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Roy Peterson was awarded the Order of Canada in 2004. (Ian Smith/Vancouver Sun)
Roy Peterson was awarded the Order of Canada in 2004. (Ian Smith/Vancouver Sun)

Editorial cartoonist Roy Peterson fought his battles with ink Add to ...

The last cartoon Roy Peterson ever drew for the Vancouver Sun was the first Peterson cartoon the newspaper spiked.

It was 2009, and Mr. Peterson had just been laid off as part of a broader cost-cutting initiative at the paper, despite his standing as one of the most influential editorial cartoonists in North America. After decades of skewering powerful politicians and corporate wrongdoers, Mr. Peterson turned his pen on his own newspaper.

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His final cartoon depicted him as an old man carrying a newspaper with the headline “Newspaper terminates editorial cartoonist.” He’s about to step into an open manhole, and a sandwich board hanging over his shoulders reads “The End is nigh!”

The cartoon didn’t make print, but did win the Golden Spike award at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists’ annual conference, an honour bestowed upon the best cartoon killed by an editor. Over the course of his career, Mr. Peterson won a record seven National Newspaper Awards and was granted the Order of Canada, but having his bitter parting shot acknowledged by his fellow cartoonists became an instant career highlight.

“I was sitting next to him at the presentation,” says Bob Krieger, who spent 29 years as a cartoonist at the rival Vancouver Province. “He told me he was prouder of the Golden Spike than any of his other honours.”

Mr. Peterson, 77, died in hospital on Sept. 30 after suffering a heart attack at his Vancouver home. His wife, Margaret, died in 2003. He leaves his children, Lawrence, Gillian, Lisa, Karen and Geoffrey, and nine grandchildren.

His kids benefited greatly from having an artistic father – every Halloween they would leave the house wearing intricate, homemade felt costumes that were the envy of children across the city.

Family and friends say he was devastated when he lost his wife. He told his children he put a picture of her in his shirt pocket – facing out – when he was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2004, so “when Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson put that medal around my neck, your mom was the first to see it.”

Mr. Peterson’s work first appeared in the Vancouver Sun in 1962. He also illustrated Allan Fotheringham’s back-page column in Maclean’s in a working partnership with the writer that lasted nearly three decades. His style was meticulous and relied heavily on cross-hatching, a form of shading that requires tight attention and an astounding amount of patience. It allows for a stunning depth of detail – his cartoons resembled the images found on currency more than those seen on the funny pages.

“He was a polished craftsman,” said Globe and Mail cartoonist Brian Gable. “… Cross-hatching is kind of disappearing because anyone can do a gradient in Photoshop, but a huge number of young cartoonists saw what he was doing and said they wanted to draw like that.”

Mr. Peterson was born Sept. 14, 1936, in Winnipeg, and graduated from Vancouver’s Kitsilano Secondary School before moving on to the Vancouver School of Art. He took a job putting together window displays for department stores while attending school, and started sending cartoons to small newspapers in northern British Columbia as he tried to break into the industry. Using the mail to solicit feedback was nothing new – as a child he would send his sketches to his older brothers.

Mr. Peterson’s children said their father was drawn to cartooning with the most serious of intentions. His three brothers fought in the Second World War, two of them dying as their planes were shot down. He was determined to hold power to account through his cartoons. He told his children he felt it important to take on “subjects who could fight back,” including Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, Stephen Harper and Vladimir Putin. He also took aim at broader subjects such as Muslim fundamentalism and the bankers who threatened global financial security.

“I’m fighting for what I think is right with pen and ink,” he told his children.

A serious presence who defied the zany-cartoonist stereotype, Mr. Peterson helped mould the careers of dozens of others who sought him out for advice and guidance. Then – like now – most of the country’s cartoonists worked in isolation as the only cartoonists on staff at their newspapers. He helped found the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists so they could share their stories and enhance their skills, breaking down the competitive walls that left them working by themselves.

“He was a surprisingly decent guy for a cartoonist who was known to be slightly irreverent and bordering on evil,” said Terry Mosher, an editorial cartoonist at the Montreal Gazette who draws under the name Aislin. “When I was starting out, cartoonists didn’t want anything to do with me here in Montreal. I spoke to him – he created a lot of time for me.”

Mr. Peterson’s graciousness has come to be a key trait of Canada’s cartooning trade, even as the number of staff cartoonists drops to around 25 across the country from an estimated 150 when he started out. Younger cartoonists are now more likely to sell their work on a freelance basis, and many are sidestepping newspapers altogether to sell their drawings onlineto a wider audience.

“We’re going through a tough time adapting to the Internet like everyone else,” said Mr. Mosher. “But because of Roy, you’ll find the top talent in this country is very accommodating – we’ll welcome just about anybody because we feel they should be encouraged.”

Mr. Krieger is one of those who sought out Mr. Peterson early in his career. He had just been hired at the Vancouver Province to fill a cartooning job vacated by Mr. Peterson 20 years earlier, and “freaked out” when he got home and realized the challenge in front of him. He decided to call Mr. Peterson for advice, even though they had never met.

“I dialled and hung up 1,000 times,” he said of their first conversation in 1981. “He told me to come over, and the first thing he asked was how much they were paying me. I was too chicken to ask for more money, but I eventually got a raise. The point is he cared about the profession – he cared deeply about the next generation.He took care of us.”

Mr. Peterson also cared about the value of his work. Despite his long association with the Vancouver Sun, he worked on a contract basis for most of his career to allow himself more freedom to sell his work elsewhere. He joked with friends that when he died, he hoped it would be at his desk with his hand reaching out for the next paycheque. The Sun briefly considered publishing his final cartoon that had been spiked years earlier as part of its obituary following his death. But editors decided against it, which is perhaps for the best given how proud he was of his Golden Spike.

“He was like a school kid when he won that thing,” Mr. Krieger says.

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