Scott Stantis isn’t actually replacing Jeff MacNelly (nine years after MacNelly died). He’ll be the sort of cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune that MacNelly never was, someone living in Chicago (MacNelly lived in Virginia) and commenting on state and local issues.
The first time I talked to Stantis he made it clear to me how much he wanted the Tribune job. This was in November 2001, when the hole MacNelly had left in the Tribune editorial page had sat there about 15 months, and cartoonists understood that the editor of the page, Bruce Dold, was finally close to filling it. A short list of three names was understood to exist, and Stantis was honked that although he and Dold had talked, he wasn’t on it. The president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists at the time, Stantis described himself as that rarity, a conservative cartoonist, and therefore a perfect fit at the Tribune. “Like most people in the business I have a humongous ego,” he told me, “and I’d love to be the one considered.”
He wasn’t. But on the other hand, Dold didn’t hire anyone else either.
Every so often I’d write a column hammering the Tribune for not hiring a new cartoonist. “Nothing asserts a paper’s street cred like a cartoonist who kicks local butt, but the Tribune surrenders that ground to the Sun-Times’s Jack Higgins,” I wrote in June of 2002. The Tribune seemed to fear allowing that sort of ruffian on the premises — it couldn’t see dishing out a handsome salary to a loose cannon. The problem didn't seem to be Dold; it was the cautious managers and bean counters above him.
The dwindling number of American editorial cartoonists regarded the empty Tribune post as a stick in the eye. Stantis, who as president of the AAEC spoke for the profession, told me, “The Tribune needs a cartoonist real bad. There’s no way in my view George Ryan should still be governor. What he did killed people. What do you have to do in Illinois to get impeached?” Stantis, who then as now drew for the Birmingham News, offered to send Dold the occasional Chicago-based cartoon on spec. “He said thanks but no thanks.”
But when Ryan was indicted in late 2003, Dold asked Stantis to draw him a cartoon commenting on this. Dold frequently picked up cartoons Stantis had drawn for the News, and he began asking for more Chicago-oriented cartoons. Stantis became, in a sense, the last man standing. But so what? He was knocking on the door of an empty house. The only way he could get into the Tribune on a regular basis was by launching a comic strip, Prickly City, in 2004. The Tribune carried it from the get-go, but eventually dropped it in 2007.
In November of 2007 I wrote about the Tribune’s vacant cartoonist job for the last time. To talk about it as vacant felt silly by then — the job simply didn’t exist any longer and would never exist again.
“Various cartoonists have thought they were within an inch of getting the job, and all were wrong. Oddly, Stantis isn't one of them — even though he'd like the job and would happily come to Chicago for it, he's done a lot of cartoons for the Tribune already, and he believes that he and the Tribune are on the same wavelength politically. I told him it sounded as if he and the Tribune are in one of those office sitcom relationships where everyone but themselves can see it's a match. Except in this case, he said, one of us can see that too.
"Ideally, he said, when something big happens in Chicago the story won't be complete until the city finds out in the morning what Stantis had to say about it. MacNelly didn't play that role — he lived in Virginia and stuck to national issues. And in fact nobody's played that role in Chicago media since Mike Royko, and it could be that nobody will ever play it again. That show might be over."
But the Chicago Tribune has changed dramatically in the past 21 months. It is less of a paper in some big ways, but what's left of it is much more focused. It's offering itself to Chicago now as the city’s crusading conscience, and editor Gerould Kern, to his credit, saw that an editorial cartoonist could make a big contribution to that pose. Kern told media writer Phil Rosenthal, “It’s important for us to lead, to stand out and point the way, and an editorial cartoon is an incredibly powerful and important way of doing that.”
Is Stantis, who imagined himself a perfect fit with the old Tribune, to the right of the new Tribune? “The priority here wasn’t someone who was going to be right or left,” Dold tells me. “It was someone who’d comment on right and wrong. So much of what the paper is doing now has to do with corruption in government. Scott will be brilliant. That’s not ideological — it’s speaking truth to power.”
Stantis begins September 1. I’m very happy for him, though not as happy as other cartoonists are. There were 110 to 120 staff cartoonists working for American papers when I first talked to Stantis in 2001. The number’s now around 40. “Obviously the [newspaper] industry will crush this,” Stantis tells me, “but for a couple of days people felt a good thing had happened. As one kind of a grizzled guy said, ‘We’re giddy.’ Its huge.”
I asked him if he’s to the right of the new Tribune. “Those labels ebb and flow,” he says. “I don’t know that I’ve read an editorial of theirs I disagree with. They’re still pretty solidly for small taxes, small government, and a strong defense.” Besides, he says, “I’ve had my conservative card revoked many times in the past few years,” losing it because he hammered George W. Bush — “in the paper and in the comic strip” — over things like torture and domestic spying.
He does five strips a day for the News and another for USA Today, and three of the six are syndicated, which means they need to be on national topics. Stantis hopes he can continue to draw for USA Today while he draws for the Tribune, because if he doesn’t, three of the five cartoons the Tribune expects each week will have to be done with the syndicate in mind. He knows the Tribune expects a lot of locally focused work from him and he’ll be happy to oblige. “It’s my local cartoons that I think are way stronger,” he says. “They’re more direct. They have more passion.”