GREEN BAY — Joe Heller looks forward to connecting with a new audience. The work of the former editorial cartoonist for the Green Bay Press-Gazette is now featured in The Compass and as part of the cartoon package of Catholic News Service (CNS).
Heller’s association with CNS will expand on his already strong national following. His cartoons are currently syndicated to 350 newspapers.
“I believe that I have a good sensibility of finding the right balance in a cartoon, not being ideological, bombastic, crude or anything like that,” said Heller, a member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. “I sent a whole bunch of cartoons to CNS. They looked at them and thought they would be a good fit.”
Heller, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Green Bay and a convert to Catholicism, is no stranger to tackling religious topics in his cartoons, including Catholic news. His work on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI received a positive response.
“It was an architecture piece,” he explained. “It was well played. Several diocesan papers emailed me and said that it was funny. Coming out of the Vatican was (the quote) ‘You are giving up what for Lent?’ … Now that I know that I will be running in a few more Catholic papers, I will keep a wary eye on what’s happening with (Pope Francis).”
Joining CNS is the latest in Heller’s transition from being the last full-time newspaper cartoonist in Wisconsin. His position at the Press-Gazette, a Gannett publication, was eliminated last month due to cutbacks. Heller, who was born in Oshkosh and grew up in Milwaukee, had worked for the newspaper since 1985.
“I got laid off July 31, that morning,” he said, “and I was itching to come down here (his home studio) to start drawing that afternoon. I don’t want to stop.”
Heller enjoys his new quiet environment, but misses having co-workers around for immediate feedback. He is establishing a network of people to bounce off ideas. He doesn’t miss the deadlines connected with working for a daily newspaper.
“The essence of a good cartoon is to distill complex information down to basic elements,” he said. “Throw in some humor and some opinion and, hopefully, get some good reader response.
“You have to learn to deconstruct things, bring it down to its basic elements and then bring it up,” he continued. “Sometimes it takes an hour and sometimes it takes four hours. Sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. When I had that deadline, I had to just push through and make it work. Now if I don’t like something, I know I’m going to be drawing until 10 p.m., especially if it’s too important of a subject matter not to give it the attention it deserves.”
Heller has drawn more than 7,500 cartoons in his career. His favorite to date is the 9/11 cartoon featuring Lady Liberty with her head resting on her hands in sorrow as smoke pours out of the buildings in the background. Ten thousand prints of the cartoon were produced and raised more than $100,000 for a victim’s fund.
“That cartoon has received the most reaction,” he said. “That shows you the power of a cartoon when it resonates with people. They feel that they are somewhat helpless and want to do something. That was a good way of helping out. I still get requests for it. A fireman from New Jersey took my cartoon and had it tattooed on his arm.”
Heller also enjoys giving back through speaking to various groups including schools. Following an April, 2011, feature in The Compass, he received multiple speaking requests from parishes.
“I never did a talk for strictly religious groups, so I developed a PowerPoint presentation,” he said. “I go through who I am, what I am and how I do it.”
Green Bay will continue to be Heller’s home, but he may hit the road for a change of scenery.
“I’m looking forward to maybe do some traveling and taking my drawing stuff with me,” he said. “I want to just sit in the morning and draw, just have a change of atmosphere. I still have to develop my new habits, my routine. So far, so good.”