Signal 100 | Columnists and cartoonists, Part 1

No. 41 in a series of 52 commemorating 100-year anniversary of The Signal

“Longevity, for a columnist, is a simple proposition: Once you start, you don’t stop. You do it until you die or can no longer put a sentence together. It has always been my intention to die at my desk, although my most cherished ambition is to outlive the estate tax.”

— Charles Krauthammer

There are columnists and there are typists. And then, there’s the artist Randy Wicks, his own species of observation.

For more than a century now, The Mighty Signal has been pummeling the heads of unsuspecting readers with unasked-for opinion and bombast. We’ve employed rapscallions, like Count Marco in the go-go 1960s, a wonderful, zany, wicked-by-design male chauvinist. We’ve had on our payroll Dwight Jurgens, this paper’s daily paragraphist who went from telling the SCV how to morally live their lives to currently rotting in a Kansas jail for rape and human trafficking. Somehow, Jurgens’ framed and smiling photo has not yet made it to the lobby of The Mighty Signal’s main entrance.

Sometimes we draw cartoons, but mostly, we’ve used words. Millions upon millions of them. In our passions, we’ve poked holes in the ozone with index fingers and narrowly missed inserting “Thee,” “Thou,” and “… smote” in the countless print holes filled with diatribes, well-duh conclusions and profound reflections. I doubt if any columnist, Signal or that long list of other newspapers tied for second, has ever convinced anyone to do anything. Those who agree with you, agree with you. Those who don’t, won’t. We columnists live a life of stubborn typing.

For much of the 20th century, editor/publishers started the tradition of writing a personal column on the left-hand side of The Signal’s front page. That ended when Scott Newhall bought the paper in 1963. Scott ran these gigantic, Death To Traitors editorials in his patented 19th-century pleonastic style — atop the front page. It’s still surprising to me how many people — and some actually in the newspaper business — don’t know the difference between a column and an editorial.

A column is one person’s personal opinion. An editorial is the official position of the newspaper, without any byline. An editorial allows the writer to use the royal pronoun of “We,” as if the position carries the weight of outnumbering the community.

Technically, the Signal’s first columnist was its editor and publisher, Ed Brown. But the first columnist was the many-faceted Thornton Doelle. He published this paper’s first humor column on July 8, 1919. It was called, “On The Funny Side.” It wasn’t. Here’s Thornton’s best line:

“Kind sir — will you please tell me in what state one can obtain a divorce quickest?” Sir: “The state of matrimony, of course. How dare you ask such an easy one.” For the record, it was also the last time “On the Funny Side” appeared in this paper.

My personal prejudice is that since 1919, this community has been blessed to have had a newspaper, decade after decade, that has made the Santa Clarita laugh, cry, think, be proud and be grateful. I’d have to say, at the top of the list was a fellow who spent all day, maybe writing one word, but accompanied by these delightful and oft-disturbing curved lines.

Courtesy photo
Randy Wicks was renowned as one of the best political columnist anywhere on Earth. He worked for this small daily and was beloved by the community.

Notre terrible bébé ange, Randy Wicks

Randy Ray Wicks was, in the best of ways, “our terrible baby angel.” 

As Signal Editor Tim Whyte recalled: “I see him laughing, with his whole body. Randy laughed about as demonstrably as anyone I’ve ever known — his whole body would twist and contort while he laughed, from head to toe.”

Randy was round, like his art. He walked around like he had just been physically tickled. And, like Whyte said, the darn guy was kindness personified, “… even when he was lampooning someone in a cartoon.”

Here’s the thing. In the 1980s and 1990s, we were a daily, yes, but a teeny-tiny one. Day in, day out, there wasn’t a single political cartoonist on Planet Earth better than Wicks. Period. Syndicated columnists from New York to Los Angeles said so. Six days weekly, Wicks produced artwork that touched the globe to our close-by canyons of Santa Clarita.

