Gary Varvel · 2015
If you were going to depict his career as a cartoon, you would need to draw plenty of eyeballs, at least if you planned to accurately represent the throngs of readers across the country who have seen – and reacted to – his captivating, highly distinctive work.
Gary Varvel, who became the editorial cartoonist for The Indianapolis Star in 1994, achieved national syndication in 2001. His best known work? An unforgettable image – drawn after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – of a weeping Uncle Sam holding a limp firefighter with the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center in the background. Posters of the image raised more than $130,000 for relief efforts.
His cartoons have appeared everywhere from Time, Sports Illustrated (for his depiction of Bob Knight during a crisis) and The New York Times to CNN, Fox News and ESPN.
Varvel, 58, has won a trove of national and state awards, such as the 2010 Reuben Award, honoring the country’s best editorial cartoonist as selected by his fellow artists. His handiwork even adorned a race car in the 2015 Indianapolis 500. His caricature of David Letterman was placed on a car co-owned by the entertainer.
“I purposefully do not look at other cartoonists’ work, but Gary’s work is unavoidable because it is reprinted everywhere,” notes Michael Ramirez, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who is the editorial cartoonist for Investor’s Business Daily. “Gary’s caricatures are flawless, but it is his ability to communicate the failings of politicians and policy that is priceless.”
Tim Swarens, opinion editor of The Indianapolis Star, calls him, simply, “an Indiana original.”
The “original” was born in 1957, the son of Forest and Priscilla Varvel, and grew up in Danville. Although Gary Varvel would go on to widespread acclaim for his artwork and incisive point of view – and his multi-media career as a public speaker, children’s book author and screenwriter – he describes himself as “clueless” about his future as a boy.
“My dad brought home a copy of Mad magazine for my brother and me,” he recalls. “Maybe that was the spark. But I had no idea for years that you could earn a living by drawing cartoons.”
Varvel describes Mad as a continual influence. As he matured, he was influenced by such icons of journalistic cartooning as Pat Oliphant, Mike Peters and Jeff MacNelly. Varvel creates his work from the perspective of, as he puts it, “a conservative Christian” even though some of his role models were politically left-of-center.
Varvel, in turn, is lauded by colleagues like Joel Pett, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for The Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, who notes that the two “often are on opposite sides of the political spectrum.” Referring to Varvel, Pett explains, “He delivers the goods without the cynicism and vitriol that is so easy to develop.”
Varvel’s journalistic endeavors were launched at Danville High School, where he was sports editor and cartoonist for the school newspaper and graduated in 1975. He met Jerry Barnett, editorial cartoonist of The Indianapolis News, who became an early mentor. At Barnett’s urging, Varvel enrolled at the Herron School of Art at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
Next came a job on a weekly newspaper in Brownsburg, where Varvel had a mountain of responsibilities, including production manager. Once per week, he also drew a cartoon. The job lasted about one year, then the newspaper folded. Varvel was at an unemployment office when Barnett sent word of an opening at The Indianapolis News for a newsroom artist.
That was in 1978. Almost immediately, Varvel became popular because of his witty illustrations accompanying news stories, features and sports reports. Varvel, though, was determined to land on the editorial pages – and spent years applying for the few editorial cartooning positions available. In rejecting him, an editor chided Varvel for not having the “fire in the belly” necessary for an opinion-based cartoonist.
“I needed to hear that,” Varvel recalls. “I was just doing gags. I needed to be grounded. I needed to ask myself, ‘What is my world view?’”
In 1994, he was hired by The Star to replace editorial cartoonist Charlie Werner, who was retiring after a Pulitzer Prize-winning career.
Varvel made an impact immediately – and has never stopped stretching himself. Included among his work that has earned national awards (such as the Aronson Award for Cartooning with a Conscience in 2010 and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2011) was a serial strip about child poverty. Called “Path to Hope,” the serial was presented like a graphic novel and based on Varvel’s interviews with Hoosiers who flourished despite growing up in neighborhoods beset with crime, drugs and gangs.
For most of his career with The Indianapolis Star, Varvel has lived in Brownsburg with his wife, Carol. Their three children have pursued careers in different aspects of media.
His son, Brett, is executive director of House of Grace Films, a nonprofit, Christian film company, which also involves his dad. The Varvels co-wrote The Board (2008), a short movie translated into five languages. In 2014, the company released The War Within, also co-written by Gary and Brett.
Varvel’s younger son, Drew, is a creative producer at WRTV (Channel 6) in Indianapolis. His daughter, Ashley Day, is a graphic designer in The Indianapolis Star’s advertising department.
As a byproduct of co-writing the movies, Varvel wrote The Good Shepherd, a children’s book.
His cartoons appear in more than 100 newspapers through Creators Syndicate. Although his work typically packs a punch, Varvel reports that his political “targets” – or their staffs – frequently contact him for originals. The staff of Laura Bush, then the first lady, sought a Varvel cartoon in which her husband, during a stretch of unpopularity, was being shunned by the couple’s dog, Barney; the president was depicted looking at the pet and asking, “Et tu, Barney?”
In addition to winning a National Headliners Award in 2012, Varvel is a 15-time first-place award winner from the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists and a 13-time first-place winner for Best Editorial Cartooning from the Hoosier State Press Association.
He also has been, Swarens notes, “among the first cartoonists to embrace color, animation, blogging, social media and video.”
All the better to draw more eyeballs.
By Nelson Price, Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame board member, author and radio host