Marshall Ramsey is a well-established editorial cartoonist, editor-at-large for Mississippi Today in Jackson, and the host of the MPB Think Radio show, “Now You’re Talking With Ramsey.” A two-time Pulitzer finalist, he also participates in events around the state, interviews people on television and radio, and writes books. In 2019 fall semester, he taught a course on editorial cartooning at the University of Mississippi. Invitation Magazines editorial assistant Abbey Edmonson, great granddaughter of legendary cartoonists J.P. Alley and Cal Alley, was enrolled in the class. Read more about the Alleys and Edmonson’s experience in Ramsey’s class at http://www.invitationmag.com/post/remember-the-ryatts.
Interviewed by Abbey Edmonson
Q: Tell me about how you got started as a cartoonist.
A: One day I picked up a crayon and never put it back down. I always joke that it was how my mom kept me quiet in church. There’s something to that, but I think she discovered early on that I could draw. I wasn’t some kind of little boy genius, but I loved it.
I grew up in a house where my two older sisters were really smart and we’d all sit around the dinner table and my parents would make us all talk about what’s going on with current events. I’m old, so I grew up at a time when Watergate was happening, which I thought was a dam because I wasn’t very sophisticated and I was very young. I thought the guerillas in Vietnam were actual monkeys; I didn’t realize there was a difference in spelling.
Q: Where did you originally find inspiration?
A: I also lived in Georgia, and there was a man named Jimmy Carter who was running for president, so I thought that was really neat. I got engaged in it, and I remember opening up the newspaper and there’d be a cartoon on the editorial page. When I was 8, I walked up to my dad and said I wanted to do this for a living — and my dad looked at me like I was from Mars. I think that’s a pretty normal reaction if your kid comes up to you and says something weird like that, but he just kinda patted me on the head and said “You’re gonna be the best one ever.”
When I was 9, a movie called Star Wars came out, and I loved drawing Star Wars stuff. I loved airplanes because we lived near an airplane plant, so I would draw all these things that I loved to do. My first official editorial cartoon wasn’t until my first year in high school.
Q: What was your first noteworthy cartoon?
A: I think my first cartoon got me sent to the principal’s office, so I got off on a good foot: I drew the librarian with a Nazi helmet behind a machine gun with cobwebs coming off of her nose, asking a student, “Where’s your pass, sweetie?” It wasn’t exactly Pulitzer-winning material. But apparently the librarian did not like to be drawn with a Nazi helmet and cobwebs coming off of her nose, for some reason. I got hauled to the principal’s office, and the principal asked, “Why’d you do this?”
I told them, “Look, I play football, and I practice after school, and I’m taking advanced classes, and I need to do my homework and I need to go into the library, and you can’t get in there unless you have a hall pass and a lock of your dead grandmother’s hair and blood and everything else.” And my grandmothers weren’t dead, so that was an issue. And he looked at her and said, “Well, is that true?” And she kind of nodded her head and said, “Yeah, I don’t want to mess up the books.”
Q: Do you have any favorite people you like to draw?
A: There are a lot of politicians that give me inspiration. The current president is kind of hard to draw because how do you out-satire satire? He’s always constantly churning. It’s not like the old days when you’d have someone just be boring and stupid. Now you just get crazy. Mississippi has had a very long line of colorful, interesting politicians. I’ve had really good governors since I’ve been here, and so they’ve been very easy to draw.
Q: What was it like moving from the South to California and back?
A: It’s like eating ice cream too fast. It gives you a brain freeze. Georgia and Tennessee are kind of alike; Mississippi is a bit more southern. Texas is a little bit more like Mississippi. California was another planet. Out there I was considered Attila the Hun, and I come here and they’re like “You’re a flaming liberal.”
Q: What should a budding cartoonist expect? How difficult was it for you to reach your level of success?
