Cartoonist David Cohen never lacks for ideas in Asheville
Asheville Citizen-Times cartoonist David Cohen sits at his desk working on a new cartoon last week. A longtime Ashevillian, Cohen said he started drawing and sketching in grade school and eventually realized his dream of working as a cartoonist for his hometown newspaper. (Photo: Katie Baileyemail@example.com)
David Cohen sharpens his pencil twice a week to take a poke at politicians of all parties and to puncture Asheville's bubble of self-regard.
For the past nine years, he's produced close to 1,000 signed cartoons published Wednesday and Sunday in the Asheville Citizen-Times.
With a few quick strokes of a Faber-Castell graphite pencil, Cohen keeps commenting on what keeps Asheville weird and the local issues that rile up residents.
"A cartoonist has one shot to say what it can take 1,000 words for a writer, so he has to say it with 'oomph.' Some people don't get the 'oomph,'" Cohen said. "We're an easily offended society these days."
Cohen, 61, finds himself getting better as a cartoonist and perhaps grouchier as a social observer in the age of Facebook and selfies. "I'm a get-off-my-lawn kind of guy."
Asheville is a cartoonist's paradise, Cohen said, surveying the variety of hipsters, retirees, natives, locals, tourists and hotel-haters — plenty of tensions to fuel his imagination.
He's not necessarily predictable in his politics. An editorial cartoon's higher calling is to make you think, rather than chuckle. "I'm an equal opportunity offender," Cohen smiled.
He's done national and international cartoons, and has posted work online as a former member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists. Facebook and social media have opened up new avenues and brought new audiences worldwide to his work.
"David cares about Asheville," said Jim Buchanan, Editorial Page editor who's been publishing Cohen's cartoons. "More to the point, he knows what Asheville cares about, and that's what gives voice to his pen."
Cohen's cartoons are his own opinions, reflecting his own views — not those of any editor or editorial board at the newspaper. "I'm an opinionated guy. The ideas find me, and sometimes the cartoons just about draw themselves."
Putting down roots
Cohen moved to Asheville in 1970 when he was 16. He remembers when downtown closed up at 5 p.m., before the interstate ran through a cut in Beaucatcher Mountain.
He's been drawing since he was a kid, creating the classic airplane battles in grade school with fighter jets spraying their targets with dotted lines. As he grew older, he discovered that cartoons could tackle serious topics.
During high school and college, he played guitar until "I figured out I was playing the drums on the guitar."
He traded the strings for drumsticks and hasn't looked back, playing for bands including Irish, reggae, fusion, new age, alt-country, rock, soul. He also spent seven years on the drums for Grammy-winner David Holt and the Lightning Bolts.
He drew a few editorial cartoons for the Asheville High newspaper. In 1980, he approached Rick Gunter, then editor of the Asheville Times. Turn in a few, Gunter said, but he couldn't guarantee when they would run.
But Cohen was thrilled, even at $5 per cartoon.
By day, he's doodling his cartoons. Most evenings, he trades the pencil for drumsticks, playing drummer for a series of bands as a professional musician.
"It's curious that so many cartoonists are musicians. I've talked with colleagues before about that. Cartooning has something to do with timing."
Asheville has been through boom periods before with hotels and more tourists, and gone through tough times as well. History could very well repeat itself, but Cohen hopes to be there, drawing his observations for the newspaper.
"I think we're in our roccoco period in Asheville. There's just so much weight of ornateness on the facade that is has to crumble at some point," Cohen laughed.
Looking back over historic newspapers in the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library, Cohen was surprised to see early local cartoons and some of the same issues in the boom town. A 1915 cartoon shows local residents fawning over the opening of baseball season, while ignoring the larger world of war with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.
His style has evolved over the years. Cohen has developed a distinctive "retro" look to his cartoons, following in the inked footsteps of his editorial heroes Herbert Block or Herblock at the Washington Post, the World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin and Pat Oliphant.
Early on, he loved crosshatching and intricate shadowing. Now he aims for an "economy of line," trying to get his message across with the fewest strokes of his pencil.
Cartoons can cause serious offense. Witness the massacre of French cartoonists at the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris. Cohen commemorated the tragedy with a cartoon that read "Je Suis Charlie" and showed a hand wielding a pen and the caption "You can't kill us all."
Mindful of attacks worldwide against cartoonists, Cohen has drawn no cartoons that could be seen as defaming the Prophet Mohammed. "I don't want to live under a fatwa," he said.
But he's also not afraid to make his points locally. "I think I have a pretty good finger on what's going on in Asheville. In my 45 years here, I've seen all the changes and I've worked for all the major publications. No one knows this town who can draw better than me."
There's downtown or what Cohen calls "the bubble within the bubble. If some of the rainbow unicorn-riders would travel just five minutes outside of Asheville, they would find a whole new world."
His targets talk back
Even his targets agree on his talent. Cecil Bothwell once worked under Cohen at the old Greenline alternative newspaper — the predecessor to Mountain Xpress.
Now an Asheville City Councilman, Bothwell has opened the daily newspaper to see himself lampooned by Cohen. "It's a lot of fun. Sometimes it feels like a pinprick, not always a happy one. It's kind of an honor to be singled out."
Bothwell appreciates Cohen's range. "He's not predictably liberal. He jabs left and right. He offers a unique perspective on Asheville."
The councilman also admires the cartoonist's craft of boiling down Asheville's often heated issues to a single drawing, whether it's bears who can't afford a den to hibernate or the debate about an African-American memorial next to the Vance Memorial.
"He's basically like a moonshiner," Bothwell quipped. "He's in the business of distilling."
Carl Mumpower, a former city councilman and a Republican congressional candidate, also was a frequent target of Cohen's cartoons. Mumpower shared his assessment.
"Honestly, he's a talented liberal propagandist. He can do a good image, add some words and make it fun for folks," Mumpower said. "He's biased, but he's clearly talented. "
"I miss Carl," Cohen said.
The cartoonist once introduced himself in person to the then councilman shopping at Greenlife where Cohen works part-time.
"You keep doing what you're doing," Mumpower told the artist. "I'll keep doing what I'm doing."
Cohen counts himself lucky to keep drawing. "It's always been my dream to be the editorial cartoonist for a daily newspaper. Here I am doing this in Asheville. That's pretty cool."
For more of Cohen's work, click on www.cohencidents.com..