Tom Toles, Drawn Out
By Irene J. Liguori

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Tom Toles.
“I was a suburban pudding child,” Toles says. “It was the 50s, it was the suburbs. I was, well—ensconced and soft...I picture myself as kind of a vanilla pudding, with a thin vanilla pudding skin. I was protected, unthreatened, unchallenged, unmotivated and—happy.”

“Picture him as a perpetual motion machine with a pointy, red beard—a machine that efficiently eats, sleeps, and breathes news. Is that really Tom Toles? Partly. But there’s more, a great deal more, to the 1990 Pulitzer-prize-winning cartoonist from The Buffalo News.

Unlike the little black boxes he draws around each of his cartoons, Toles cannot be easily stuffed into a neat compartment. He resists that. He’s not like anyone else you know. But that is part of his appeal, part of why his cartoons now appear in 200 newspapers nationwide. And why he has something new and different up his rather lengthy sleeve for the year 2000.

“If I were chained somewhere and only allowed to see one editorial cartoon per day,” says Philadelphia Daily News cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, “it would be one of Tom Toles’ cartoons. He’s not part of a pack. He’s in nobody’s school of cartooning but his own. He creates his own magical world that is completely convincing as an alternative universe.”

Toles’ daily schedule leads you to believe he belongs to some sort of monastic order for journalists. His workday opens at precisely 4:59 a.m., when WBEN’s news format blares into his bedroom via the clock radio. Out of the house by 5:30 a.m., he piles all six feet, three inches of himself into a slightly rusty Honda Civic with the bumper sticker that reads “My Child Is A Terrific Kid” and pilots his way from Hamburg to the parking lot of The Buffalo News by 6 a.m.

His cerebral plat du jour begins with a helping of the hometown newspaper, followed by an entree of dozens of national and international wire service stories gleaned from his computer. By 7 a.m. he starts sketching ideas for a cartoon, sipping skim milk from a battered green thermos. Then he reads The New York Times, The New Republic, and starts to ink in one of his ideas for the day.

“The thing that amazes me,” says Toles’ longtime friend and News colleague Jim Brennan, “is that Toles has four or five completely different, creative thoughts everyday—funny, creative thoughts. I’m lucky if I have one. It’s what sets him apart.”

By noon or thereabouts, Toles’ finished cartoon for the day disappears via computer to the syndicate in Kansas City. Back in his car on the way home to Hamburg, he digests more news by ear. At night, he watches mostly network news, sometimes CNN at his health club. So, when does he hit the hay? “Pretty darn early, that’s all you’re going to get out of me,” Toles says with a devilish grin. “I’m not going to tell you. It’s embarrassing.”

Somewhere along the line, he manages to be father of two, husband of 26 years, avid gardener, and—no, it’s not a misprint—a talented Latin, swing, contra, and free-style dancer. This last and latest interest sometimes keeps him out to 3 a.m. “It’s the perfect counterpoint to the kind of work I do,” Toles says. And you thought you had Tom Toles figured out by paragraph seven. Wait. It gets better.

Interviewing Toles is something like spending an afternoon in the dentist chair, but not for the interviewer—for Tom. Toles dislikes talking about himself and worries he’s verging on pomposity when he lectures about his opinions. He sees humor and absurdity in just about everything. He yanks his beard when he thinks, and plays percussion solos on his teeth with a pen in between thoughts.

As we talk, Toles sits ensconced in his ergonomically correct workspace at The News, tucked away in a corner section of the building with a huge, third-floor picture window that looks out on the city and elevated sections of the 190. Cars and eighteen-wheelers zoom by at cartoon-like speeds. The Gothic tower of Erie Community College rises in the background, along with glimpses of the baseball stadium and the new, 10-foot-tall letters decorating One HSBC Plaza. The whole effect is downright, well, Tolish. One can almost hear a deep, bass voice in the background intoning: “Buffalo, Busy Metropolis.”

Toles loves Buffalo, mind you, though he didn’t grow up in the city and still doesn’t live there. He resides two doors down from the Hamburg home he lived in as a child. Someone once gave him a facsimile copy of The New York Times for the date of his birth. Of all people, you’d expect Tom Toles to know what was happening the day he bounced into the world on October 22, 1951. Basically, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye, nothing happened that day.

“I was a suburban pudding child,” he says. “It was the 50s, it was the suburbs. I was, well—ensconced and soft...I picture myself as kind of a vanilla pudding, with a thin vanilla pudding skin. I was protected, unthreatened, unchallenged, unmotivated and—happy.” Did he watch cartoons? “Yes.” Which ones? “ALL of them. I was indiscriminate. As long as they moved.”

