint, Breen mentioned how exciting it is each time he sees his work reproduced nationally. Breen explained that the cartoon ran in the Press on Thursday, Oct. 8, and was printed in Newsweek two days later. It shows two kids dressed up for Halloween. One is wearing an elephant mask with an attached halo, proclaiming that "For Halloween, I'm going as a self-righteous Republican." The other child wears a bag over her head, and says, "I'm going as a Democrat."

Breen's next goal entails working on a daily comic strip. After nine or 10 ideas over as many years, he revealed in a talk given Tuesday night that he has entered into a deal with United Features Syndicate to produce a strip tentatively titled, "Grand Avenue." The strip features the antics of two young children and their wily grandmother.

"It won't be like 'Doonesbury.' It'll be more like 'Peanuts,' 'Calvin and Hobbes,' or 'For Better or For Worse,'" he said, according to an article in the Press. The cartoonist showed an advance copy of the strip to the journalism students during his visit to Drew. It looks like it won't be long before anxious Breen fans can get a double dose of his work every day in newspapers across the country.

For more information on Steve Breen, and to view this week's cartoons as well as the cartoons that won him the Pulitzer, visit the Asbury Park Press's homepage at www.injersey.com/breen.