Yale Bulletin and Calendar

April 23, 2004|Volume 32, Number 27















Washington Post Magazine cartoonist Eric Shansby '07 with a self-portrait.

Freshman cartoonist illustrates
Washington Post column

When Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten announced in February that he had chosen Eric Shansby as his new cartoonist, he said of the Yale freshman: "I am confident that, despite his youth, he will be able to illustrate anything, however adult in concept."

Weingarten, who writes the "Below the Beltway" humor column for the Washington Post Magazine, selected Shansby to create the cartoons that illustrate the main theme of his weekly commentary. His previous cartoonist had given up the position to start his own comic strip for the Post.

For someone so young to have such an assignment is a unique accomplishment. "Below the Beltway" has a weekly readership of some one million people, and Weingarten was well aware that, in hiring Shansby, he was giving the 18-year-old Yale student a position of great responsibility and immense clout.

"In one sense, the cartoonist is at the mercy of the columnist, because he must illustrate the main point of the column," wrote Weingarten in his column. "However, the cartoonist also wields power. He can make the columnist look as moronic, or as appealing, as he wishes."

Shansby never expected to land the Post position, but the achievement is a dream job for the Yale student, who says that drawing has long been an "obsessive" hobby for him, even though he has had limited formal training in the craft.

"I've been drawing since I was very young," says Shansby. "My mom is a librarian, and when I was little she would bring me books on birds, dinosaurs and other subjects. I started out by just tracing a lot."

In elementary school, he began drawing caricatures of his teachers and classmates for fun. In his sophomore year of high school, he had his first comic strip published -- at which time, he says, he became certain he wanted a career as a nationally syndicated cartoonist.

Shansby had the opportunity to meet Weingarten during his junior year in high school, when the columnist visited his journalism class. By then the art editor of and a cartoonist for his high school newspaper, as well as a weekly cartoonist for a Maryland community newspaper group called The Sentinel, Shansby approached Weingarten with one of his favorite comic strips. The Post columnist held true to a promise to look at it when he had more time.

"He didn't have to look at or respond to what I gave him, but he did," says Shansby. "He said he liked it. We kept in touch, and I sent him more cartoons." At Weingarten's invitation, Shansby eventually wrote one-time comic strips for two of the Washington Post Magazine's education review issues: one titled "The 3 Steps to Homework-Free High School Success" and the other named "Mother Can't Save You Now," on the subject of college independence.

By the end of his senior year in high school, Shansby had won numerous distinguished honors for his cartoons, including first-place finishes in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association's 2002 Gold Circle Awards, The Freedom Forum's Free Spirit Scholarship awards, and the Maryland Scholastic Press and Quill & Scroll Society/National Newspaper Association's editorial cartoon awards.

Since coming to Yale, Shansby has continued to submit a weekly cartoon for the Sentinel, which are often political in nature. His political cartoons have covered such topics as the war in Iraq, public education, AIDS, human cloning, environmental issues and homosexual marriage, among others. He submits some of the same cartoons to the Yale Daily News, and he has had -- or soon will have -- his cartoons published in such campus publications as The Globalist and Yale Politic, among others.

The Yale freshman says he particularly enjoys creating political cartoons, which he finds, in certain aspects, more challenging to produce than comic strips.

"With a political cartoon, you have to take something that is real -- an actual issue which requires some analysis and necessitates that you take a position," he explains. "That part is more thought-provoking than doing a comic strip."

Shansby adds that there are some political subjects on which he is especially opinionated, including the death penalty, the war in Iraq and America's reliance on oil. He keeps abreast daily of current issues and events by reading either a newspaper or online news accounts, and he considers just about anyone in the news as "fair game" for his cartooning.

For his Washington Post assignments, Shansby is given Weingarten's column three weeks in advance of its publication. Once he has come up with an idea for his drawing, he sends a draft to Weingarten and Tom Shroder, the editor of the Washington Post Magazine, who then offer suggestions for its development.

For each column, Shansby spends about a week creating his illustration, mostly using a paintbrush or brush pen and India ink.

Once the illustration is done, the cartoonist says, he experiences a brief period when he is satisfied with his creation. After that, he tends to be very "critical" of his own work, he says.

"I'm a perfectionist," comments Shansby. "So after that two-hour grace period when I think I've drawn something beautiful and clever, I begin to hate it." However, he says, his inability to appreciate his own work has a positive effect: It leaves him continually striving to perfect his art.

The Yale student counts the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jeff McNelly of the Chicago Tribune as one of the artists whom he most admires, and says that he is a "big fan" of the now-defunct "Bloom County" comic strip. His own goal is to become a political cartoonist for a major metropolitan newspaper.

Until then, Shansby hopes his current cartoons add some humor to others' lives (or in some cases, a bit of misery, he adds mischievously). He posts his cartoons on his frequently updated personal website (www.erictoons.com), which also features a message board for visitors to leave their comments.

Periodically looking over his own collection of published cartoons on the site is always a revelatory process for Shansby.

"As long as I can look at cartoons from six months ago and say 'Oh my gosh,' I would never do this now,' I know I'm getting better -- or at least changing," he says. "That's always good."

Such humility is a bonus to Weingarten. In fact, when asked to comment on Shansby's artistic future, the columnist offered the following assessment (in part), with his trademark facetiousness:

"I could say many highly complimentary things about Eric, because, obviously, I feel he is an enormous talent with a limitless future. But I fear that would doom him. It might even help him with the chicks, and we cannot have that. For creative purposes, I need my artists insecure -- humble and hungry."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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