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Toles’ office phone rings to interrupt the interview. It’s the syndicate with a question about his cartoon for the next day. He dickers with the person from Kansas at the other end of the line then leaves the room for a few minutes. When he returns, he remarks with mock high drama: “So, did you look in my drawer while I was gone? What kind of reporter are you, anyway?” Some time later I ask him a question about his late father, a tireless and well-regarded freelance writer and staffer for the Buffalo Times. “Didn’t he die when you were very young?” I ask. “No,” says Toles, “I was 25.” “Why did I get the impression it was when you were really young?” I ask. “Because,” Toles says cruelly, “it makes a better story.”

Ask him more about his family, though, and this bite-your-head-off sarcasm dries up like a garden in the August sun. When I press questions about his father, he begins to almost imperceptibly slide down in his chair until there’s nowhere else for his lengthy frame to go. Suddenly his answers turn into monosyllables. Is he like his father? “Some.” Does he share his father’s driven work ethic? Toles sucks his mouth and face into what can only be described as a prune-like expression and answers in a tiny voice: “Yup.” He’s not trying to be funny. I stop the questions about his dad. It’s like trying to perform a root canal without anesthetic.

His family is obviously his soft spot, his sacred cow, his refuge, and he’s not going to say anything bad about them. To hear him talk, you’d think he’d switched places for a few minutes with Captain Ray-Gun (his cartoon moniker for former President Reagan), and it is once again Morning in America. Here’s what Toles has to say about his wife: “There’s nothing to say about Gretchen except that she’s close to being the world’s most perfect person.”

On his mother: “She’s the world’s youngest person...always trying to learn something new, staying healthy, staying active, staying interested, staying interesting.” On his children, Amanda and Seth: “We had kids late. I did a lot of thinking about raising children, I worried about the responsibility entailed, and I had pretty much made a permanent, iron-clad commitment to them a long time before they were even born. One discovers one does not have complete control over what happens with children, but one does have the ability to follow through on the commitment. It’s the one and only undertaking for which there’s no excuse for not doing your best.”

The suburban pudding child from Hamburg got lots of personal reinforcement from his own parents. He started drawing, in true 50s fashion, by watching TV artist John Gnagy. “He sold an art set over the air that I bought. It had an implement called a ‘shading stumpf.’ It was a rolled up piece of paper, and you were supposed to achieve certain effects by rubbing this thing over the work you’d already done. I was never able to achieve much with it,” Toles says, laughing at the memory. “How old were you?” I ask. “Oh, 25,” he deadpans. More laughter. “No, I don’t know, 9 or 10.”

The serious scribbling started at Hamburg High School, when Toles started drawing human faces and forms with the goal of expressing a range of emotions. These early works had a certain grotesque quality to them. In 1968, his high school still had a 1950s feel to it, though the outside world was in turmoil. Toles had a circle of smart-kid friends, but he didn’t hang out with them exclusively. He was not the most popular kid in school, but he felt comfortable with just about everybody there.

His drawing seemed a good outlet for the stresses of adolescence and the somewhat heightened sense of drama that comes with it. Toles’ older brother, George, who was studying at the University at Buffalo, decided to take one of his little brother’s cartoons to the offices of the student newspaper, The Spectrum. Toles was a junior in high school at the time. The cartoon that crossed The Spectrum editor’s desk depicted a head without a body, being squeezed by two hands. It represented angst. One week later, George brought The Spectrum home with Toles’ drawing looming large on its front page. “I guess maybe I was hooked right then on getting published,” Toles says. “I thought it was the greatest thing.”

The Spectrum continued to ask for drawings during Toles’ junior and senior years of high school. The vanilla pudding child obliged. He also grew interested in civil rights, an issue that for him had only one side. His mane of reddish hair lengthened and a beard jutted forth. Toles enrolled at UB and pulled out his pens for a whole new kind of shootin’ match.

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One of ten Tom Toles cartoons chosen to receive the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.
The campus seethed with radicalism and some violence in his first year. Jim Brennan, Toles’ longtime News colleague, worked alongside him at The Spectrum as an editor and remembers the atmosphere well. Police tear gas inside the student union became so disruptive to the newspaper’s operations that The Spectrum staff went out and purchased 10 gas masks. When the next volley of tear gas was lobbed into the building, Brennan said he and others merely retreated to the basement where the fumes were not as overwhelming, donned the masks and went back to their desks to finish putting out the paper. “It was a wild and woolly time for Toles to cut his teeth on his pen,” Brennan observed.

Even then, Toles was a rebel in an unconventional sense. “I was not disruptive, I was not disrespectful, but I definitely had my own ideas about things and was pretty attached to them,” he said. “Far left politics were not something I was ever involved in. I was neither radical nor violent, but I did enjoy the ability to do some offbeat work in an atmosphere where it was expected and appreciated.”

Thirty years later, UB alumna Maria Emmi Schory distinctly recalls one of her favorite Toles’ cartoons from that era—an Easter cartoon depicting a group of enormous, eager rabbits gathered around a basket of chocolate humans. “You could tell even at that time that he was extremely talented, creative, and had a very different outlook,” said Mrs. Schory, now an employee of the Buffalo Board of Education. “His cartoons generated a lot of controversy and discussion on campus, a lot of it heated.”

