Patrick (Pat) Bruce Oliphant

Born Adelaide, South Australia 1935

By Lindsay Foyle

Pat Oliphant was the world’s most widely-syndicated political cartoonist for decades. The South Australian-born Oliphant moved to the United States and won a Pulitzer Prize and racks of other awards. Oliphant began as a copy boy at The News in Adelaide before shifting to the art department at The Advertiser. During a visit to the US, he realised “nothing much happens” in Australia but America was a stimulating nation packed with issues, turmoil and pompous politicians. He moved to Denver and skewered American politician for half a century with a scathing eye and a scratchy pen, a style mimicked by hundreds of his successors.

Having the capacity to be outrageous has not stopped Oliphant from being one of the major cartoonists to have worked in America over the past half century. In 1990 The New York Times called him the most influential editorial cartoonist working in the country and his cartoons were being syndicated to over 500 newspapers.

While Oliphant’s cartoons can seem harsh, he likes to think of himself as being a ‘liberal’ in American terms - or left wing in Australian terminology - who cartoons as an equal opportunity offender. Delighting with almost a sense of disbelief at what he sees as the absurdity (at best) of most political figures at the things they say and do, saying, “They create this stuff; all I have to do is illustrate it. I just sit back and it comes at me.” He says, “I see myself as a journalist who draws. In fact, I wanted to be a journalist when I first started work.”

Oliphant says, “Being a cartoonist is a great privilege really. I can say things that people want to say. I'm fortunate enough to have a forum in which to say it. And express the feelings of many people.”

Having cartooned on every US presidents since Lyndon Johnson and unleashed his ink dip pen on them all without mercy while both Democrats and Republicans regularly dispute his claim of political neutrality.

For many years he looked like an absent-minded professor with his woolly white hair and wry, bespectacled quizzical look. He said in 2009, “I don’t like changes of administrations because I have all my villains in place, and then they are taken away and replaced with faceless wonders nobody knows. You need villains to get yourself angry”

Oliphant thinks, “America is working in circles. I do a lot of reading of history, and find out they’re doing the same things. Every administration is circular and gives the same way of doing things to the next administration and the next generation, and the next. There’s the corruption and the frustration, but nothing ever seems to get done. But for a cartoonist that’s okay. We just have to change their names.”

Included in every Oliphant cartoon is a small penguin known as Punk. He introduced him as a smart-ass in some weather cartoons he was drawing in Adelaide. Following a good reaction to him Oliphant has kept him in all his cartoons since, saying he uses Punk as his alter ego.

Patrick Bruce "Pat" Oliphant was born in the Adelaide Hills in 1935. He grew up in a three-room house with no telephone, no radio, no electricity or running water. After completing high school in 1952 he got a job as a copyboy on The News. Oliphant then moved to The Advertiser and within a year started a cadetship in the art department. In 1955 the daily cartoonists, Dan Russell, left and at the age of 20 Oliphant, was given a trial to see if he could handle the job.

Oliphant met West Australian cartoonists Paul Rigby in a pub in 1960 and over a beer or two he suggested Oliphant should try cartooning in the United States. It took him five years to find a spot. “I heard there was a vacancy on The Denver Post and sent a load of originals. I had the call from them on the Friday and had to start the following Monday.” In 1965 his cartoons became national when syndicated by the Los Angeles Times.

Refusing to work in colour or use a computer Oliphant took a freer drawing style to America, which set a different direction for American cartooning. He says, “The cartoon dictates the way you work. The line has to be in tune with the image. I could be using a brush on this and get it all black, but I want to have daylights through it and I want it to look scraggly and tattered and torn. Oliphant also says he likes to bring as much art as he can to his cartoons. "I think it is an art form, a terribly neglected art form these days."

“When a cartoonist works for an individual paper you get to know your readership, and it is easy to thrash things out with the editor,” he says. But with his work being syndicated, “I just put my head down and send them out, I don’t think about it. It’s up to them whether or not they actually print it.” However, he has said, “If it were not for the fact that editors have become so timorous in these politically correct times, I would probably have a greater readership than I have.”

Editors are one thing self-criticism is another. Oliphant said in 2009, “I don't think there's more than half-a-dozen cartoons that I've been really truly happy with in all the time I've been doing it.”

In 1975 Oliphant started work on The Washington Star and in 1980 switched the syndication of his cartoons to the Universal Press group. When The Washington Star folded in 1981 he worked on his own continuing to syndicate through Universal Press, becoming the first cartoonists in America not working for a newspaper.

Just three years after arriving in America, he won the nation's highest journalistic honour - a Pulitzer Prize. Since then he has won the National Cartoonists Society Editorial Cartoon Award seven times, the Reuben Award twice, has twice been voted cartoonists of the year in the Washington Journalism Review and the Thomas Nast prize in 1992. He is winding down a little these days, having moved from Washington DC to Santa Fe in 1997, and retired in 2015 but briefly returned to cartooning in 2017.

While he still retains most of his Australian accent, “He’s well and truly American now”, says his wife Susan. “People are surprised to learn he was originally from Australia.”

There have been about 30 books of Oliphant’s cartoons published

Pat Oliphant entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2009.

Further reading