JD Crowe grew up on a farm in Kentucky, drew on the backs of paper grocery bags, shined his father’s shoes before church on Sunday mornings, and played with pigs. The class clown who loves to make people laugh now lives in Fairhope and is the statewide editorial cartoonist for Alabama Media Group. He recently released his first book, Half-thunk Thoughts and Half-fast Drawings.
“We didn’t have a lot of toys but we had hard apples from a gnarly tree,” Crowe says. “I threw them as hard as I could at the pig that was pushing and shoving and not letting the other pigs eat. I still like to watch pigs eat, but today we call them politicians. Instead of a hard apple, I throw a cartoon and on a good day I like to think I can hear the politician squeal in the distance.”
By the age of two, Crowe drew Roy Rogers and Trigger better than he could say their names. His mother lay grocery sacks on the floor and for hours he would hours draw pigs, horses, cowboys and Indians. “I never knew where my mom was in the house, but I would hold up my pencil and she would come swooping in, sharpen a real nice pencil, and then she was gone,” he says.
Crowe’s ideas became family entertainment. “I was his audience and I played with his imagination,” says younger sister Donna Crowe. “I believed him when he told me our parents were abducted by aliens and replaced with robots. He had an imaginary friend, BoyGuy, who was a victim of a plane that crashed in our pig lot, and BoyGuy lived with the pigs after that. JD always wanted to feed the pigs so he could visit BoyGuy. Sometimes BoyGuy instigated things that we shouldn’t have done.
“JD grew up honing his talents and this is what he always wanted to do,” she says. “He spent his whole life learning how to say a thousand words in one picture.”
Crowe drew cartoons for the college newspaper at Eastern Kentucky University and majored in commercial design to be a fine arts painter. “I drew cartoons that made fun of the school president and I started to get a little reputation,” he says. “It was the early ‘80s and no one was getting a job after graduation, so that took the pressure off of me and I could be a painter of dark images. My dream of being a disturbing artist was killed when the Fort Worth Star Telegram hired me to be a staff artist, so I got to be another kind of disturbed artist.”
Crowe moved from Texas to San Diego, California to draw cartoons for the Tribune and Copley News Service. He later became a freelance cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Examiner, and San Diego Reader. He was hired as the daily editorial cartoonist for the Mobile Press Register in 2000, and has been the statewide cartoonist for Alabama Media Group the past two years.
“I always try to insert the things that I have grown up with into my cartoons and personalize them with a little bit of me,” he says. “When I worked in San Diego, I got in trouble for using the vernacular from the farm and my editor told me that a lot of readers didn’t know what I was talking about. I had to get back to the South where I could be me.”
Crowe looks like a taller version of his late mother but he has the presence of his late father, a Baptist preacher. “We were raised in a house with a strong sense of what’s right and wrong and our parents were always fair-minded,” says Donna Crow. “We lived in a poor community and they preached to us that everyone is equal, take care of the underdog, and share what you have.
“Every Sunday we went to church, then visited shut-ins in hospitals,” she says. “We went to a lot of funerals and JD kept me entertained while we were supposed to be on our best behavior. Our mother was also a practical joker and he took after her, so everything is funny. The thought of growing up to be a preacher scared him to death.”
A full-time cartoonist for 30 years, Crowe mixes silly with deep and poignant, often speaking out against intolerance and injustice. His cartoons hang in frames in Senate offices in Washington D.C., and stir angry calls and letters to newspaper editors. “Any given day there are several topics that could be covered and I have to find the angle, the entry way in,” he says. “Sometimes I go for the guffaw and other times I go for the punch in the gut. Usually it is how I react to it and I try to get a feel for what is important to my readers.
“A really good cartoon, even if it is outlandish, has a nugget of truth,” he says. “It expresses the truth in such a way that people pay attention and maybe pull back some layers to get to the heart of the issue. Sometimes I will just throw an image out there that can be interpreted in different ways to make people think. Sometimes it is a sledgehammer, sometimes it is a scalpel.”
“JD absorbs the day and puts it on paper,” says Fairhope artist Bruce Larsen. “He speaks out and there is so much to speak out about around here. He is a gentle soul with a demeanor like Abraham Lincoln, but he has a fertile mind and what comes out of his mouth is hilarious.”
