Kartoon Caricatures by Dian & Pete Wagner - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Specializing in Drawing Comic Cartoon Caricatures at EVENTS as Entertainment

Welcome to Pete Wagner's Blog. My Mantra:
"COMIC First, ART Second"

This blog is all about drawing performing caricaturing at events as an entertainer, and what it is like to be and work as a caricaturist, cartoonist and comic artist. I have drawn caricatures, cartoons and comics all my life, professionally for more than 45 years now, as a way of entertaining people, and as a way of using entertainment to inform, educate and persuade people, as well.

I have performed comedy on stage and worked as a caricature artist on TV as a featured regular on a morning news show in Minneapolis. I think of caricaturing as more closely related to COMEDY than to VISUAL ART. I think to be really good at it, a caricature artist has to draw in a way that is more like what a COMEDIAN does (except that for the caricature artist it is done mostly with a marker or stylus on paper or a digital drawing pad rather than into a microphone) than like what a VISUAL ARTIST or ILLUSTRATOR or PORTRAIT ARTIST does.

Caricature is basically a type of COMIC art. Comic as in “HA HA” funny comic. And COMIC FIRST, ART SECOND. The comedy is the main thing.

Portraiture, illustration and other forms of visual art are basically STRAIGHT art. Even when they are done with the intention of being humorous, the humor is secondary to the art.

I have done a lot of teaching and theorizing and philosophizing about these topics (I've gone so far as to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree and a PhD-abd) and have developed some rather carefully thought-out ideas and detailed opinions about how they work best for an audience and guests at events. For anyone who is interested in the subject, I hope this blog may provide some ideas and knowledge worth taking a look at.



The most Frequently Asked Question people ask us when we are out drawing caricatures at events is "How long have you been doing this?" And then, after I look at my watch and answer, "Ohh, about a half hour now," they clarify: "No, I mean, how did you first get into drawing caricatures?"

The truth for me is, I started when I was about four or five. When I was 19 and two years into my career as a professional cartoonist for newspapers, my dad sent me something I had forgotten all about and was surprised to read. My First Grade report card.

On it, my teacher had written, "Peter is a clever little artist who reveals a sense of humor in his work."
Pete Wagner Report Card

But it started before that. In kindergarten, I clearly remember the very first time someone called me an "artist." It was the teacher, whose name I guess I should not mention because some ask it as a security question, who reacted with great excitement when I brought up a simple drawing of a cat and showed it to her.

"OH! You're an ARTIST!" she exclaimed. I'm not sure I even knew quite what the word "artist" meant yet. But it was palpable from how happy she seemed that it must be something adults considered good.

But it started before THAT, too.

I clearly remember that before I started school, I watched cartoons on TV every evening with my Uncle Eddie, who lived upstairs with my grandma at the time. And I loved to draw my favorite characters from the screen, especially Pixie and Dixie, two Beatnik mice who were always harassing poor Jinx the cat. It was a Hanna-Barbera production. The animators who later created "The Flintstones."

And I remember drawing a picture of my Uncle Eddie that I thought was spot on, absolutely perfect, a genuinely accurate likeness that could not be mistaken for anyone else.

I showed it to my father and expected him to blurt out, "Why it's Eddie!" and "I'd know him anywhere!!" or something along those lines.

Instead he stood there with a blank look on his face. I waited. He waited. Finally I said, "Well?" And he replied, "What." Agitated by his failure to recognize great art, I stated with a "what is wrong with you for not getting this, it's obvious who it is" tone of voice: "IT'S UNCLE EDDIE! IT LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE HIM."

He rubbed his chin pensively and his expression went from blank to squinty-skeptical.

"I dunno, Peter. That looks a little... (hesitating) ... FUNNY."

I don't think I heard the word "caricature" until I was maybe 11 years old or so and watching an episode of "Family Affair," a soppy, heartwarming, sickeningly sweet TV show about a wealthy bachelor who lived in a modern New York high rise
with his man servant and suddenly found himself raising his orphaned nephew and niece, who were abysmally cute, and their teenage older sister, who in one episode supposedly drew several caricatures that were obviously done by some seasoned professional artist.

But the first caricature I remember ever being struck by was way back before that. It was the one that was shown with the credits at the end of the 1950s "Phil Silvers Show." I have a distinct memory of sitting on the floor one Sunday night in probably about 1958, when I was three years old, and my mom and dad enjoying their nightly beer in those great 1950s beer glasses and the show ending, and my dad remarking, "That's a pretty good show."

On the screen of our ultra-modern 1950s TV set, which looked like something out of "Ren and Stimpy," bunny ears and all, was that caricature of Phil Silvers that burned itself into my memory along with the whole family scene and my dad's comment.

The caricature drawing I gazed at during that 15 or 20 seconds was super-simple. Elegant. Funny. Had tiny feet and way too small legs that tapered down dramatically. Dots for eyes. In many ways it was kind of like the "Huckleberry Hound" and "Yogi Bear" and "Pixie and Dixie" cartoon characters I would watch with my uncle a year or so later. There was a style in the 1950s for cartoon characters and caricatures that was as ultra-modern as the TV set in our living room.

