UNLV to preserve 35 years of political cartoons by Las Vegas Sun’s Mike Smith

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LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Mike Smith has drawn presidents for 35 years.

As the political cartoonist for the Las Vegas Sun, Smith has an audience that extends far beyond the Las Vegas valley. His syndicated work is distributed to more than 250 newspapers.

Sometimes, the person he has drawn wants to talk to him — or they want his cartoon.

“It’s always interesting when people who are subjects of a cartoon call, and you can tell that they obviously have a good sense of humor.” He notes that he gets more requests from Republicans for cartoons he has drawn about them than he does Democrats.

“Maybe they just have a bigger sense of humor about themselves,” he says.

Smith has drawn about 13,000 cartoons over a period that began in the Ronald Reagan administration, and now they are going to UNLV Special Collections, where they will be preserved.

Editorial cartoonist Mike Smith. (Las Vegas Sun)

“We decided we needed to find a better way to preserve the cartoons and to keep them for any kind of future research that students, or classrooms or individuals might be interested in,” he said.

UNLV Special Collections is taking this on.

“They’re going to be able to preserve it in a way that’s accessible to anybody that might want to use it, or read it, or see it,” he said.

“A cartoon makes its point through exaggeration, and exaggeration is certainly a large part of caricature,” Smith said. “So when you’re drawing somebody, you’re looking to accentuate — or exaggerate — certain features about that person to make them very recognizeable. Hopefully, getting to the point after you’ve been drawing somebody for awhile, where you don’t need to use a label to identify that caricature.”

And presidents have been at the forefront of his work.

Here are some of Smith’s thoughts on presidents he has drawn:

  • Ronald Reagan: “One of the best to caricature.” The pompadour and the lines in his neck. “It almost got to the point where if you drew the hair correctly, you really didn’t have to draw too much else.”
  • George H.W. Bush: His chin and his glasses became the focus of the caricature.
  • Bill Clinton: “A very large sense of humor.” Smith said Clinton was one of the few presidents who asked for cartoons.
  • George W. Bush: Also the chin.
  • Barack Obama: “A very difficult president to caricature. There weren’t a lot of things to exaggerate other than his ears. And he was probably one of the presidents that was more difficult to draw cartoons about because frankly a lot of my politics align with his. So those eight years, it was a little more difficult to be as critical of him as some of the other presidents that I’ve drawn.”
  • Donald Trump: The hair. “I think it took me at least three years into his administration to finally get to the point where I got his hair to the point where I actually liked the way it was drawn.” Calls Trump “a gold mine” for cartoons.

“A cartoon doesn’t have to be funny in order to be good,” Smith said. “I think that my work is a reflection of my sense of humor, but primarily I would consider myself an artist who draws his opinions about what is going on in the news.”

Indeed, he sees his work on difficult subjects as some of his best.

When the Challenger exploded in 1986, and the 9-11 terrorist attacks came in 2001, it was time to capture the moment.

“I’m not going to say that I enjoy drawing about those subjects, but they are important things that need to be addressed in a cartoon when they do happen,” Smith said.

Smith compares his role to that of a columnist — who gets to exaggerate with his pen in a way that writers cannot. The process drives him to read as much as possible to choose subjects.

And he relishes deadlines. “I really need that pressure in order to be creative every day.”

He’s part of the morning routine for many newspaper readers, but he doesn’t spend much time thinking about that.

“Each day, I’m trying to determine what I think of a particular subject that I’ve chosen, and then I’m brainstorming to try to come up with ideas. And then I’m drawing the cartoon. And hopefully it is something that not only I will relate to but readers will relate to also,” Smith said.

“But I don’t go much further than that, you know, in terms of contemplating who’s going to see it the next day.”

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