The Book – Introduction

By Tom Bray

I first became aware of Henry Payne in the mid-1980s. He was a student at Princeton University, from which I had graduated some centuries before. From time to time, Henry would draw cartoons for the alumni magazine. They were not only funny and confidently rendered, they reflected something quite rare on the American campus of the late 20th century: a conservative outlook.

To cut against the intellectual grain in such visible fashion must take some gumption, I thought to myself. From that moment I started tossing Payne cartoons into what I called my “future file.”

After Henry graduated and went to work for Scripps Howard as a full-time cartoonist, my interest increased sharply. Over the years more and more of his cartoons, often reprinted in such places as the National Review, Reason magazine and various newspapers found their way into that file.

So when an opening occurred for the chief editorial cartoonist’s job at the News in 1999, I was thrilled when Henry expressed his interest – and even more thrilled when, after an intense national search, we decided to offer him the post.

Henry hit the ground running. Or, more accurately, he hit the ground racing. He had warned me in advance that one reason he was attracted to Detroit was its reputation as the car capital of the world. Henry is a car guy, as his frequent cartoons and illustrations for special sections on the Detroit Auto Show demonstrate. Henry also likes the very idea of cars: the mobility, freedom and opportunity they provide to the ordinary citizen.

Most of all, Henry likes fast cars. No sooner had he arrived on the job, in fact, than he asked if he could take off slightly early one Friday so that he could get to Watkins Glen in New York in time for a race. No problem, I said, as long as his work was done – but why travel such a long distance just to watch a race? “Oh,” said Henry, “I won’t be watching it. I’ll be in it.” And that was when I found out about Henry’s other life, as a driver of vintage sports cars at speeds of up to 160 mph on asome of the most storied tracks in America.

Not exactly a standard pastime for an editorial cartoonist. But then there isn’t much that is standard about Henry Payne. Not content just to lampoon the pomposities of the day in graphic form, Henry also loves to write. Like his cartoons, Henry’s writing is clear and to the point. During the presidential campaign, he noted the press bias against Republican candidate George W. Bush, particularly on religious issues. When Bush spoke on the campus of Bob Jones University, Henry noted, the Washington press corps described compassionate conservative Bush as the far right’s “water boy.” But, he pointed out, “no such controversy has dogged Lieberman, who regularly worships in Orthodox synagogues that forbid interfaith marriage.”

Henry also has a reporter’s eye for the sacred cow. In a piece for The Wall Street Journal with Diane Katz, he noted that much of the Detroit Auto Show was given over to “eco-friendly” vehicles that real-world consumers were unlikely to buy. Their conclusion: auto companies are engaged in a probably fruitless attempt to appease “government bureaucrats for whom fundamentals like functionality, affordability and profits matter not.”

But it is, of course, the art of the cartoon that mainly draws our eye to Henry Payne. Editorial cartooning came to flower in the mid-19th century, when Thomas Nast rose to fame as the scourge of New York City’s corrupt political bosses. “Stop them damn pictures,” roared Tammany Hall’s notorious Boss Tweed. The common voter might not be able to read a newspaper, Tweed knew, but he could understand a picture.

Likewise, as editorial page editor of The News, I came to accept the fact that on any given day, it would be the editorial cartoon, not a finely-reasoned tract about missile defenses, that was most likely to get the reader’s attention. This volume contains a sampling of Henry Payne’s cartoons during the 2000 presidential campaign, its occasionally hilarious aftermath, and the grim events of September 11. It also contains a larger number of Henry’s cartoons and illustrations about local issues, including Detroit’s vibrant sports and auto culture.

Like any good craftsman, Henry makes it look easy. One of the delights of my job as editorial page editor was he would wander into my office around noon with rough drafts of subjects that he was contemplating for the next day’s paper. They were invariably sharp, funny and cleverly drawn. After the laughing died down, we would discuss which would make the most timely offering, and a few hours later Henry would be back with a final rendering.

But cartooning is a lot tougher than it looks. To be effective, a cartoonist has to know a lot about the issues. He has to be able to distill his thoughts about complex matters into a single clear image. And, most difficult of all, he has to do it with a sense of humor.

Humor is the most effective – and most subversive – of intellectual weapons. Even those who may disagree with the essential point of a cartoon can appreciate the artist’s sense of wit. Who in our litigious society could fail to get a chuckle out of Henry’s portrayal of a group of industrialists, including Bill Gates, waiting for their day in court – and joined by an angry-looking Uncle Sam clutching an Election 2000 brief? What auto buff could not appreciate Henry’s ironic portrayal of a retro-styled, alternative-fueled, horse-drawn coach?

This volume, I am convinced, marks the opening of the Payne era in Detroit. He came to Detroit because of its reputation as a town where people love their sports, treasure their cars, relish a good political brawl – and appreciate a good laugh. As this volume suggests, Detroit and Henry Payne are made for each other. Long life to each.

(Tom Bray is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and The Detroit News. He was editorial page editor of The News from 1983-2000)