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Political Cartooning: An Animated Discussion with Mark Fiore

By Ellen Pifer

It’s not easy being a political cartoonist these days. While there’s plenty of inspiration, the work could easily chew you up and spit you out in a wad of hopelessness. “I have my family and a life outside my work to keep me balanced,” says Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Fiore. A master of the pointed political jab, Fiore has been fine-tuning his commentary since he was a high school kid doodling at his desk. In the late 1990s, he blazed new trails as one of the first political cartoonists to use animation to tell his stories, and he has become one of the most well-known artists working in this medium. Today, he churns out new animations weekly and shares them on his website. His work also regularly appears on Daily Kos, KQED and Patreon.

Create: When did you decide you wanted to be a political cartoonist?

Mark Fiore: Initially my attraction to all of it was through animated cartoons—Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Chuck Jones’s style of cartooning. I was really drawn to that and became the kid in class who was drawing all the time. Then, in high school, I started to get more political and turn it into something about current events. This was before the Internet, and that’s when I discovered traditional, single-panel newspaper cartoons—and I just loved them.

Click on the image to watch a recent political cartoon by Fiore, Blowing Up the Iran Deal with Buster! 

Create: How did you get your start?

Fiore: There aren’t really any schools for political cartooning, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go the art or journalism route. Animation hadn’t gone political. So I went to a small liberal arts college, Colorado College, and studied political science. Doing political animation was much more daunting back then. The only way to do animation was to move to LA and become part of a studio. That’s when I first discovered Flash, and suddenly I could do this on my computer.

Create: Is it hard to be so wrapped up in the news?

Fiore: It can be overwhelming, and when you’re completely immersed in it, it gets pretty unhealthy. I shut it off and get away from it on the weekend. I do have a life outside of the news. Another thing that keeps me going is having a level of optimism and believing that I can make a difference, shift the conversation, show people things they might not have known about, and ideally make a change.

Click on the image to watch a recent political cartoon by Fiore, Cohen & Cohn, Fixers at Law. 

Create: Do you think you can change the world with cartoons?

Fiore: The way I look at it is that I’m helping shape the conversation rather than instantly changing policy. Sometimes you get reactions that seem like you’re having a big impact, but when it comes down to it I’m creating cartoons to help shape the conversation. That’s where I take my little victories.

Create: Is there any topic that’s hands-off for you?

Fiore: Not really. I do stay clear of purely entertainment stuff. That’s not really my beat. I just try to have my cartoons say something. I avoid gags. I try to put a different spin on the news.

Click on the image to watch a recent political cartoon by Fiore, Drive the All-New Megalosaurus!

Create: Has the current administration been a blessing to you or a curse?

Fiore: It’s a blessing as far as the material that Trump provides. There is a lot of fodder there, but I don’t think it’s worth it. Some cartoonists say, “I’m an equal opportunity offender,” but that’s not me. I have a political viewpoint, and it aligns much more with what Obama was doing compared with what Trump is doing.

Create: Has it gotten any easier to make a living as a political cartoonist?

Fiore: It’s probably gotten harder because there is so much content out there that it’s harder to be heard. But political animation has become much more acceptable, and crowdfunding can help you connect with your audience more and that part is a lot of fun.

Create: What’s the advantage of animated cartoons over still ones?

Fiore: I switched to doing only animated political cartoons in 2002. I felt like I suddenly had so many more tools at my disposal. You can explain more-complicated issues. It feels like you’re peeling back someone’s skull and you can touch their brain, and tap into how they respond to motion, sound effects, and music. These are important tools I couldn’t use with a single-panel cartoon.

Watch how Mark Fiore gives his Donald Trump character distinct facial expressions and hand movements with Adobe Character Animator CC. (Learn more about using Character Animator.)

Create: What animation apps do you use now?

Fiore: It’s mostly Adobe stuff that I’m using right now. I’m using Animate CC, and I’ve been really excited about Character Animator CC—trying to get more proficient with that because I see it as having huge potential for me. Most of the animation is done in those, and then I bring it into Premiere Pro CC for the final edit.

Create: Do you have any specific tips for using Animate or Character Animator?

Fiore: When it comes to character animation, keep it simple. Especially if you’re starting out, don’t get overwhelmed by all the things the software can do. Just focus on the story you need to tell. It can be daunting. I’m using probably 10 percent of what Character Animator and Animate can do. It has always been like that. The work that I am doing is much more focused on getting an idea across.

See more of Fiore’s work on his website