When I drew cartoons and caricatures for my Uncle Eddie and later in school for my teachers and classmates, I did them mainly to tell stories with them and to entertain people with them. Almost every drawing I did was accompanied by a narrative I had conjured up and I would explain what was happening to the characters in the drawing while I showed it to people. I did this with both the cartoons and the caricatures. There was always some literary IDEA that spurred me to do the drawing.

This is an important part of what I now think makes for a huge difference between COMIC art and non-comic or STRAIGHT visual art. They are two VERY different things.

Some art that is basically straight in terms of its purposes or goals, like "commercial art" (they don't like to use that term anymore but that's really the best way to describe it) MAY be humorous or even downright comical in nature, but it is such only with a distinct ulterior motive that supercedes the comedy. It is trying to SELL something.

The kind of art most people like to think of when they hear the word "ART" is usually either more accurately called "CRAFT." It is all about "good" drawing "skills" and "correct" draftsmanship and the "proper" use of artist tools and artist materials and artist techniques and artist methods and involves artist hardware and artist costumes. It is also about a kind of anal retentive level of perfectionism that is anathema to comedy. I will blog much more about this later.

Most people are really taken in by the whole typecast role of the "artist" as some kind of a "special" being with unusual "TALENTS" that are possessed only by a very few superior individuals. There is a kind of religiosity associated with art and artists that is rather ironic, considering how many religions forbid or have in the past forbidden "graven images."

There is also the "Art with a Capital 'A'" idea of art, centered mainly on fine art and that part of our culture where the elite few with superior tastes and the highest social status and tons of cash bestow upon a privileged savant arteest the attention and importance and accolades they so greatly deserve thanks to the blessings they create and grace the world with.

This is not the kind of art I ever did.

Comic art has not a thing whatsoever to do with these. Comic art has as its goal COMEDY above all else. Comic art should be just that: COMIC first, and art second.

Getting back for a moment to the point of this entry...

I do not remember being an Obsessive Compulsive Drawer as a kid, but maybe my memory about that is wrong. I do know that my parents were neat freaks. They kept the house clean as a whistle and clear as a bell, to mix compatible metaphors. It was always incredibly frustrating to me to find paper or anything to draw with.

Luckily my grandmother on my mom's side was obsessive compulsive. She saved paper, bottles and jars, and a milliion other things until her house was so packed full of the stuff you could hardly get through the dining room. My mom and her siblings were always trying to sneak in and cart a lot of it out to the trash when Grandma wasn't home.

The good side of this was, she would bring me stacks of paper that was blank on one side, knowing that I liked to draw.

I have another vivid very early memory about drawing. When I was about six, I discovered how to draw three dimensional objects using just lines at a very crude, primitive level. It was a gloomy grey damp day and I was sitting in the front room looking out at the front steps across the street. I suddenly noticed that if I looked only at the outer edges of the steps, they looked like zig-zag lines.

I went and found the only drawing surface I could find in that overly neat house. It was a piece of grey cardboard. Luckily there was something or other I could draw with, not a decent drawing tool but some kind of pen or pencil. I went back to the window, started looking and drawing what I saw. First the zig zag outline on one side of the set of steps. Then the zig zag outline on the other side. Then I noticed something else, something very cool: there were straight lines going across from the points of each zig and each zag to the corresponding zigs and zags of the outline on the OTHER side of the steps.

I drew this with a feeling of great discovery and took it to show my mom. "Look at this." She looked at it in disbelief. "You didn't do this," she stated with certainty at first, then skepticism as I looked at her with that kid look that meant, "OF COURSE I DID." Then that changed to, "You DID?" and "How did you know how to do this?"

When I was in the first grade, I had a turtle, which I had named Yertle after my favorite Dr. Seuss book. This book was hugely important to me. I just loved it. One week I took it into my teacher at school and showed it to her. She asked, "Oh, do you want me to read this to the class?"

I was a PAINFULLY shy kid. My early report cards all remarked that they could hardly ever get me to talk. I was probably autistic. They said things like "One word answers are all we get." I am sure I was almost pathologically right-brained at that age. Yet that book meant so much to me, without thinking for a moment about what I was saying, the words just came out of me:


It was one of the most life-changing moments I have ever experienced to this day. Suddenly, thanks to Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, I was in front of a lot of people PERFORMING for them. And it was thanks to the cartoons.

I don't remember doing that much drawing throughout my childhood, probably mostly because of the dearth of paper in the house.

I do recall being enlisted by my fifth grade teacher to do a bunch of big drawings for a display on the big bulletin board out in the hallway outside the classroom. I know I drew a large "Reddy Kilowatt" who was the mascot of the electric company and fun to draw.

I also remember that I had a pissing contest with my friend Bill Schneck in 3rd grade where I mentioned people thought I could draw well and he immediately went into competitive mode declaring he could draw better than me, and challenging me to a duel.

I went home and drew a turtle. I had a container of turtle food with a great drawing or painting of a painted turtle on the front of it. It was a tiny image but I thought it would be a great guide. I looked at it and I looked at my turtle, whom I had, of course, named Yertle. I sat quietly and did the most careful drawing I could and returned the next day to school with it.

