Chip Beck hasn’t taken a typical path for editorial cartoonists. A self-taught artist, he’s mostly worked for the United States government, including for the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department. Closer to the end of his career than many local cartoonists, Beck remains as active as any of them.
Arts Desk: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?
Beck: I am retired from official cartooning and doing mostly travel sketches, historical painting (combat art), and working on developing sculpting in clay, to include what I call “carica-statues.”
During my previous print work, I did editorial cartooning (Northern Virginia Sun, Sun Gazette) (1987-1992), a monthly comic strip for State Magazine called Supercrat, the Super Bureaucrat (1979-1994), and a panel feature about military security entitled Kiljoy that circulated from about 1995-2010 in various configurations.
I first started out using Kilroy from the old WWII character that was not copyrighted, but the security manager got it mixed up and called him Kiljoy, which I liked better anyway. I also added the body to Kiljoy, which to my knowledge never appeared in the WWII graffiti.
I have also done combat art for the US Navy during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Just Cause, and provided 500 Kiljoy security cartoons for the chief of naval operations in the 1990s. After 2001, I organized Cartoonists Against Terrorism for the Pentagon, and later organized cartoonists and artists in Baghdad (2003-2005) to promote democratic themes.
In 1999, I organized a cultural trip of 18 U.S. cartoonists to travel to Havana to meet and engage with our Cuban counterparts and conduct joint cartooning events in various neighborhoods and informal settings.
In 2013, I traveled to South Africa for a couple of months to draw editorial cartoons in the opposition campaign to oust [Robert Mugabe,] Zimbabwe’s aging president (i.e., dictator) from office. I also do freelance cartooning and caricatures when the opportunities arise, and I’ve given seminars on editorial cartooning for the Journalism Educators Association and the overseas Department of Defense Dependents Schools.
How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?
I usually start with a sharp No. 2 pencil or a blue pencil to rough out the theme or drawing, and then move to Sharpie pens of various widths. I tried the various professional pens, but they tended to clog, and the ink was no more permanent than a Sharpie. I also use watercolors and colored pencils if I am doing an original caricature or a single drawing with a lot of detail. About the only time I used a computer was to scan in my Kiljoys and drop color into the [black and white] drawing, when I had some color website action going at the Pentagon.
I like the feeling of actually doing art myself, so I am reluctant to let a computer have all the fun. If I post my art somewhere, I will either scan the work or make a digital image with my Canon 7D camera.
When and where were you born?
I was born in 1945 in Maryland, but moved to southern California when I was 12 and grew up there.
Why are you in D.C. now? Where do you live?
After graduating from college and receiving a commission in the Navy, I came to Washington for training in 1968 before heading off to Vietnam with the Marines. Northern Virginia became my home base from then on during subsequent careers in the Navy, CIA, and State Department.
What is your training and/or education in cartooning?
I’ve been drawing since I was 4 years old (I’m 69 now), but the only training I had was four years of drafting in high school. I’ve mostly learned by doing, observation, and watching the techniques of my more technically trained colleagues. I have a B.A., M.A., and doctorate degree in the political sciences and organizational leadership.
With degrees like those, how did you get into cartooning and painting?
I had drafting in high school, which helped with perspective, relative sizes, layouts, organization, forms, et cetera, and I tried the paint-by-numbers as a kid for fun. When I was in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, I started sketching the people and places around me to relieve some of the boredom, especially long stints when I was upcountry alone and had no entertainment to speak of. The degrees more or less came after my love of doing art, and helped me form my day jobs. I eventually got good enough through self-teaching and practice that I was able to get some side jobs during my official careers, and at times within my official careers.
Who are your influences?
As a wee lad, I liked comic books (adventure, superheroes, Bugs Bunny and his gang) and would try to mimic those figures, as well as dinosaurs from textbooks. Mad magazine was a big influence and change in styles, and I eventually read, followed, and studied all the cartoons in the funny pages of the newspapers. After I was invited to join the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and the National Cartoonists Society in 1991, I was fortunate enough to get to know most of these fine cartoonists and artists as friends and colleges.
American Pilot taken as POW in Vietnam. Painted during a tour as a Navy POW investigator from photos.