Each cartoon begins with a daily search of national, state, and local news. “Once I get an idea, I have to find the angle,” he says. “Is this going to be fair? Is this going to be balanced? Is this going to be in good taste? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then I need to throw it in the trash and start over.”
The recent Alabama court ruling in favor of gay marriage was the subject of several cartoons. “The cartoon of giving the wedding-band finger was just funny and it seemed natural. I didn’t mean for it to be so provocative but some readers see the words gay marriage and they feel like you are giving them the finger. You are never going to win on guns, gay marriage, abortion, or the Middle East. However, my life is threatened more if I draw a funny picture or something about Alabama football coach Nick Saban than drawing a provoking picture of Muhammad or ISIS.”
“If you’re an elected official in Alabama, you’re nobody until you’ve had your likeness drawn by JD Crowe,” says George Talbot, spokesman for the City of Mobile and Crowe’s former colleague at the Mobile Press-Register. “And for most politicians, one cartoon is usually strong enough medicine to cure them of wanting to be depicted ever again. JD’s talent as a humorist makes him a true Mobile treasure and I look forward to seeing his artwork for many years to come – just as long as he ain’t drawing the mayor.”
Some of Crowe’s best cartoons don’t need captions. A Father’s Day drawing of skinny legs in white socks and rolled up blue jeans walking in the shiny, laced-up brown leather shoes of a man was personal. “When I was a kid, I shined the family’s shoes on Sunday morning and I always saved my dad’s for last because that was game time. I tried to walk around in his shoes and act like I was him,” Crowe says. “This cartoon was symbolic because he was such a good guy and I have always felt like I am trying to fill his shoes. I went back to the past to capture my feelings. So many people share similar memories of their own father.”
Crowe draws his cartoons on a Wacom tablet and the images appear on his computer screen. He uses muted colors to set the mood of the image. “It took me a while to adjust to color because I prefer black and white,” he says. “Sometimes color cheapens the drawing.” Crowe still fills pages of his sketchpad with scribbled cartoons and fragmented captions. “Thoughts are like birds. They fly into your windowpane every now and then and you have to jot them down or they fly off.”
Online news pushed Crowe into writing columns, tweeting, shooting short videos, and posting and interacting on social media. “In a time when many cartoonists have been laid off from newspapers, I am trying to be more agile but it gets overwhelming choosing which issues I cover through editorial, essay or video,” he says. “What can I do differently that I haven’t done before? Cartoonists have to be edgier to compete with political comedy shows like ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart. I have learned to write in a hurry and the piece is done when I have to stop and move on to the next one. I should just let it go, but as soon as I press ‘publish,’ the reactions come immediately.”
He uses Twitter to write his random thoughts in 140 characters with lines such as: “A cartoonist should be obscene and not heard;” “Stop faking sense;” and “I fear I am not as paranoid as I should be.” He added pictures to the tweets and published them in Half-thunk Thoughts and Half-fast Drawings.
Using comedy to keep audience attention at Rotary Club speeches led to stand-up comedy. “Rotary Clubs are used to being bored to death, so I learned what would make them laugh and how to read the personality of a crowd,” he says. “I am still in the novice stage and I stick to things I know– current events, Mardi Gras, and redneck jokes. I try to write something new each time and it takes time to do it right. I always have an exit strategy because I am a lot better at standing up than I am at comedy.”
Crowe is adapting to the changes in digital age journalism and finding new ways to express himself. “I am expanding the brand from cartoonist into humorist and I want to write memoirs,” he says. “There are other ways to speak my mind and use more of my voice. Whether it is writing, drawing, speaking, doing stand-up comedy, or just being an idiot, I want to create something worthwhile. My biggest pleasure is finding humor in life and making people laugh.”
“I live in JD’s neighborhood, and I see him from time to time when I am walking my dog or shopping in Fairhope. He is the most popular man in town. Every time he stops to speak to me, a crowd of admirers forms around him. I think if he decided to run for Mayor of Fairhope, JD would win. And then he would have to draw himself.”
Uncle Henry Pennington, Radio Host on NewsRadio 7103