A: It’s so weird. Here I am as a kid who didn’t like to get criticism, and yet I was willing to put myself out there like that. I think a lot of times people put their stuff out there to be like, “Look at me! Look at me!” But after a while, the criticism didn’t bother me anymore and I just enjoyed what I did. It’s the whole parable of the talents thing of the three servants, I don’t want to be the one who’s burying his talent. If I can do this, I might as well be trying to do it. I did work as a janitor my first job out of college, and that was not exactly what I had planned, but there was no career path for this. You talk to any cartoonist, and you don’t go to some cartooning school and go land someplace. And now it’s even harder, but the skills that I have as an editorial cartoonist go into so many different things. I just don’t worry about it anymore.
Q: You do a lot more than just cartooning; tell me about that.
A: I teach five really headstrong, obstinate, students at Ole Miss. They’re great. Although they’re not very happy with me because I did not stop to get cookies today — it’s raining. Sorry, I’m made of sugar; I’ll melt. I’m also editor-at-large at Mississippi Today, so I put on events around the state. I invite guests in and I interview them; I do a television show where I interview people; I do a radio show where I interview people. I write books. I speak. I do children’s books. I try to raise three boys, although I think my wife does the heavy lifting on that one.
Q: How do you remain successful as a cartoonist?
A: The thing is, a few years ago, newspaper business changed — I guess that’s a nice way of putting it. Okay, it’s imploded. I was caught up in that, of course. I’ve been a two-time Pulitzer finalist and I was named a top 100 employee of the company that turned around and made me part-time. Which was right after I’d turned down a job in Oklahoma.
The good news was, it pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me go try new things. Some days I feel like I don’t even know where I am because I’ve got so many balls up in the air, but I love it. I have had to go from being reactive to proactive. When you just draw one cartoon a day, you just have a deadline and you just say, “OK, I have no idea what I’m going to do today.” Now it’s like, oh crap, you’ve got this and this and this and this to do, and you learn how to do that. I never did that in college, and let me tell you, I was surprised I graduated.
Q: Why is editorial cartooning still relevant today?
A: We’re a very visual society. We like to look at pictures. It should be the one part of the newspaper that should’ve survived. It does survive, I mean, I’ve got a cartoon right now that’s going viral, but I won’t see a dime from that. That’s the problem: learning how to monetize it. We’re living in a tough time right now too, where freedom of expression is having some issues. If you say something that people think is wrong, then they’ll try to destroy you. Hopefully that’ll reverse itself a little bit. I know a lot of cartoonists who have gotten death threats over a cartoon. I haven’t had much problem with that, but it’s weird. In the 30 years I’ve done this, it’s changed a lot.
Q: How did the role of the cartoonist evolve from the early days of newspapers?
A: They were really powerful back then because not many people could read. Think about it: In the 1800s they’d open up the newspaper and there’d be this cartoon they could visually relate to. They were very popular in the 60s and 70s. It started sliding a little bit when newspapers started cutting back, and I think that the reason the business failed is because why pay a staff cartoonist $90,000 when you can buy syndicated cartoons for $15 a week? They don’t have anything to do with your local community, but who cares? That was one of the things that helped speed up the demise of cartoonists working for a newspaper. That said, I think that visual communication still matters.
Q: What did you know about my cartoonist relatives, Cal and J.P. Alley?
A: I’ve seen their cartoons for years. When you get into this business, you look back and study them. They reflected the time and the place that they lived in. Those guys — and I’m not just talking about your relatives — but those guys back then were like little quasi-celebrities. It was a big deal to be a cartoonist at that time. You usually had the best salary in the paper next to the publisher, and it was a good way to make a living. To be a cartoonist was (to be) royalty. And I guess in some ways, you are royalty.
Q: What was your favorite thing about teaching a class on cartooning?
A: The fun thing about teaching this semester is the fact that I have really been impressed with how quickly they have picked up on what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s hit or miss, some weeks are better than others, but overall the work has been fantastic. Every one of the students could have work published in the Daily Mississippian: It’s just that good. I think that that says a lot. It gives me a little bit of hope for the future, whatever that may be.