On the combat art side, I was influenced by the art and adventurous lifestyles of the old cowboy artists such as Frederick Remington, Charlie Russell, W.R. Lee, and even Winslow Homer when he sketched the U.S. Civil War. I’ve now traveled to 126 countries, witnessed 20-plus wars, revolutions, and assorted conflicts, and have sketched, painted, and photographed all of them to various degrees.
If you could, what in your career would you do over or change?
Not a whole lot. I’ve come to believe that fate and chance takes us on a wide ride, and there’s not much use in dwelling in the past. My Arab friends have a word, maktub, which means “it is written,” and describes a philosophy that everything that happens or will happen has already been recorded in the book of life, and once we’ve done or experienced something, it’s right and proper to accept it, move on, and try to learn from the experience.
What work are you best-known for?
I suppose for Supercrat and Kiljoy. I was invited to Budapest, Moscow, Havana, Nurnberg, and Seoul, as well as about 10 cities in the U.S., to give seminars on those works or editorial cartooning in general. In recent years (2005-2013), as I was traveling around Africa and the Caribbean, I ran into a lot of seniors who fondly remembered Supercrat and his prodding of bureaucratic egos.
What work are you most proud of?
Supercrat and Kiljoy, because they challenged bureaucratic mindsets and I could actually gauge the reactions of the audience and see who were the fans and who were the curmudgeons. For art in general, I have 130 paintings in government collections at the Navy Art Gallery, CIA Special Operations Division, National Foreign Affairs Training Institute, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Postal Service.
Masaai overlooking the Rift Valley, Kenya
What would you like to do or work on in the future?
I want to pull the 100 Supercrat episodes into book form, and do the same with selected Kiljoy cartoons among the 3000 that I have published. I also want to compile the 90 Zimbabwe cartoons into a special book with commentary—-I’d like commentary in all the books, actually. I would like to compile similar books with combat art and the stories behind the paintings to cover wars in Indochina, Central America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Cold War. Along with that, I am trying to complete, one-by-one, several manuscripts I started over the years but never had time to finish and edit.
Do you paint from photographs? I’m specifically thinking of your Africa and Haiti paintings.
Depending on the medium, activity, time available, movement, and subject, I use a combination of sketches, photographs, or time-on-target to produce paintings. Sketches I do in a Moleskine sketch or watercolor book like the old-timey explorers, and I fill up a half to a full book on trips, depending on the length. If I have time to do a fairly detailed watercolor, I sometimes let them be the final painting. More often than not, however, I take photographs either to augment my sketches or count as the basic reference material. Usually rapid actions like wars, human activities, and history in the making happen so quickly that one doesn’t have time to paint en plein air. Birds flit around too fast and too much to capture them in painting, but for some animals, like the Steller sea lions (above), I’ll do a quick gesture sketch, backed by photos, and fill in the sketch later from memory or with the aid of the photos.
During Desert Storm, I produced a painting of fighter jets launching off of the USS Ranger, but there is no way can you set up an easel on the deck of a carrier, so I snapped a series of photos and used those. Same thing with the last engagement of a battleship, the USS Wisconsin in the 20th century. It was midnight and I was allowed out on the superstructure as the guns opened fire on Kuwait City coastal defenses by the Iraqi Army. The blinding flash of the 16-inch guns and the shock waves made it impossible to sketch and nearly impossible to photograph, but I managed, and produced a painting of that episode back in my studio later on.
Landscapes are about the only subject that allows one to start and at least partially complete a painting on site, but doing partials or sketches is always fun. Once, on a safari, the batteries in my camera ran out of juice, and I was forced to sketch a herd of rhinos, kudu, marabou storks, and some scenery as we rambled around the countryside.
Tell us more about joining the combat art program.
