Longtime Editorial Cartoonist Gary Varvel Recalls the Journey to a Dream Job
Photographer / Amy Payne
Gary Varvel will never forget the day he walked down the magazine aisle of Danner’s 5&10 and spotted the face of gap-toothed, freckle-faced Alfred E. Neuman. When he picked up a copy of MAD Magazine, something shifted inside him. Twelve years old at the time, Varvel describes the humor magazine as “mesmerizing.” On rainy days, he sketched characters he saw within its pages.
“That’s how I learned to draw caricatures,” Varvel says. “I was fortunate in that I wasn’t really gifted to do anything else.”
He jokes about his talent, though the truth of the matter is that pursuing a career in cartooning isn’t easy.
“Oh, it’s terrible,” says Varvel, a Brownsburg resident with his wife, Carol, for 20 years.
He might not have had the guts to pursue such a dream were it not for his Danville Community High School journalism teacher, Nancy Sutton. One day she invited Anne Ely from The Indianapolis Star to be a guest speaker. When Ely saw Varvel’s cartoons, she suggested he contact Jerry Barnett, the editorial cartoonist at The Indianapolis News.
“I went to a payphone and called him right away, not realizing that the call would change the course of my life,” says Varvel, who later met with Barnett.
Though Barnett believed in Varvel’s talent, he warned his protégé that the editorial cartoonist business was a tough one to crack.
For two years, Varvel attended the John Herron School of Art before landing a job at a local newspaper in Brownsburg in 1977. Don Richer, the publisher of the County Courier, hired Varvel to work as the production manager.
“Don told me, ‘If you draw a cartoon that’s good enough, I’ll put it in the paper,’ but he taught me how to lay out ads and operate the copy camera,” Varvel says. “That job is how I learned the business.”
When the County Courier folded a year later, he struggled to find work. He was at the unemployment office when he was paged by Barnett, letting him know that he was recommending Varvel for an artist position in the newsroom.
“I went from being unemployed on Monday to Tuesday morning having my cartoon on the front page of The Indianapolis News,” says Varvel, who remained with the paper for 16 years doing maps, charts and story illustrations. Throughout that time, Varvel steadily applied to any opening he found for cartoonist positions.
“I was rejected by every single one,” says Varvel, who kept all the rejection letters, an act that not only kept him humble but also offered a healthy perspective.
“I learned that losing doesn’t make you a loser,” he says. “Quitting makes you a loser.”
In 1994 when Charlie Werner retired from The Indianapolis Star as an editorial cartoonist, Varvel applied for the job. A month passed before his phone rang with news that after two decades in the business, he’d finally landed his dream job.
“I about dropped the phone,” says Varvel, who was 37 years old at the time — the youngest in the department. Everyone else was 10 or 20 years his senior, which he relished. “I loved soaking in knowledge from the others who had been around the block a few times.”
Later, those people retired, Gannett bought them out and slowly things started changing.
“One thing I learned in journalism is that you have to adapt,” Varvel says. “If you don’t change, you die.”
He saw many cartoonists lose their jobs because they refused to do color. He found that color was a good thing because it was more adaptable for the Internet.
Like all editorial cartoonists, Varvel has been criticized for being biased.
“My world view doesn’t match everyone else’s and that’s okay,” he says. “We can all have different points of view and not throw a fit about it.”
He rolled with the punches. He once received an e-mail from a reader who wrote, “You obviously don’t know what you’re doing because this cartoon was the worst.” Varvel wrote back, “You obviously aren’t paying attention because I’ve done much worse than this.”
The man immediately fired back, “Okay, that’s hilarious.”
But there were definitely tough times. Following the 9/11 attacks, Varvel drew a cartoon that encapsulated the honor, pride, sadness and sacrifice that all tied into the tragedy that rocked our nation. It was the image of Uncle Sam carrying a firefighter through the debris. The comic was inspired by a photograph Varvel had seen after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing where a child was being carried by a firefighter.
“I thought, ‘How ironic that the firefighters became the victims this time,” says Varvel, noting that 343 firefighters died in the towers that day. He was reminded of John 15:13 about there being no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
“That’s what these people did — especially when the first tower went down,” he says. “They had to know their time was limited when they went in.”
Varvel’s editor Andrea Neal was so moved by Varvel’s work that she suggested making the comic into a poster that they could sell to help with the relief efforts in NYC.
They printed up 1,000 and booked Varvel to appear on Channel 13 to promote it. When he arrived at work, there was a line around the block with people coming from Kokomo, Richmond and surrounding areas to buy a signed poster. They raised $130,000.
Over the course of Varvel’s 24-year career at The Indianapolis Star, he drew nearly 8,000 cartoons. When he began his career in 1974, Varvel estimates there were 200 full-time salaried editorial cartoonist positions in America. Today, he guesses that number has dropped to 20.
In 2000, Varvel wrote the book Varvelous. For years, fans have inquired when he would pen a second. Finally, the timing seemed right so just last month Varvel released Drawing the Right Way: A Conservative Cartoonist’s View of the World. It’s a compilation of the last decade, focusing on the Obama and Trump years. Varvel includes a chapter on Mike Pence and another on Hoosier politics. Though he plans to schedule some local signings, fans may purchase copies at Garyvarvel.com.
Since retiring from The Indianapolis Star in January, Varvel has been busier than ever. He illustrated a graphic novel called The Birth of the First Amendment and collaborated on a junior high book called Old Whiskers Escapes. He’s been commissioned by people, near and far, to draw for them, including the Bob and Tom staff to create a poster of their crew. Plus, he still draws four cartoons a week for Creators Syndicate.
Earlier this year when MAD Magazine announced that they were ceasing publication after 67 years, Varvel was disappointed.
“It’s like losing a friend,” says Varvel, who was sad yet not shocked because he feels the magazine hasn’t been able to reach the next generation of cartoonists.
“Honestly, I came along in this business at just the right time,” says Varvel, who feels blessed that he got to live this life. “For me, it was the best job in the world.”
Now, however, he looks forward to tackling his next dream, which is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others by using his talents. In 2014, he co-wrote and produced a movie with his oldest son, Brett, called “The War Within.”
“I’ve had people say they came to know Jesus because of the film,” Varvel says. “That’s better than making people laugh. Changing someone’s life for eternity — there’s nothing better.”
Varvel’s Awards & Accolades
- 2018: Advancing American Democracy Award, sharing the award with 2 two-time Pulitzer-Prize winners
- 2015: Inducted into Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame
- 2012: National Headliners Award for editorial cartooning
- 2011: Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Cartooning
- 2010: National Cartoonists Society Reuben Award for Best Editorial Cartoonist Division
- 2010: Grambs Aronson Award for Cartooning with a Conscience for his Path to Hope series on Child poverty
- 2006: H. Dean Evans Legacy Award for community service
- 15-time 1st place winner of the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists’ Award for Best Editorial Cartoon
- 13-time 1st place winner of the Best Editorial Cartoonist in the Hoosier State Press Association Contest