Cartoonist Joe Glisson Releases His Second Book

Syracuse New Times | October 8, 2008
Like all political cartoonists, Joe Glisson provides commentary on the news. But he never expected that one of his panels would make news. The comic in question, published in these pages on May 31, 1989, and with the heading "This Actually Happened," shows the front page of the now-defunct Syracuse Herald-Journal with news about shootings and pistol-whippings and the back page with an ad from Dick's Sporting Goods touting a sale on firearms. Publisher Stephen Rogers was reportedly not happy.

"That was my 15 seconds of fame," Glisson says with a grin. "I wasn't trying to slap the Herald, I just thought it was ironic. But it got a lot of attention, and was played up in news reports across the country."

And Glisson, who was drawing a baseball card-like illustration for The Post-Standard's sports section, which involved tracking down the subject, taking a photograph and then drawing the illustration, got his ass in a sling, courtesy of Rogers. "The idea that I got fired for that! But it worked out fine. I couldn't maintain the schedule anyways."

And so the Syracuse newspaper's loss is The New Times' gain. After 25 years, Glisson's work continues to be a draw for readers of this paper, even if his politics sometimes clash with the content that follows Page 2. "I tend to go conservative," he admits. "Although I'm not a conservative necessarily, I do tend to have more conservative views. The New Times is known for its non-conservative views. Usually a reader that's giving me a hard time is expecting that this newspaper wouldn't carry any conservative views. Some of the people that read this paper, I would never expect them to be readers; I am amazed by that."

You can see the offending panel, along with 146 others in Glisson's newest book, Seems Like Old Times. It debuts Thursday, Oct. 9, at Delavan Art Gallery, 501 W. Fayette St. From 5 to 8 p.m., Glisson will preside over a book signing and exhibit featuring framed and matted originals. Both the book and the artwork will be for sale; the book's price is $9.95.

"The book was my idea," Glisson says. "I had done the first book a number of years ago, and I thought that I would like to have a companion to it. And this is the 25th year that I've been doing this, so I thought it was an appropriate time to do a retrospective. I don't know if anybody else feels that way, but I wanted to do it."

Raised in DeWitt with six brothers by his parents Bill and Dode, Glisson, 51, has accumulated an impressive body of work over the quarter-century he's drawn for this paper. He has won countless awards for his work, both on the state and local levels, for his comic, sure, but also for his irreverent cover illustrations and caricatures. His style is instantly recognizable, and his wit obvious. Politicians tend to take themselves awfully seriously, and it's up the Glissons of the world to keep them honest.

And if you've ever eaten, or watched a million sporting events at once, at one of the nine Tully's restaurants in New York state, you've done so surrounded by more of Glisson's work. "I had heard they were going to open one on Erie Boulevard East, and that the owner might be interested in buying some artwork," Glisson remembers. "So I took a bunch of sports originals, met with him and he bought most of them. Then I asked him who decorates the place, and he said he did. Well, I thought, I hate it. So I asked him if he wanted some help. That was 15 years ago. I am responsible for acquiring everything that's on the walls and for putting it there; I switch things up every year or so. And now they've started another restaurant, the CopperTop Tavern {7777 Brewerton Road, North Syracuse}, and I am responsible for a lot of the design and decoration there, too."

With his skills with caricature, Glisson secures jobs with Syracuse University’s Athletic Department, usually drawing promotional posters for men’s and women’s basketball, track and cross-country, tennis, soccer and football. And he teaches illustration as an adjunct professor at SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. Glisson is fiercely devoted to his family, his wife Linda and four children, ranging in age from 22 to 8. The Glissons have also taken in 26 foster children, ultimately adopting two of them.

He met Linda on a blind double-blind date. "The first time I met her, I'm trying to make conversation and she was so gorgeous that I knew that I wanted something to happen with this person," he says. "So I'm making small talk, and I'm asking her what cartoons she liked, and she said, 'I really don't care for cartoons.' So I asked about sports. 'I have no use for sports.' She wanted none of that. Six months later we were married, and she still hates sports.

"My wife has put up with a lot for somebody who never liked sports or cartoons, she's had to put up with 25 years of it. There have been peaks and valleys as far as the number of jobs. She takes care of the bills. She's always been very good about watching every nickel and dime and she's very supportive. I just love her to pieces, and I don't think I would have any success if she wasn't on board with me. Those 26 kids -- there would have been less noise and fewer distractions.”

How did you get started working for The New Times?

I was doing political cartoons for a union news magazine that covered upstate New York, and I realized no one was seeing them other than the union members. So I started asking Roland Sweet, the editor at the time, if he wanted secondary rights to it. Every once in a while he'd pick one and I'd make $5 or so. Then I got picked up for every week, and I figured it's going to be a lot of work because I had a lot of freelance work already. So I'd do this for a year and then stop. I've been here ever since.

Did you always know you would be an artist?

At some point I knew it. With boys you tend to be competitive, and my brothers were very good artists. We have a big family, so every time there was an event, my mother would have us draw cards. I remember lying on the hardwood floor of my bedroom with two of my brothers, with crayons, drawing another card. I didn't buy a greeting card until I was in college. It turned out to be on-the-job training. Not only were we drawing cards, but posters of our favorite TV characters -- those things didn't exist then. If you wanted a poster of Spider-Man you had to draw it yourself.

I assumed my older brothers would go into the art field. I was going to work for the phone company like my father; he was happy. There were no art classes at Christian Brothers Academy, but I would draw all the time because I was able to. When a kid can draw, generally he can get attention from other kids. That was my way of impressing them. I remember the last week of school in eighth grade, I drew one of the nuns in basketball shorts and sneakers. The kids behind me saw it and laughed so hard it got the nun's attention. I was in big trouble. When I got to high school I got more brazen. I drew the history teacher as a gorilla. Well, he got a hold of that, too.