After Vietnam, the Navy and Marines closed down their combat art programs, but still had an art gallery at the Navy Yard. From 1969 to 1990, I had produced about 100 paintings from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Western Sahara, Beirut, Panama, El Salvador, Sudan, and other locales, and was invited to display them at the CIA headquarters exhibition hall. My show opened in August 1990, just as Saddam invaded Kuwait. I was a Navy Reserve commander at the time and invited the art curators for the Navy and Marine Combat Art galleries to see the exhibit and consider bringing me back on active duty as a wartime artist. After getting the appropriate machinery underway, I was called three months later in December and asked if I wanted to “crawl around in the desert with my crayons.” I said yes, and was recalled to active duty for a year as an official US Navy combat artist. I was pretty much on my own in the desert, covering Navy, Marine, Army, Air Force, and Coalition Forces during the entire 47 days of the war. After the ceasefire, I returned home to Arlington and produced 35 paintings for the Navy’s Desert Storm collection, based on sketches and 4000 photos I took in the war theater.
What do you do when you’re in a rut or have writer’s block?
In terms of drawing or writing, I just sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and let the paper and my fingers take the lead, with my brain tagging along behind. Sometimes, for the cartoon strips, I would doodle a bit, or open a page in the dictionary and go down a list a words until something odd, ironic, funny, or moronic would start my imagination rolling. It’s also amazing how many times after I started drawing that the strip itself seemed to just take on a life of its own and head in its own direction. That may sound squirrely to non-artists, but cartoonists will know what I mean.
What do you think will be the future of your field?
I think cartooning will shift largely from the printed pages of magazines, newspapers, and comic books or graphic novels to online venues, gaming, and digital media. Old-fashioned cartooning won’t disappear, but it will diminish as more artists are sucked into the vortex of digital animation, storyboards, and industrial-level cartooning that relies more on computers than the artist’s innate natural talents and drawing skills.
What local cons do you attend?
I’ve attended the annual Cartoons and Cocktails charity auction at the National Press Club each October, and had been active in JEA, AAEC, and NCS activities until my more recent wartime and peacekeeping duties in the post-9/11 world occupied too much of my time and sent me overseas for the better part of the last decade.
Lady in Hat, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
You were instrumental in bringing the work of Cuban cartoonists to Washington for Cartoons & Cocktails. I remember it fondly. Are you still in touch with Garrincha (Gustavo Rodriguez), who is now in the United States permanently?
After I visited Cuba five times in 1998-2001 on my own as a cartoonist and freelance journalist and took 18 U.S. cartoonists with me on my second trip, we got to know just about every cartoonist on the island, and they were funny, talented, and open. When I told them about the charity auction for young D.C. student journalists and cartoonists, about 15 of them immediately volunteered original cartoons for me to take back to the National Press Club for the auction. They asked nothing in return except our friendship. One of the lead cartoonists, Garrincha, came along with me, as I was able to vouch for him and get him a tourist visa, and he gave a presentation at the Newseum.
Garrincha went back to Cuba and won an immigrant visa in the consulate lottery, but the consul refused to give it to him because he had drawn “anti-U.S. government” cartoons for Rebelde. When I heard about that, I pointed out to the consul that most of the U.S. cartoonists draw “anti-U.S. government” cartoons, including me. Garrincha had an exhibit in Mexico, traveled there with his wife, crossed the border into California, requested asylum, and is now a U.S. citizen drawing cartoons in Miami.
Beirut Hostage William (Bill) Buckley, kidnapped March 1984, killed June 1985 by Islamic Jihad, Lebanon. Buckley was my close friend and mentor. I thwarted the first kidnap attempt against him before I was ordered back to Washington.
Got anything you can say about cartooning while working for the CIA?
When I worked for the agency, I was frequently called upon to use my cartooning skills during the Cold War with the communists. Beyond that, I can’t say any more without going through the publication review board process.
What’s your favorite thing about D.C.?
The wealth of things to do and the proximity we have to historical cities, sites, and the natural settings of the surrounding countrysides. D.C. has diversity and a bit of southern charm without the congestion of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
People who make their career advancements their mission in life, rather than devoting their careers to service the people and missions they are supposed to honor.
How about a favorite local restaurant?
And as a special exclusive: The Return of Supercrat premieres here.
The above “episode” was drawn for a return of Supercrat in State Magazine scheduled to appear starting in September 2014 and run for a year. The editors later said the current cartoonist (who took over from me when I first retired in 1994) had some additional cartoons of his own to run, so I am still waiting for it to start.