A 1980 CalArts graduate, Wicks somehow ended up in the art department of TMS. I was doing special editions at the time and had seen Randy’s book. I think the guy was just born off-the-wall talented. You study the original works of famous satirical artists and you can see their growth, sometimes from primitive, immature places. But Randy? He just started out hitting home runs.

Every.

Darn.

Day.

Courtesy photo
Newspapers have a long-standing and cherished custom of running completely unfunny cartoons. The Signal proudly honored that tradition by printing Art’s Gallery.

Randy Ray asked if I could put in a word for him with then-publisher Tony Newhall to do a political cartoon. At the time, The Signal had a regular syndicated cartoonist, Art Finley, who produced Art’s Gallery.

It was painfully bad and would not go away.

Finley would take an old engraving and add a nonsensical one-liner, sort of a late 20th-century meme composed by a tired and dull sixth-grader. I went to bat for Randy. Being young, I did about 10 minutes of unasked-for stand-up in front of Mr. Newhall about the eye-wateringly awful Art’s Gallery. Tony winced, mumbled something under his breath and confessed that “Art was a close and personal friend of the Newhall family.”

I bounced out of the office on one foot (the other was still in my mouth). Tony graciously gave Randy that first try and, on Sept. 14, 1981, the opinion page of The Mighty Signal ran the very first Wicks cartoon. From there was home run after home run after screaming home run. This may be hyperbole, but I’m not sure there was a refrigerator or bulletin board in the entire SCV and beyond that didn’t have at least one cut-out Randy Wicks cartoon.

He was, simply, a genius. And he painted for the Santa Clarita. He was, and in some guardian angel watch-over-us way, still is.

Pelting the mayor with peas

For some stupid reason, Randy and I were on the board of directors of the Los Angeles Press Club, and you know what comes with that: Useless, Clock-Eating Luncheons.

One day, the guest speaker was the retired mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty. Right after lunch, there’s the usual tedious snoozefest Old Business and people at a podium going “blah-buh-blah-buh-blah.”

Sam’s sitting directly across the table from Wicks and me. Sam falls into a deep post-lunch senior citizen coma. Sam’s mouth is agape. Wide agape. Being a business meal, there is an abundance of canned peas, disguised as a vegetable. Randy and I look at one another, smile, then, like post-modern Revolutionary War militia, we start loading peas, one at a time, onto our spoons. Using the utensils as a lower-case trebuchet, we start launching green legumes toward the mayor’s snoring pie hole. I’d like to say one of us hit the big half-court shot and a pea sailed one into Yorty’s mouth, but, alas, like a Lee Smelser/COC basketball team, we missed every shot.

An aide shook Mayor Sam awake so he could speak, and Mr. Yorty was more than stunned to see a battlefield of peas on his lap, shirt, jacket and one in his pocket.

That’s another bad thing about Mainstream Media.

We throw peas.

Of course, there is such a thing as karma.

Oct. 26, 1983, Randy Ray Wicks was arrested and jailed. I still laugh about that 36 years later. Twice Wicks had failed to register his wretched, environment-killing oil-burner. I’m going from memory, but I seem to recall it was some offspring of a Nash Rambler, like an AMC Gremlin. The third time Wicks was pulled over for having registration tags from the 19th century, he was in Glendale. The cops threw Randy in the pokey overnight, where he was propositioned and watched fellow inmates exchange PCP. After the hat was passed around the newsroom, $321 bail money was met, Randy was sprung, then promptly registered his car.

Of course, Wicks was far from being The Signal’s only con employed on The Signal’s Opinion Page. (Next week’s episode, we’ll discuss the rapist Dwight Jurgens!)

Wicks was forever the optimist. An Iowa boy, he was a lifelong Cubs fan and this was in a century where Chicago’s baby bears won, like, two games. I remember afternoons. They are hellish times in newsrooms, for that’s when everyone is feverishly pounding out stories that should have been finished two hours earlier. I’d be on the phone, my desk scattered with books, notes and papers, and Randy would push all my work aside and place his next day’s cartoon on my desk, not for inspection, but for approval.

Then, he’d start talking about it.

