As a senior at Loyola Marymount University, Mike Smith sent work samples to newspapers all around the country hoping to catch on as an editorial cartoonist. Mike O’Callaghan, the former Nevada governor who then was the editor-in-chief at the Las Vegas Sun, agreed to print a few of them.
After almost a year of freelancing cartoons — at $8 each — Smith needed a fulltime job. Hertz car rentals was willing to put him through management training and station him in San Francisco. Smith called O’Callaghan to tell him he had a secure job offer.
“Tell Hertz to stick it up their ass,” the editor-in-chief said.
He offered Smith a staff job at the Sun the next day. That was 1983, and Smith is still at the Sun, delivering his nationally syndicated editorial cartoons in an era when that skill is increasingly rare.
Daily cartoonists are another casualty of the reductions in staff, scope, and readership that have afflicted newspapers for years. Now, in partnership with University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, Smith’s work, some 13,000 cartoons and growing, will be preserved thanks to a donation of the materials courtesy of Smith and Brian Greenspun, owner and publisher of the Sun.
“I’ve been doing these cartoons for 35-plus years, and they’ve been stored over at the basement of the Las Vegas Sun,” Smith said. “We decided it was time to find a place for them that would allow for them to be preserved.”
Aaron Mayes, UNLV Special Collections’ visual materials curator, planted the seed for the donation in 2016. He invited Rebecca Clifford-Cruz, the Sun’s librarian, for a tour of the university’s archive facilities and told her that if the newspaper ever needed to purge anything from its archives, to first contact him.
She immediately thought of the Smith collection. The cartoonist came in to tour the facilities, and together he and Clifford-Cruz brought the idea to Greenspun, who agreed in principle. Five years later, Clifford-Cruz was set to leave the Sun after 20 years. In her waning days there, Greenspun asked her what was on her wish list before she left. Bringing the Smith collection to UNLV was her No. 1 priority.
Red tape had held up making the transfer in the intervening years. She finally made it with just a couple of days to spare.
“All we needed was Brian’s signature,” Clifford-Cruz said. The Sun owned the copyrights on the work and needed to approve the transfer. “Kind of as a parting gift to me, he said, ‘Send me the paperwork,’ and it was done. It was something we’ve been sitting on for five years. It was like magic.”
Now the cartoons, which span seven presidential administrations, have been relocated from the newspaper’s warehouse to Lied Library where they can be cared for and made available to researchers.
Eventually, the hope is the collection can be digitized and made available on the Special Collections website. First, though, the cartoons will have to be unpacked from the transport boxes, properly re-housed in archival materials, and shelved within the library. The process ensures that the cartoons — which are still hand-drawn — aren’t stored in a way that would cause any damage and that anyone visiting can search through the material in order.
As a research tool, the Smith collection offers a unique perspective into the way events were experienced and interpreted in real time.
“The time period that Mike worked at the Las Vegas Sun pretty much constitutes about 60 to 70 percent of the entire town’s growth,” Mayes said. “In that time period, there’s an awful lot of growth in our city, but also our political structure and how we looked at ourselves in the national picture.
“I was going through some of the cartoons and there’s stuff about the ‘Screw Nevada’ bill which set up Yucca Mountain. Looking at that from a historical standpoint, somebody generations from now is going to be doing research on that. This gives kind of that popular viewpoint of how people felt.”
The art and the artist
Smith’s decades-long career started the way many creative endeavors do at the outset — with an artist looking to an idol, but trying at the same time to find a voice of their own.
While working for his college newspaper at Loyola Marymount, he repeatedly called Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad for advice until one day the Pulitzer Prize winner told him to come down to the offices.
After thoroughly reviewing Smith’s portfolio, Conrad told him, “If you ever want to get a job, you’d better learn how to draw.”
Once he superglued his pride back together, Smith buckled down and refined his style.
“Cartooning is like anything that takes time to improve,” he said. “It’s like playing an instrument. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets any easier. I remember when I first started drawing cartoons, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, you know, in 10 years, this is going to be so much easier than it is now.’ I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and it’s still hard.”
Every day it means combing through headlines, finding an angle, refining setups and punchlines, and producing fresh artwork. The profession takes a unique combination of skills to stay sharp and fast. It’s also a position that is becoming exceedingly rare in American newsrooms.
When Smith started, there were about 250 editorial cartoonists on staff at newspapers around the country. Now, he figures, they number fewer than 30. That’s another aspect of why it’s so important to archive Smith’s work. Las Vegas is in a special position of still having a local artist producing daily cartoons.
“I’m hopeful that [the collection] can be used for enjoyment and research,” Smith said. “And I’m hopeful that it can be a kind of a historical perspective from a satirical point of view of issues concerning Las Vegas, Nevada, and the various (presidential) administrations that I’ve drawn about. I’m hopeful that, you know, there might be classroom settings where they can use the cartoons in terms of research or for understanding commentary or art.”
Smith’s decision all those years back was a loss for Hertz, to be sure, but a big gain for Las Vegas.