In his 29th year as a cartoonist, Steve Breen – formerly of The San Diego Union-Tribune – has found a new home.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner joins San Diego’s inewsource as Editorial Cartoonist and Content Creator for the local investigative newsroom.
Breen will be part of a new community engagement lab at inewsource, pioneering new ways to tell stories, work hand-in-hand with communities, and save local news, according to a statement.
“Getting our reporting into the hands of the people who need it the most is a priority for inewsource, and Steve Breen will introduce a whole new method for doing that,” said inewsource CEO and editor Lorie Hearn.
Beyond his Pultizers in 1998 and 2009, the 53-year-old has won several other awards including Emmys for investigative series on local issues like immigration and homelessness.
After 22 years in editorial cartooning at The San Diego Union-Tribune Breen accepted a voluntary buyout earlier this year following a hedge fund buying the paper.
Continuing his storytelling
Today, Breen looks to continue his storytelling through cartooning, gifs, graphic novel-style series, and animated visuals.
Good local journalism is so important to a community, and I believe cartooning and illustrated reporting are an important part of the mix.”-Steve Breen.
“Good local journalism is so important to a community, and I believe cartooning and illustrated reporting are an important part of the mix,” Breen said. “I am thrilled to join the team at inewsource and grateful that my artwork will continue to have a home in San Diego.”
The Coronado News got the opportunity to chat with Breen about his years-long work. Following is a condensed Q and A about his career journey, challenges and future plans.
Q&A with The Coronado News
Q: What is your educational background and how did you get into cartooning?
Breen: I went to UC Riverside, and I was a business major at first, and I wasn’t really jelling with the business classes so I switched to political science, and I immediately enjoyed my coursework. Early sophomore year, I started drawing for the school newspaper and the advisor encouraged me to draw editorial cartoons. When I wasn’t working on a paper for political science, I was in the library studying editorial cartoons and collections on microfilm. I was writing to cartoonists, looking for advice. I have always been able to draw, but the formation came in college when I just started really studying hard the work of people I admired.
Q: Whose work did you admire the most?
Breen: Jeff MacNelly, Pat Oliphant, Paul Conrad. Depending on whose cartoon I had seen most recently or studied most recently, that would be the style that my most recent cartoon would take on. My early work was really derivative and heavily inspired by these guys. But over time you find your own style. I sent my cartoons all over America and I found a job at the Asbury Park Press. So, I drove my Ford Taurus out to New Jersey in 1994 when I was done with UC Riverside.
Making people laugh
Q: How did your upbringing influence your interests or lead to your career in cartooning?
Breen: I always loved the attention that I got from making people laugh. Cartooning, it’s really more writing than drawing. The concept has to come before the art, and that has to be carefully written. The writing has to be the foundation for a good cartoon. My work is moderate, clear, and heavily visual. I really try to keep my words to a minimum and rely on the art—I want the artwork to deliver the message as opposed to bubbles and captions. I like to say that you can tell when I’ve had an off day when I have an excessive amount of captions, labels, and word bubbles in my cartoon. Experience plays a big part. You learn what icons and symbols work well to communicate. Having a good editor also helps.
Q: You were a Pulitzer winner by the time you were 30. How did this award, if at all, influence any aspect of your career?
Breen: The people I looked up to all had Pulitzers, so that made me want to get a Pulitzer. It gave me job security when I was young and starting out. I actually beat out two of my idols the first year that I won, Jeff McNelly and Paul Conrad, not because I was better than they were that year, [someone told me that] the Pulitzer Committee wanted to give it to a fresh name. What happened was, not all, but a lot of the more established cartoonists made comments like who is this guy?, where did he come from?, he doesn’t really deserve it. And that really rankled me and made me work harder, and it made me want to win a second Pulitzer to silence my critics. Now a lot of ’em are friends, and I feel secure in my accomplishments. But most importantly, I’m in a position now where I can mentor and give advice to younger cartoonists who I’m always happy to talk to.
Approaching current Israel-Hamas crisis
Q: Your 1998 Pulitzer winning series featured a Hamas cartoon with an “s” as a serpent, and a recent cartoon entitled “Disturbing Images,” features two adults looking at a TV screen that reads “Middle East.” How have you approached the current Israel-Hamas crisis in your cartoons?
Breen: It’s really tricky. I’m not doing a lot of cartoons on this issue because it’s so hot and fraught as I like to say. You could offend and inflame people so easily, even with a cartoon. With a well-meaning cartoon where you decry the loss of a Jewish life, you could hear from angry supporters of the Palestinians. And if you took a cartoon decrying the loss of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, you hear from angry Jewish readers asking, doesn’t Israel have the right to defend itself? So you probably won’t see too many Middle East cartoons from me in inewsource, at least right now, unless I or my editor feels that I can add something to the conversation. The Middle East has always been a very hard subject to deal with because you run out of things to say because history just keeps repeating itself over and over again.
Entering 30th year as cartoonist
Q: You will be entering your 30th year as a professional cartoonist. How have you led or continued even with certain pushback or backlash? Can you share anecdotes about a cartoon you’ve produced that has received significant reactions from readers?
Breen: You’re always going to get pushback with editorial cartooning, it goes hand in hand with the artform. But issues of race, like issues of religion, are very sensitive so you have to be careful. What the Jussie Smollett cartoon showed us was that it’s a good idea to bounce cartoons on issues of race and religion. It’s a good idea to bounce those ideas in their rough form off of people and so that they can possibly help you see something that you’re missing. After that Jussie Smollett cartoon we would show my cartoons, especially ones on sensitive topics, to a community advisory board. And the idea was to help us see things that we were not seeing. It was a bit cumbersome, but it would help us occasionally. You’re walking through a minefield when you address issues of race and religion. It’s good to have a mind sweeper with you to help to keep you from stepping on something.
Seven kids and family life
Q: You have seven kids of your own. How do you balance family and a full-time role of cartooning?
Breen: Number one, I have a wonderful wife—Catherine Breen—who has the energy of three human beings. She’s amazing. And number two, the ages are spread out, I don’t have all seven living in the house right now. Lastly, I love kids and playing an active role in parenting. When my editor approves my idea and all I have to do is draw it and put time into the art. I could be talking to a kid, I could be talking to my wife, a TV could be on, and it doesn’t bother me. I could relax and be present. But, everyone knows when the door is closed to dad’s studio that he needs to be left alone. We had our 25th anniversary this year.
Q: You’ve previously covered immigration and homelessness as issues that are pertinent to the San Diego communities. What topics are you considering for cartoons, media, and other graphics during your time at inewsource?
Breen: Homelessness continues to be an issue. Fentanyl is a big topic; I read the other day that five to 6,000 Californians are dying a year from Fentanyl. I will be working with the inewsource staff on other issues and I look forward to finding topics where we could help give a voice to the voiceless.
Q: Any closing thoughts or information that you wish to convey to readers?
Breen: I hope that people will bookmark inewsource and check us out. If you see someone with ink on his fingers and a bunch of kids around him on Orange Avenue, people can honk and say, “Hi, Steve!”