Over the years I have been frequently astonished by the work of Sun-Times editorial cartoonist Jack Higgins. In February 2001 I wrote, "As an ultimate expression of the rabidly right-wing editorial fervor of today's Sun-Times, and of the rabidly right-wing cartoons Higgins has taken to drawing, the cartoon becomes even more infuriating." It was a drawing of BIll Clinton shaking hands with the devil, and the curious thing is that I couldn't leave it at that. I went on, "That said, the more I think about Higgins's cartoon, the more I appreciate it. It was a real kick in the teeth. It took us back to the days of the founding fathers, when genuine venom spewed from the printed page and the First Amendment was written to protect the spewers. And Higgins might even have had a point worth our taking. What he was getting at, with meat-cleaver wit, was the idea of a Faustian bargain. Nothing bad ever seemed to stick to Clinton while he was president. And, well, who knows?"
Two weeks later I had more to say: "Bill Clinton hasn't been president since January 20, and that's hard for some folks to deal with. Doonesbury's Joannie Caucus is in mourning and wondering what to do with her life. And the Sun-Times's Jack Higgins is in denial, still lambasting Clinton in cartoons as if the inauguration never happened. At last count he'd done five since then, while drawing George W. Bush once." Yes, it was time for Higgins to move on, though I conceded his last spasm of rancor was both "venomous" and "funny."
In November 2004 I observed that "nobody chews an old bone like Jack Higgins." He'd been obsessed with Clinton; "Now it's John Kerry's turn. Higgins pummeled him constantly going into the election and in the first week after Bush was reelected whacked him three more times. At least I think he whacked him; as Tribune blogger Eric Zorn has pointed out, Higgins's many sallies against Kerry have been distinguished chiefly by their impenetrability."
Impenetrability is rarely the problem when Higgins turns obsessive. Apparently he, like so many other Americans, just didn't like Kerry but couldn't exactly say why.
Yet in January 2005 I allowed that Higgins, "whom I rip from time to time for taking inane jabs at politicians he's fixated on, drew two editorial cartoons about the Iraq war that reminded me why he once won a Pulitzer [in 1989]." And last November, commenting on the Obama rally in Grant Park, he drew a "perfectly conceived cartoon that says everything."
At his best, Higgins is as good as any cartoonist who came before him in Chicago. (And those cartoonists, such as BIll Mauldin and Jeff MacNelly, we remember for their best.) The Northwestern University Press has just published an anthology of some 250 cartoons Higgins has drawn for the Sun-Times since he joined it in 1981, arranged thematically; in a sense, the forgettable work is now officially forgotten, and the cartoons that made the cut are now immortal. They deserve to be. Jack Higgins is a vexation, but also, as My Kind of 'Toon, Chicago Is demonstrates, one of the greats.