What about college?

I went to Le Moyne. The only thing I knew was that I had to go to college, but I had no clue why. I picked business as a major, for one reason because I didn't have to take Spanish or French. I figured that any time I could use my drawing ability I had a leg up on people. A friend of mine became the editor of the newspaper and asked me to be the comics editor. I had nothing to put under my picture in the yearbook, so I thought, sure! I had the whole back page to fill, so the first issue I put an ad in there looking for people who wanted to draw and got nothing. There was one art class, and it was sculpture, I think, at Le Moyne. People weren't up there because they were artists.

I had to do something to fill the whole back page. Since I didn't want it to become an ego trip I did four different types of cartoons: a caricature of a teacher, a gag strip about dorm life, a gag spot and a superhero at Le Moyne, called The Heightsman. He was a redneck, crass, Andrew Dice Clay kind of guy who used his superpowers to get women and get good grades, and he became very popular.

After that, I still didn't think I'd do art or cartooning. But I got my portfolio together and sent a letter to Hallmark and to Disney and got portfolio reviews with both of them. Well, Hallmark thought I was an SU student but when they saw my portfolio, they knew I didn't go to Syracuse. So I went to Disney, and had some success getting through the rounds of drawing, going through the process, but it's very expensive in California, so that did that in.

And so you came home?

I was so sick of snow, I thought California would be the place. But I had to come back home, so I decided to give it six months. If I could find an art job to make some money, then I'd keep pursing that. The music editor from Le Moyne's newspaper was working at an ad agency and asked me to do a drawing. And the art director from the paper was working for Eric Mower, and called me to work on a job. After I did a couple jobs, my name started getting passed around, and at just around six months I was working a lot of freelance, had at least a drawing every night. But I was still living at home and had no tax writeoffs, so I bought a house. I wasn't even going out with anybody, let alone thinking about having a family.

I have always called myself an illustrator. I do every kind of style because when I started out, if someone asked for a painting like Norman Rockwell, I said yes. I didn't turn down any style or type of work. And that became good for me. I got a lot of different types of freelance jobs and it kept me from getting bored. One month maybe I was just painting sports pictures, and another month the jobs may turn out to be cartoons.

So who have you worked for nationally?

In advertising, Apple, Pepsi, Hathaway Shirts, Agway. I tell people I paid for half my house working for Agway, but I must have charged too much and put them out of business. Magazines. If you seen an illustration, from greeting cards to bumper stickers, I've done at least one.

I kid my students -- I did the background for a fishing lure for Cortland Line -- that my work is in every sporting goods store in America. Go to any sporting goods store in any city and you will find my work.

Who are your influences?

Haddon Sundblom, the Coca-Cola Santa Claus painter, and Bob Jones, from Mad magazine, but who also came up with the Esso tiger in the early 1960s. When I was a kid, those were the images that just blew me away. I remember waiting for the December issue of National Geographic, which would have on the back cover the Coca-Cola ad. I remember just drooling over how great a painting that was. My brothers Tom and Jim, and I, thought they were the greatest and we wanted to be just like them.

Are your parents particularly artistic?

My mother, I always thought was artistic but not in a classic sense. She would bring in flowers from her garden and make arrangements. I'm convinced that's where I got my sense of design. My dad, he never really did artwork per se, but when we asked him to do a goofy cartoon, he would just whip it out.

Are you practicing your caricatures for the next presidential duo?

No. But sometimes people are so funny, I can't make them any funnier. I don't practice. If someone is in the news -- it could be Greg Robinson or Osama bin Laden. It's week to week, it's the news thing. I don't have an agenda. If there is an event that I find that I can do something with, that's what I try to do. I sit down on a Monday and think about things.

Deadlines; that's why they call them deadlines. {Laughs.} It could be that you've got the flu, or your kid's got the flu, and it's time to do the cartoon and the kid is sick. Then there are creative things, too. There are times when I sit there for hours just kind of doodling, trying to come up with something. But I always do. I might wake up Tuesday morning, I've got an idea, and so I do it and hope the story stays in people's minds while we go to press.

One of the stumbling blocks is that what I think might be news, someone else might think is obscure and what might be the dominant topic that week I don't do anything with. I kid people that I turn in the cartoon on Tuesday afternoon and if Wednesday morning we have a nuclear blast, someone's going to say, "It was the biggest story in the history of mankind and you didn't do a cartoon about it?"

What equipment do you use?

I draw freehand. I guess I'm a dinosaur in that respect. One of the reasons I draw is because after an hour, or 10 hours or 20 hours, I have something tangible that I made. Good or bad, it's there and I have it. With a computer, you create it, you can print it out, but there's something impersonal about it. The next six you spit out are as without a soul as the first one. I like to be able to erase something. I like to be able to use my hands. I won't allow, in the common areas of the house, to have prints or posters hanging, even if it means there's a blank spot on the wall. I’m not going to fill that space unless it's with an original.

Delavan Art Gallery, 501 W. Fayette St., Syracuse, will be showing Glisson's works from Friday, Oct. 10, to Nov. 1. He will be at the gallery on Saturday, Oct. 18, to sign books from noon to 3 p.m. Books will be available for purchase at the gallery at all times. Gallery hours are Thursdays and Fridays, noon to 6 p.m., and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 425-7500. You can purchase copies of the book at the Colgate University Bookstore in Hamilton, Borders Books & Music in Carousel Center, and the offices of The New Times, 1415 W. Genesee St., Syracuse.

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