12/22/21 (the last pallindrome-as-date we’ll ever see)
Cannabis clinicians might want to steer patients to Mary Ladd’s “The Wig Diaries,” a bittersweet book about dealing with cancer that Don Asmussen illustrated in 2019. Asmussen, whose “Bad Reporter” cartoons ran in the San Francisco Chronicle and were syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate, died December 9 at the age of 59. What a loss!
In the summer of 1996, when Attorney General Dan Lungren urged California newspaper publishers to spike a week of Doonesbury cartoons in which Garry Trudeau defended the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club’s right to exist, Asmussen weighed in with strips of his own.
Maybe because what they produce are “merely” comics, not “serious” journalism, some great cartoonists are allowed to depict social reality in the corporate media. Does any journalist with a mass audience describe our nation’s breakdown more reliably than Doonesbury? Is there a series on TV that cuts closer to the bone than The Simpsons?
Asmussen’s cartoons stopped running regularly a few years ago when the cancer he was supposedly free of reappeared in his brain. His sense of humor was unique —brilliance disguised as silliness. He claimed to be exposing “the LIES behind the TRUTH, and the TRUTH behind those LIES that are behind that TRUTH.” And he lived up to his claim.
Asmussen came from Rhode Island. He began his career Back East working for an ad agency as a graphic artist and lay-out specialist. In 1995, after brief stints cartooning at newspapers in Detroit, Portland and San Diego, he went to work for the San Francisco Examiner. The Ex was then owned by the Hearst family and edited by Phil Bronstein, who appreciated Asmussen and would elevate his exposure. The Ex was editorially supportive of the Democratic Party establishment led by Sen. Diane Feinstein and Mayor Willie Brown. In 2000—while the Ex and the SF Chronicle were undergoing a bizarre merger— these powerful politicians were trying to orchestrate a recall of District Attorney Terence Hallinan. Bronstein kept running hit pieces portraying Hallinan as soft-on-crime. Hallinan was surprised by the fierceness of the animosity coming from Brown, whom he regarded as an old friend. He mentioned to a reporter that he wished he and the mayor could “break bread and talk things through.” This inspired an Asmussen cartoon that ridiculed his own newspaper’s —and his own boss’s— efforts to remove Hallinan from office.
Asmussen’s cartoon broke the momentum of the Chronicle’s Get-Kayo campaign and Hallinan and his press secretary (your correspondent) breathed a sigh of relief. I called Asmussen to thank him for the unsolicited help and express my admiration. He had a thing about the band called Bread, whose big hit was a sappy song called “I want to make it with you.” I told him that whenever it came in the radio I made a mad reach for the knob and twirled it to anywhere else on the dial. He sent me a signed color print of the four-cartoon series which I’m looking at right now on a nearby wall.
Although some of Asmussen’s drawings seem childlike and crude, that was intentional. He was a technically skilled artist capable of subtle, revealing caricatures. Here’s one he did to accompany a Matier & Ross story about tension between two of Hallinan’;s Assistant DAs, Kimberly Guilfoyle and Kamala Harris.
In a heartfelt obituary, Asmussen’s colleague Peter Hartlaub wrote, “The cancer returned in 2018, including a tumor in his brain. I thought it must be bad, not because he talked about it, but because he kept playing David Bowie’s final album-before-death ‘Blackstar’ on repeat while he continued to work as hard as ever… The funny never waned. Asmussen made some of his best work late that year, finding laughs in everything from the ubiquitous Shen Yun performing arts exhibition to the growing garbage patch in the Pacific; humor that continued up until days before a very risky surgery at the end of 2018.”
Mary Ladd’s book about cancer from the patient’s POV, “The Wig Diaries,”can be ordered here.