Tom Toles, Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist and UB alum, comes to UB

UB’s Signature Series guest discusses his work, career and ‘secrets’


Tom Toles described his creative process as “working inside of a razor machine.” He said it’s like labor and it’s “a tricky recipe to pull off.” Even with this difficult process, Toles finds it to be rewarding and that it is a “good match” for him.

Toles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist and Spectrum alumnus, came to UB Thursday as the honored guest in UB’s fourth annual Signature Series. He held a gallery presentation of his work in Capen Hall Thursday afternoon and held what he called an “informal discussion,” called “Talking Toles,” in Slee Hall Thursday night, in which he touched on his cartoons, career and political commentary.

The cartoons showcased in the Kaveeshwar Gallery in Capen Hall showcased his work from his time as a student at The Spectrum to his currentcartoons at The Washington Post. The prints of Toles’ cartoons were produced on campus primarily by printmaking students in the Department of Art.

When Toles experienced “a painful ending” with the conclusion of his career at the Buffalo Courier-Express, he thought his career was over.

Toles said he’s always been an “odd duck” and a “bit of an eccentric” when it comes to his political cartoons, but little did he realize he would move on to become the editorial cartoonist of The Buffalo News and later The Washington Post.

Toles shared his “five secrets” of editorial cartooning. He said first secret is about learning how to draw, to which he showed a stick figure of his on the screen.

“That’s the key,” Toles said. “Wanting to draw cartoons is not learning how to draw exactly how things look – it’s learning to draw in a way that conveys something.”

Toles was also humorous. He began his talk by telling the audience the best advice he has read about public speaking is that “a public presentation should be like the act of making love,” as Greek philosopher, Cicero said.

Toles said a presentation should be parallel to that, where “you begin slowly, you establish the connection, you work your way up to a climax.” Toles said “the most interesting part” is that a presentation should take the same length. Toles thanked the audience and jokingly said he was ready to end his presentation to which the audience applauded and laughed.

But when it comes to political cartoons, Toles said being funny isn’t enough. He said it’s about knowing policy, politics and “communicating something that’s real.”

Toles said cartooning traditionally depends on “shared cultural references” and metaphors.

“It used to be people saw the same movies and the same books, and when you made references people would know them,” Toles said. “Culture is disaggregated now.”

Toles said he tends to draw cartoons about income, inequality and education. When it comes to religion, Toles said he tries to avoid cartooning it.

“It’s a different area of human experience,” Toles said. “When people use it as an excuse to introduce odious behavior in the political system, sometimes I make an exception.”

Toles admits he’s often cartooning Republicans because “they deserve it more,” although he said he doesn’t feel he can “do justice” to “the Donald Trump phenomenon.”

Toles showed a cartoon of his on “political correctness,” which he said he understands is a campus issue at UB and across the country as well as a pressing part of this year’s presidential race. He said many people say they’re “sick of political correctness.”

“I got sick of people saying they’re sick of political correctness,” Toles said.

Toles also addressed terrorism and censorship. He talked about the Charlie Hebdo attacks last year, in which a terror attack was made against a French newspaper after it published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Toles said the situation “really hit home” and it gave him a lot to think about. He immediately did a cartoon and he said his views on the matter are “complex.”

“While I do believe that free expression is something that is part of the human desire, I wanted to express it as something that is fragile too,” he said.

Toles gets inspired each morning by consuming as much news as possible, yet he tries to avoid looking at other cartoonists’ work. He said there have been times he doesn’t do a cartoon because he thought another cartoonist would create a cartoon on the same topic, but they never did.

Some UB students and people in attendance resonated with Toles’ gallery and presentation.

“I love his wit. He can be for or against things but yet he’s kind and funny. Some cartoonists are very sharp – he knows how to do his job in a kind way,” said Joan Kubiniec, a Buffalo resident.

Other people in attendance found Toles’ work to be a cause for debate. Jaganathan Raghupathy, a graduate student in the School of Management said a lot of Toles’ work “is completely emblematic of today’s governments” and that the work “always [causes] debate and discussion.”

Toles said he wants to help shape the future with his cartoons. He said he hopes to be a “conversational lubricant, to get people thinking [and] facilitate the opening of conversation.”

“I have an idea of what a better United States looks like, and I want to make that closer to real,” Toles said. “I’m not entirely sure that’s entirely my job definition, but what I fundamentally want to do is to help move the ball.”

Hannah Stein is the assistant news editor and can be reached at