A collection of Sarah Palin cartoons by Tony Newman, who draws under the pen name “TOE,” is being released in book format at the upcoming Alaska-Juneau Public Market.
The book, titled “When Sarah Palin Came to Town,” is a chronological look at Palin’s political career, focusing on the effect she had on Juneau and its residents.
“If there are two characters in this book they are Sarah Palin and Juneau,” Newman said. “The relationship between Palin and Juneau — the impact of her celebrity and leadership was something I hadn’t seen explored fully in the books that have been about her and by her.”
Newman pairs his personal reflections of political events surrounding Palin with his published cartoons, adding a couple dozen previously unpublished drawings. He said the book seemed like an impossible dream until a tragic event helped push him forward.
“If anything gave me the motivation to do this it was the loss of my friend John Caouette a year ago,” he said.
While processing and reflecting on Caouette’s unexpected death with his friends, Newman said they realized they needed to go after the things they want — relax about work, travel more and do the things they love.
“I realized that I already do what I love to do in these cartoons,” Newman said.
Caouette had always encouraged Newman to take his cartoons further, but Newman had struggled to find a unifying theme for his collection. Then Palin came to town.
“I thought Frank Murkowski was an incredibly colorful governor and when he lost I thought we were going to enter a quiet boring time, no matter who it was, and obviously Sarah Palin was anything but,” he said.
Newman had a 10-year cartoon retrospective at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum in 2007, as Palin was just starting her first term as governor, and he was asked about her as a new subject. He was quoted as saying, “She’s a striking-looking person, so she’ll be fun to draw. She also seems like she’ll be a dynamic sort of personality that may get into hot water or at least be visible.”
He couldn’t have known then how right he was. With a colorful subject to work with, Newman’s Palin cartoons were inspired and people responded locally and nationally.
Newman has received a lot of positive feedback over the years with Alaska Press Club awards and a solid fan following, One particular letter to the editor in 2008, a little more than a year after Palin became governor, said Newman had found his muse in Palin and called one of his drawings a masterpiece; the letter confirmed his idea that Palin would be a solid unifying concept for the book.
“The arc of Sarah Palin’s career from governor to not governor has been a single story line. I realized I do have a theme here,” Newman said.
Juneau also plays a major role.
“Prior to Sarah Palin we were all about — to outsiders — snow and tundra, polar bears and fishing, and now, post-Palin, tell me that’s not the first question you get when you talk to friends that find out where you are from.”
Newman sees the book as a sort of Palin therapy, and he hopes that both Palin critics and Palin fans will identify their own reactions to her in the book.
“This book is both for us, Juneau residents to relive this interesting time in our history, but it’s also for people who are interested in Sarah Palin, and either love her and don’t understand why there has been sort of a general reaction against her from Alaskans, (or) for people who don’t understand what her appeal ever was and how Alaska could put her out as sort of our best citizen.”
His tone is playful rather than biting, and he says most of his subjects, including legislators he’s poked fun at over the years, have asked for the cartoons.
When he initially pitched his Palin collection idea in front of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, they were encouraging even though the idea wasn’t fully formed.
“I didn’t even have a clear idea of what I wanted, I just knew I wanted to enhance and develop my collection of Sarah Palin work as it relates to Juneau specifically. I didn’t know if that was an exhibit or a book or a pamphlet or a movie,” Newman said.
The arts council gave him an individual artist grant and a deadline, which Newman says was critical to the project.
“Without a deadline I could never have dragged myself through it,” said Newman, who is also a father, husband, and full-time state worker with many community commitments.
Newman, who has contributed cartoons to the editorial page of the Juneau Empire for more than 10 years, doesn’t always focus on politics in his drawings — he covers a wide range of topics of community interest, like the weather and personal tributes.
“One thing I can say about my work is that it’s erratic,” he said. “I don’t claim to be a great artist, I’m not trained as an artist, I’m trained as a journalist. I think my strength lies in my ideas.”
His family gives him the space to create when he needs to.
“When it’s cartoon night I plant myself in the middle of the kitchen where all the action is and draw,” Newman said. He is comfortable with chaos, having grown up with nine brothers and sisters Pittsburgh, Penn.
“When I was a toddler my mom set up a chalkboard in the kitchen so she could keep an eye on me, and I remember she would step around me as she worked in the kitchen as I sat there and drew.”
Newman drew lots of cartoons for friends over the years but it wasn’t until he moved to Anchorage in 1993 and noticed a call for cartoon submissions at the Anchorage Daily News that he became published. After moving to Juneau, he went on to draw for The Paper, begun by former Empire editor Larry Persily, and the Capital City Weekly before becoming a regular contributor to the Empire in 2000.
Newman’s book will be available at the Alaska Juneau Public Market, running Friday through Sunday at Centennial Hall. He hopes it will inspire conversations.
“There’s something about the combination of the right brain and the left brain — there’s the artwork but there’s also an intellectual stimulation that tweaks people in a way.”