Saturday, January 7, 2017

The International Day of the Cartoonist 2017

I would like to observe the International Day of the Cartoonist 2017 by remembering the international cartoonist Joe Szabo, who died last year at the age of sixty-five. I'm happy to say that Joe was also a Hoosier, if only for a while.

Joseph George Szabo was born on February 4, 1950, in Budapest, Hungary, just six months after his country fell under communist rule. According to items on the Internet, Joe graduated from the Academy of Journalism in 1974. I believe that to mean what was then or is now called Bálint György Academy of Journalism in Budapest. On July 19, 1975, Joe Szabo married Flora Toth, also of Budapest.

In a remembrance of his friend, Len Lear wrote that Joe "wanted to be a real journalist because he had a passion for justice, but that was impossible in Communist Hungary, where any deviation from the party line could mean unemployment, exile, prison, torture or even death." (1) Although he worked in the late 1970s as assisting managing editor for Magyar Nemzet (
Hungarian Nation), the largest daily newspaper in Hungary, Joe was dissatisfied with his comfortable position and his relatively prosperous life in his native country. "Journalists in a Communist country are considered a part of the political apparatus," Joe told Mr. Lear. "You're not a watchdog, just the opposite. You are a lapdog. You are not there to print the news or to be objective. You are there to make the authorities in government look good and not to deviate from the party line. You are basically a public relations person for the rulers and oppressors." In 1980, Joe and his wife fled from Hungary to the United States by way of Austria and West Germany (where he sought political asylum at the U.S. embassy). In December 1981, Joe arrived in a small town in Indiana, possibly Warsaw, Indiana.

Not knowing English, Joe struggled and was unemployed for a couple of years. He found work as a freelance cartoonist for a time. With a drawing printed on May 13, 1985, his political cartoons began appearing in the Philadelphia Daily News. They were also syndicated by Rothco and were chosen by Charles Brooks for his annual collection Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year in 1986, 1987, 1988, and possibly other years. (My collection is incomplete.) In 1987, under the byline Joseph George Szabo, Joe began publishing WittyWorld International Cartoon Magazine. The first issue was dated Summer 1987.

I have just three issues of WittyWorld (Nos. 2-4). As a cartoonist, I can say that is everything a cartoonist might want in a magazine. It is well designed and well made, and though there are only forty-eight pages in each issue, those pages are packed full of information. The regular departments are especially fine. They include a letters page; "Witty Wire," a compilation of cartoon news from all over the world; reviews of comic books and animation books by Frederick Patten, of cartoon books by Hongying Liu-Lengyel, and of journals by John A. Lent; "Cartoon Laboratory" on innovations in cartooning; a column on syndicates; a calendar of events; and classified advertisements. There are of course many articles and pictorial features as well. WittyWorld ran for several years. The last number I have found is Number 18, from Autumn/Winter 1994.

Joe Szabo published WittyWorld from North Wales, Pennsylvania, a borough north of Philadelphia. He seems to have moved to Pennsylvania from Indiana and to have lived there for the rest of his life. Even though he had escaped to the United States, he still had reason to fear political oppression and political violence. "Remember," he said, "Joseph Stalin had Leon Trotsky murdered in 1940, although Trotsky was many thousands of miles away in Mexico. In the U.S. and western Europe, where there is freedom of movement, dictators like Vladimir Putin have had journalistic critics murdered. They could do it here, too. You are never really safe." The targets of the cartoons he drew and those he published by other cartoonists were not just communist rulers or rulers in formerly communist countries. They were and are oppressors and tyrants of every color and stripe.

In 1990, Joe convened a meeting of cartoonists in Budapest as the Iron Curtain was coming down. He traveled to other parts of the world, too, to meet with cartoonists, to speak at and attend exhibits and conferences, and to lecture on cartoons and cartooning. He spent the last decade of his life conducting research and interviews for a planned book, The Image of America, showing how people the world over see his adopted home country. With visits to nearly seventy countries, he had enough material for a lecture series, one that he conducted in the United States and abroad. (He found that people in other countries have ambivalent views, though tending to the negative, of the United States. Some of those views are delusional at best. For example, some Spaniards--like one of our recent presidential candidates--are 9/11 truthers.) Joe Szabo was also author and compiler of The Finest International Political Cartoons of Our Time, published in 1992 by his own WittyWorld imprint.

"I'd rather be poor in America than rich in Hungary," Joe Szabo once said. (2) Although he was not materially wealthy--he and his wife reared their five children in a small apartment stocked with used furniture and books--Joe Szabo enjoyed the benefits of freedom with his family in a new country. Sadly, he died at his desk on February 2, 2016, in North Wales, Pennsylvania, just two days short of his sixty-sixth birthday. His obituary observed, "He was a passionate risk taker, boundless world traveler, and world-class debater. He never once lost an argument. Joe's friends described him as having an infectious personality with a continuous thirst for knowledge." (3) I think it fair to say that he also had a thirst for freedom and a very keen interest--as cartoonists tend to have--in fellow cartoonists and in the craft and profession of cartooning, which is, if I might add, a fine and noble one.

In memory of Joseph George Szabo (1950-2016) and of:

George David Wolinski (1934-2015)
Jean Cabut (1938-2015)
Philippe Honoré (1941-2015)
Bernard Verlhac (1957-2015)
and Stéphane Charbonnier (1967-2015)


(1) From "Joe Szabo, Local Voice for Courage and Justice, Has Been Silenced" by Len Lear on the website Chestnut Hill Local, January 6, 2017, here.
(2) Ditto.
(3) "Joseph George Szabo," from the Landsdale Reporter, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, posted on the website, February 9, 2016, here.

A cartoon by Joe Szabo from 1987 showing the magnetic pull the United States has for people who wish to express themselves freely and, by extension, to live freely. From Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, 1987 Edition, edited by Charles Brooks.

Completed at a later date and backdated to January 7, 2016, in observance of the International Day of the Cartoonist.
Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley