Cartoonist continues to spark controversy

by Josh Linehan

Be it love or hate, over the years editorial cartoonist Pete Wagner has always gotten a reaction.
Though he says he represents no single political ideology, Wagner has been using his First Amendment rights to offend readers on both sides of the political spectrum for more than 25 years.
And that’s just the way he likes it.
“Political correctness has caught on everywhere, and in the academic world especially, telling people it’s wrong to offend other people. I feel that’s counter to a true democratic culture,” Wagner said.
Wagner, now in his second stint as the controversial Daily cartoonist, first drew for the paper in 1974.
Sparks flew.
Cartoons depicting the pope and right-to-life activists drew large amounts of mail, as did one depicting the Suffolk County grand jury as Ku Klux Klan members.
In May 1975, Wagner appeared on Northrop Mall during a sermon by the famous mall preacher known as Brother Jed. Wagner, who had written “Fuck” across his forehead in purple finger paint, was photographed with his arm around Jed.
Wagner, who was subsequently suspended from the paper for a week, said the Brother Jed incident was an example of the arbitrary boundaries he constantly seeks to push.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” Wagner said. “I wasn’t interfering with his freedom of speech. I thought that anywhere else in the country people would have understood the joke.”
Wagner again made headlines in spring 1976 when he ran for student body president and won the Twin Cities Student Assembly primary.
He ran on the Tupperware Party platform and promised to leave Minneapolis if elected. He lost, but left campus anyway.
Wagner freelanced and then worked as the City Pages’ editorial cartoonist for 10 years. When he returned to the University two years ago to continue his graduate studies, he said he hadn’t considered cartooning for the Daily again.
But the promise of a new, educated college audience to spar with proved too great.
“It’s critical to have student newspapers to ensure people can exercise their First Amendment rights. Presumably you’re dealing with a much more intelligent audience in a university setting,” Wagner said.
As always, letters to the editor came pouring in.
One cartoon in particular, shortly after the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., drew heated responses.
“The cartoon about JFK Jr. in (July 19)’s Daily is probably the lowest, most despicable thing your sorry excuse for a newspaper has ever done. You are a bunch of insensitive pigs! Whomever developed this so-called cartoon and the editor who allowed it to be printed should both be fired at once,” one reader wrote.
Wagner said he sees criticism from readers as proof he has done his job well.
“The primary goal I have is to get people to focus on an issue and provoke a response,” Wagner said.
Even when the response comes in the form of a personal attack, Wagner said readers unwittingly focus on the issues.
“It’s fine if the first shot is fired at me, but usually the second letter attempts to explain the position I took in the cartoon, and the readers end up debating an issue,” he said.
The personal attacks come as a result of the general public being “satirically illiterate,” Wagner said.
“Because of political correctness, people have been conditioned to be much too literal. These are cartoons. Unfortunately, most of the people who react don’t understand satire,” Wagner said.
And in the case of the reader who simply cannot understand his need to push the boundaries of free speech as well as good taste, Wagner has a response.
“Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

Josh Linehan welcomes comments at [email protected].