From the frying pan of UB, Toles jumped into the fire that was once the Courier-Express. He had not seriously considered continuing his drawing past college. He was, he says, ready to settle into the Age of Aquarius and start watching cartoons again. An English major, Toles had vaguely pointed himself in the direction of teaching, but his friend Jim Brennan urged him to take a stack of Spectrums down to The News and the Courier and see what happened. Courier-Express editor Doug Turner, who had an uncanny eye for raw talent, took one look and liked what he saw. Toles began inking caricatures for the paper while he was still a senior at UB.

Now chief of The Buffalo News’ Washington bureau, Turner remembers clearly the backdrop against which he hired Toles to work for the Courier-Express. Turner had just been ordered to cut 13 people from a news staff he was hell-bent on building into a dream team. When he took the reins of the Courier-Express newsroom, he said he felt it lacked aggressiveness, esprit de corps, and elan. “I wanted,” Turner recalled, “people with very high profile egos, leaders, extraordinarily talented people who would fight me for my job, people who would not gather dust and moss and who, when the time came, would go on to bigger and better things.” Turner said he was especially hot for a great cartoonist, somebody who would give the paper some distinction. Toles didn’t know it yet, but Turner had plans for him.

By the time Toles graduated from UB, Turner had wrestled his department’s expenses to the mat without sacrificing any bodies. He hired Toles full-time to do all manner of graphics needed by a daily newspaper—maps, illustrations, charts, graphs. Toles was quite happy for about a month, until Turner called him into his office and asked him to try his hand at political cartooning. “And then I became very unhappy, because I didn’t want to do it,” Toles recalls. “It’s an irony. You can star that in your story and put a note at the bottom of the page: ‘How ironic!’ I didn’t have the knowledge. That was my father’s one contributory comment to the process: ‘How can you do political cartoons? You don’t know anything!’ And he was right.”

Toles worried he didn’t have the right drawing style, didn’t have the capacity to generate the number of ideas per deadline that he would need to, and he was a little uncomfortable with the idea of trying to fit his politics with the politics of the paper. It took him literally seven years—from 1973 to 1980 until he became even remotely comfortable with his role as a political cartoonist. “My taste for it developed at an excruciating rate,” he says. Certainly, the office atmosphere at the Courier was right for honing his eccentric take on political cartooning. The paper hosted a bizarre and baffling tenement of talent, a veritable Adams Family of characters on its staff. His sojourn in that land of fractured fairy tales came to an abrupt and unhappy end with the Courier’s much-vaunted demise in 1982.

Like a handful of other Courier expatriates, Toles landed softly at The Buffalo News. He went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, to create the “Curious Avenue” strip, to be published regularly in U.S. News & World Report, to publish a number of books and generally to become one of Buffalo’s hottest export products. Some say that like all idols, Toles has a percentage of clay in his feet. One veteran Buffalo newsman, who knows and admires Toles greatly, worries that he has plateaued: “Toles has spent his whole life in Buffalo. I think it would help him to take six months off, take a Nieman fellowship or go live in Paris for six months. I hate to see him go flat. I want to see him keep growing.”

Toles himself worries constantly about getting stale. In the past five years, he’s traveled to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Rome, Paris, Switzerland, Florence, Venice, and Mexico with his family—albeit these were not extended stays. Perhaps, he says, the idea of some reflective time off is not a bad one. Part of what may appear to be a lack of focus in his recent work, he said, may be that there are no figures currently in national or local prominence that really get him going—like a Ronald Reagan or a Jimmy Griffin. His own views are somewhat in flux at the moment, flexing a bit more toward the Republican side of the aisle. “I wish there were more influential Republicans in Western New York, so I didn’t have to be one,” he laments. Locally, he’s acutely aware of the negativism that seems to cripple Western New York. He wants to project a constructive view of the area. It’s a dilemma, because that’s not what cartoons are designed to do, he said.

While Toles sorts all this out, however, he lets it be known that he’s indeed working on something brand new. It’s secret—shhh! And whatever it is, it’s set to debut nationally on January 1, barring some Tolesesque computer apocalypse that sends us all back to scrabbling on cave walls.

In the meantime, summer’s closing in, and Toles will be in his garden. He came to horticulture the same way he did to political cartooning—he didn’t like it at all at first. Toles harbors not-so-fond memories of sitting in the broiling sun as a child, sorting tubers from lumps of clay for his grandmother. Today, his highest pleasure in the garden is digging holes with a shovel. “Dig a hole without thinking of a white horse and you’ll find a treasure,” he says wistfully. Toles learned that child’s fable so long ago, he can’t even remember who taught it to him. Maybe he can’t find treasures in his garden with a shovel. But when Toles digs with a pen, it’s clear that some distinct and devilish Muse lets him find the treasure almost every time.


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