Bill had a drawing of an elephant that I know now had obviously been drawn by an adult. I found out later his father had been a freelance commercial illustrator on the side for a few years and later when we became friends and I was at their house, I saw other drawings that were clearly in the same style as that elephant.

Of course, upon presenting the drawings to each other, neither of us thought the other's was better, though I'm sure Bill expected me to fold up like a cheap lawn chair at the sight of his overly perfect elephant rendering and cry uncle. We decided we needed an arbiter to judge which drawing was better. We agreed on the office secretary lady who sold supplies.

She looked at both and taught me a basic lesson about art. There is no such thing as "better." She said, "They're both good. I can't say that one is better than the other." Bill and I became great friends from there on.

But there is an epilogue to this story. The principal saw the drawings and he took my turtle, framed it and put it up in a place of honor on the wall just above his desk. He marveled at it and told me how great it was. He hardly had anything else up on his walls, they were nearly empty, so it really was an honor. Years later when my little sisters, who were nine years younger than I, were in a school play there, I went back to see them in the play and stopped to say hi to the principal.

There was the turtle drawing, still up on his wall. I was 21 years old and had graduated from that school like ten years earlier! I did not let any of this go to my head, because I never really thought my drawings were all that great, they were just a way of expressing myself most of the time or entertaining people. Unlike my friend Bill, I was not into the "showing off" aspect, not trying to impress anyone or expecting to.

I was an avid comic book reader from about age nine through probably 12 and still read a few at 13. Superman was the one I loved most. Then Batman. There was one period when I tried getting into a few others. Flash was the only one that I might have bought two or three of. I remember getting an Aquaman, a Green Lantern and maybe one or two others, but Superman was The Man in my comic book reading days.

I would copy Superman from Curt Swan's drawings of him. I had the insignia down cold, could do it from memory.

What happened partly as an after-effect of having read all those comic books and drawn Superman so many times is a very priceless memory for me.

In junior high school, I had a friend in my Health class named Louis Meriscal who sat in the row next to me and we used to do drawings to entertain each other. This was at the height of the Civil Rights movement in about 1967. Father James Groppi, a Catholic priest who lived a few blocks from my house, was one of the most well-known leaders of huge marches which often turned into race riots in Milwaukee.

I noticed Father Groppi would be very easy to draw. He had a huge bulbous nose and wore out-of-date dark horn rimmed eyeglasses and had those kind of eyebrows that go way up in the middle. I tried doing a drawing of him from memory and it was hilarious and cracked up my friend Louis. I went home and began writing and drawing elaborate comics featuring "THE ADVENTURES OF SUPER GROPPI."

I turned Groppi into a caped superhero flying around saving the day and I remember Louis just DYING laughing, and how much I loved doing those comics that entertained him so much. I wish I still had some of those, I know I did quite a few and I'm sure they were quite imaginative and bizarre.

I do not remember drawing much after that until high school. When I was 15, my right arm was broken when I was thrown off a horse, and I discovered I could draw with my left hand about as well as I could with my right hand. It was slower but the outcome was about the same. I remember not thinking the drawing was very good (which is how I usually thought of all my drawings, unlike a lot of other young "artists" who seem to be in love with everything they do) and showing it to my longtime friend Bill Schneck who happened to be in just one of my high school classes with me, and him looking a bit stunned and asking, "You drew that with your left hand?" I nodded and thought, I guess it isn't very good, but he followed with "Are you kidding? That's amazing. That looks as good as what you draw with your right hand!"

The other memory about drawing from high school was when I did my first political cartoon as an act of revenge against another student who had gotten me suspended for going through the hall without a pass one day running an errand for a teacher who was too lazy to write me a hall pass. The kid, Tom K., was a student senator, as was I, and we were always at odds in the Student Senate. He was like Hamilton, I was like Jefferson.
Pete Wagner High School Caricature of Teacher 1
When I took that cartoon in to the school paper and asked them to run it, the editors said, "You should do one of these for every issue!" So I did. I did mostly caricatures of teachers in some kind of funny cartoon situation that had as much to do with caricaturing their personalities as did the drawings of their faces and bodies, clothing, etc.
Pete Wagner caricature high school teacher 2

I didn't think much about the cartooning, just did it as an outlet and for fun. But when we passed around our high school yearbooks, I learned that being a cartoonist was apparently something that made a big impression on the other kids because almost everyone who wrote in my yearbook made a point about calling me a cartoonist and saying they loved my cartoons. I thought, hmm, that's interesting, I didn't think that would be how they identified me. I thought I was much more well known for my environmental activism and other things. I kind of dismissed it and moved on to college, which is where I fell into an actual career as a cartoonist...

END OF PART I...How I got started professionally in Part II

Nobody is going to read this, are they? I'm just doing it to have an entry in this blog to get it started, and as a memory exercise... but who know, I've been surprised before by what people find interesting. And so many ask that damn same question, so I'm pouring out my brain cells here and now that I've gone into all this detail, I might as well add the rest of it when I get the chance, later.


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