When I started drawing at age 5 or 6, it was no surprise. Art runs in my family. My mother, in addition to being a pianist, was also a singer and a painter, mostly oils. My grandmother and all my aunts played piano and painted. My uncle played guitar and drums, and my grandfather was in a drum and fife group. I got my sense of humor from my father, who was a firefighter in our town, North Andover, Massachusetts. I’d like to share some of his wisdom, but I’m sure some kids will read this. One incident I remember involved him telling off one of my grammar school teachers, a nun. When word got around, kids would say, “You think your old man is tough? Summers’ dad told off a nun!”
The first thing I remember drawing is a bathtub. I was at my grandmother’s house. I’ve no idea why I picked such a boring subject. Later, "The Flintstones" comic books were my teaching manuals.
My mother, at this time, was no fan of cartoons. I think she considered them the lowest art form … maybe just above restroom graffiti. In grammar school, I drew hot rods on T-shirts, grotesque monsters with gigantic gearshifts and smoking exhaust pipes spewing dust and debris. I charged 50 cents per drawing. I used markers, which quickly faded and afforded me the opportunity to "touch up" shirts for another 25 cents. In high school, I spent hours in detention for drawing during classes like algebra and chemistry. Many of us cartoonist had teachers tell us, “You can’t draw your way through life.” Drawing was something I could get lost in, which was good, since my temper had gained a reputation. I was thrown off both the freshman football team and the freshman basketball team. I didn’t just have a smart mouth, it was Mensa material.
I never got into the superhero comics. Although I admired the artwork, I didn’t appreciate the anatomy involved until I attended The Art Institute of Boston and took life drawing. No male students ever missed that class. Where else could you stare at nude models and not get into trouble? I used to sneak in a friend, a guy who was attending broadcast school across town. “He’s thinking of transferring here,” I’d tell the instructor, Mr. Lidbergh. Most of the girls were drug addicts, but, hey, a naked woman was a naked woman. During this time I made money playing guitar and singing in a rock band. We played gigs at clubs and frat houses around Massachusetts … fifty bucks a night and all the beer you could drink. That’s how I met my wife.
The Art Institute had no cartooning courses, so I went the advertising design route. I incorporated cartoons into all of my assignments.
When I graduated, I spent a few years banging around print shops doing all kinds of art, but to my mother’s horror, I longed to draw cartoons full-time. Then I got a job filling orders in a warehouse freezer, 15 degrees below zero and all the frozen cupcakes you could steal. This job spurred me on to seek better things in life. Not that the Teamsters union hadn’t taken care of me, but I needed to move into an art job.
By then, I was married with one daughter. I took a job in North Carolina as a staff artist at the now-defunct Fayetteville Times. I did story illustrations, lettering, promos -- you name it. I could do all the editorial cartoons I wanted as long as my other art was finished. The very first political cartoon I drew there ticked off the entire city of Lumberton. I knew then that drawing cartoons could be dangerous.
After four years in North Carolina, I went to the now-defunct Dayton Journal-Herald. I found out for real that cartooning could be dangerous when a whacked-out reader took exception to my views and promised he’d kill me. The cops put a tap on my phone and watched my kids at school. Mike Peters was in the same building drawing for the Dayton Daily News. Mike and his wife Marion were great friends to us, the newbies, and even babysat our kids. But the writing wasn’t only on the pages of the paper, it was on the wall. The Journal-Herald was going downhill fast. And the nutcase was still out there.
One day I got a call from Ralph Dunagin in Orlando, Florida. The Orlando Sentinel was looking for a full-time editorial cartoonist. Ralph, who had been doing Dunagin’s People for years was moving to the op-ed page. While in high school, I’d read Dunagin’s People every Sunday in our local paper. I got the job and wound up working with one of my idols for the next 20 years. As one editor put it, “Ralph’s captions are as smooth as silk.” And they were. I got a Ph.D. in caption-writing from Ralph. When he started The Middletons comic strip, he brought me in as a partner. The Middletons has been steady for 30-plus years, and was one of the first strips with an integrated cast.
One paper in South Carolina was threatened by the Klan for running it. Not long after that, I started my own strip, Bound & Gagged. That strip has been steady for at least 25 years. Ralph recently retired, and now I draw both, plus four or five editorials per week. The deadlines are killer. And Ralph always said, “The drawing gets easier, but the ideas? Forget it.”
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to win some awards, meet interesting and sleazy politicians, and even go to the White House for lunch with President George H.W. Bush. I’ve drawn presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton, Bush I, Bush II, Obama, plus various scoundrels, governors, mayors and congressmen and congresswomen. I’ve been told off by readers and scolded by senators. I’ve had personal correspondence from a secretary of state, a Supreme Court justice, an admiral in the navy and a couple governors of Florida.
The cartoon that got the most reaction was one I drew of the space shuttle Challenger after it exploded. Ralph and I were invited to sign copies at The Kennedy Space Center. The line was out the door. We toured the Vehicle Assembly Building where the shuttle Discovery was under construction. The Orlando Sentinel printed thousands of copies of the cartoon to give away. Our lobby was jammed for days afterward. To this day, I have people contacting me for copies.
In my opinion, political correctness is slowly killing cartoons … no more fat jokes, mother-in-law jokes, explorers-in-the-pot jokes; no more jokes that even remotely involve firearms, even pop guns. Any joke about bad eyesight, any joke that has a character resembling a mafia don -- don’t want to offend Italians after all… any joke involving Indians, smoke signals, peace pipes, any ethnic joke at all, no matter how tame. Soon cartoons will be nothing but bland illustrations… inoffensive and boring. Newspapers are scared to death to lose even one reader.
Two years ago, after 30 years at The Sentinel, I was downsized out. I still work for Tribune Content Agency in Chicago, doing the strips and my editorials. I’ve also been working on a novel for the past five years. An agent in New York is taking a look at it, so we’ll see about that.
Read The Middletons here, Bound and Gagged here or Summers’ editorial cartoons here.