While I’m on the damn phone, feverishly trying to finish a story that would have been finished two hours earlier had I not taken a three-hour lunch and a trip to the gym.

Wicks would then make the entire rounds of the newsroom. So beloved was Randy, no one once ever spoke a disparaging word.

Not to say Randy didn’t have his critics.

In December 1981, Signal reader Tom Castler sent in a very primitive drawing of the south end of a north-traveling horse, with the brand, “WICKS” stamped onto a hind quarter. After that, affectionately, we’d call Wicks “a horse’s patootie” around the newsroom. He liked that.

Want to know something strange about Randy? Well. More strange? He never took lunch. Rarely saw him eat. And he lived on cheap, soap-water 25-cent vending machine coffee. Wouldn’t go near the pots of the free office java.

Wicks starred in the ending of the glory days of political cartoonists. Every major newspaper had at least one full-time satirist. Randy Wicks gave his heart and soul to this town. He donated countless hours to charity and worthy causes, spoke tirelessly to children and comforted many, myself included. How lucky was this paper and this community to have Randy?

Courtesy photo
Whether drawing about war or the passing of a cultural icon (Muppets creator Jim Henson) Wicks had the ability to communicate deep ideas and emotions, using just a few curved lines.

There are events you never forget

I remember walking into The Signal newsroom on a Saturday in early August 1996. Everyone was sobbing. Soon, so was I. Randy had died of a heart attack, so young at 41. I remember calling Tim Whyte with the news. Beyond a “someone” — some thing, some irreplaceable spirit, had left the Santa Clarita Valley, forever.

I wrote a Signal obituary, never fun to do. Here are excerpts from “The Perfected Randy Wicks,” Sunday, Aug. 4, 1996:

I saw a comet the other night. It was a lazy summer evening, simply too damn hot for early August. I was sitting with friends in a private brick courtyard and I saw the brightest falling star. It lasted for maybe a second and a half — which is long for a comet. I saw a Randy Wicks. I saw him for 20 years, which is much too short for a cartoonist.

God teases us. He will show us a shooting star, smile and, like the good Teacher, He silently says: “Can YOU do this?”

“Can you make a shooting star?

“Can you draw it on a cave wall and capture all its happy suddenness? Can you paint Suchness? Can you sketch on something so unrefined as newspaper pulp so it will take a hardened, bitter soul and leave him slack-jawed and grinning — like a child who has seen a magic trick?

“Can you use every color that ever was and end up with black and white? Can you draw a Nixon or a Saddam, dancing elephants and weeping donkeys? Can YOU make someone howl, cry foul or laugh out loud?

“Can you do this?

“Can you draw a smug Hillary or an ice-cream-stained little kid? Can you make an Iraqi rat or Russian bear, Einstein or an 8-track? Can you draw a war or grocery store opening or a starving baby? Can you (paint) mustaches on the rich and insufferable?”

Every day, for almost 20 years, my friend has made me laugh.

“Can you do this? Can you lighten AND enlighten a burdened soul? Can you take a few minutes out of your busy day to lead a tour of kids?

“Can you do this?” God might ask. 

I think Randy could humbly answer: “Yes.”

I saw a shooting star last week. I saw a Randy Wicks. God suggests, with a smile, “Be ye perfected.” God asks us, strangely, kindly, without a hint of pressure: “Can you be the best transmission fixer, the best lawyer, the best mom, the best editor, the best accountant, the best political cartoonist? You have a second-and-a-half or 41 years or maybe a few more lifetimes. Can you be the best?”

After 20 years of conversations, I don’t think Randy believed in God. But that’s perfectly OK. God believes in him. And in us. And while Randy maybe didn’t believe in God, Wicks did believe in Art. He believed in Kindness, being a friend and standing watch and not missing deadlines. I suspect God doesn’t know the difference. I suspect God just smiles, like He does, at artists, children and comets.

Look for Part 2 of “Columnists and Cartoonists” in next Saturday’s Signal.

Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 42 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

Advertisement

Latest Stories