Bruce Tinsley hesitates to tell how he dreamed up the idea of his born-again (or hatched-again), politically conservative cartoon duck. He fears that folks will think he's spinning a bald-faced yarn. "It's so politically correct," he says of the origins of Mallard Fillmore. "It's too perfect."
But he tells the tale anyway. Mr. Tinsley's bosses at the newspaper where he once worked had asked the artist to design a mascot for their weekend entertainment section. Mr. Tinsley's first idea was a blue hippopotamus. "The managing editor and the executive editor said they couldn't believe I submitted a drawing like that," Mr. Tinsley recalls. "It would offend fat women. My hippopotamus was appropriately gender neutral. I don't know why they came up with fat women as opposed to fat people."
So he submitted his next idea, which was, by his description, "a huge nose in a tuxedo."
"I thought this would be perfect because he was dressed up, a tux on, a top hat and a cane. That was immediately shot down, too, because they said a big nose would offend Jews and people of Mediterranean descent. The second thing they said was that noses in the '90s were associated with cocaine."
His third submission was a duck. "The duck won by default," Tinsley says. "It didn't offend anybody, although the executive editor did wonder if the duck shouldn't be wearing pants."
If Mallard didn't offend anyone at first, it wasn't long before his webbed feet were stepping all over liberal toes. Mallard the Mascot had become Mallard the cartoon, and Mr. Tinsley's new publisher and new editor asked him to pipe down his conservative voice. He refused. They fired him. "The publisher made no bones about it. He said, 'You're too conservative for us. We're more liberal than your old editor and publisher.' I'm not sure how that was possible. Maybe they were just less tolerant."
Mallard Fillmore, a conservative TV reporter employed by liberal bosses and working with an air-head anchor (Mallard might say that's redundant), is the conservative answer to Doonesbury. Indeed, many newspapers now run Doonesbury on the left-hand side of their editorial page, butting (that's an appropriate verb) Mallard up against Zonker and Co. on the right-hand side. While nothing is off limits, Mallard consistently skewers all matters liberal, from Bill Clinton to the news media with a few jibes at talk-show host Jerry Springer thrown in for fun.
Mallard is so conservative that occasionally he is tossed out of one of the more than 400 newspapers that carry him, in much the same way that Rush Limbaugh might be kicked out of NPR's Christmas party. That's when Mr. Tinsley finds out the size of his following. (Mr. Limbaugh, by the way, is a fan and occasionally reads aloud a Mallard strip on his daily program.)
In Colorado, for instance, The Denver Post's editorial page editor didn't care for Mallard's politics and yanked the cartoon. Mr. Tinsley's two-week series about Teddy Kennedy and Bill Clinton on spring break in Florida was the final provocation. It went beyond the pale of good taste, says Sue O'Brien, who rues the decision. "All I can say is we tried to stop running Mallard," says Ms. O'Brien, pain still evident in her voice. "We got absolutely clobbered. He has more dedicated fans out there than you would believe."
The clobbering was sufficient to convince Post Editor Dennis Britton not only to reinstate the duck, but to do so with a signed, front-page, top-of-the-fold explanation. "Mallard Fillmore, whether Sue and I think he's mean-spirited or not, has a flock of fans, many of whom chided us for being thin-skinned and narrow-minded," Mr. Britton wrote. "Clearly, we are both on occasion.... Most of you told us to lighten up, not to censor, to give the 'other side' a voice, to honor the First Amendment.... We think you made excellent points.... The Duck Flies Again."
With the occasional pulling of his strip, Mr. Tinsley joins the likes of fellow Christian cartoonist Johnny Hart, whose Christmas and Easter cartoons are routinely censored by the Los Angeles Times. And like Mr. Hart, Mr. Tinsley uses those holidays to openly proclaim his faith.
Mr. Tinsley, like his Denver fans, is appalled at the sensitivity of the keepers of the First Amendment. "I have newspaper editors who will say, 'I can't stand Mallard Fillmore, but we publish it because we think it lends balance to our page.' And then again, I have other newspaper editors who say, 'It makes too much fun of the media. Why am I going to publish something that makes fun of journalism?' I can't believe how thin-skinned they are."
Mr. Tinsley, who grew up in Louisville, Ky. (where the newspaper does not publish the work of its native son), discovered "early on" his interest in art. "As a matter of fact," he says, "probably too early on. It really kept me from doing things like taking notes in class and paying attention. I was always doodling and getting in trouble for it."
At home, the environment was conservative and informed. His parents discussed politics, read the newspaper aloud at night, and usually watched the evening newscasts. In high school, he found a stark contrast between his teachers' views and those of his parents. "I think in a lot of ways what kind of solidified my conservatism was my perception that all the opinion leaders for future generations were really liberal. There were very few exceptions. Going to high school and college at the time I did, and then working for newspapers from the time I was a senior in high school and on through college, would either make someone an arch-liberal or conservative."
From the beginning of his career, Mr. Tinsley noted the lack of balance in newsrooms, and the need for a strong conservative voice. Once he created Mallard and imbued him with decidedly conservative (Mallard would say common-sense) philosophies, Mr. Tinsley and Mallard found themselves the victims of that imbalance. Mallard, however, was not duck soup. Mr. Tinsley had done some work for The Washington Times, where the editors liked Mallard and published a few strips. From there, King Features called and Mallard was airborne.
As the counterweight to Doonesbury, Mr. Tinsley ridicules everything from condom distribution in schools to the NEA. And while Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau occasionally belittles religion, or at least its practitioners, Mallard represents Mr. Tinsley's own efforts to live out his faith. "As far as it relates to my strip, I don't want to be too narrow doctrinally," he says. "But at the same time, I don't want to come out there and do something that's so ecumenical and inclusive that it's the spiritual version of the Republican Convention last August that says nothing. I respect people of other faiths, but on the other hand, I'm a Christian, and I hope it informs, every day, the strip I do. Mallard can be a pretty grumpy, misanthropic kind of guy, but I shudder to think how he would be if the strip were not to some degree informed by my Christian faith.
"Mallard typifies the spiritual struggle that I have all the time. By my human nature, I don't much want to be the kind of person that Jesus expects us to be. I'm constantly amazed by God's grace and by the expectations we're expected to live up to. In the strip, Mallard kind of has that approach. He's Everyman in the sense that he really is disinclined to live the kind of life that Christians are supposed to live, and he has to overcome that, just kind of his natural human frailty."
Mr. Tinsley was raised a Presbyterian but joined a Baptist church when he was 16. He did not have a dramatic moment of conversion, but came to believe in Christ as his understanding unfolded. "None of the important moments in my life, like falling in love with my wife, have happened suddenly," he says. Mr. Tinsley and his wife, Arlette (who is expecting the couple's first child in November), are new to their town in Indiana and have not yet settled on a church there.
Conservatives are the iconoclasts of this generation, he contends, tilting at the liberal status quo, railing at the hypocrisies and pointing out the flawed thinking and theology of the Flower Children Who Are Now In Charge. "There's that strain that associates liberalism with the wonderful things about Christianity, associates liberalism with compassion, with charity and with concern for our fellow man," Mr. Tinsley says. "But quite frankly what I see from many liberals is a sort of trading of a personal conscience and personal sense of charity and compassion for what in the '60s and '70s was called a social conscience. Sort of like, I will turn those aspects of my life over to the government to manage. It'll make me feel less guilty if instead of giving to charity myself, or doing work for charity, or having compassion on my fellow man, if I just force somebody else to pay lots of taxes to salve my conscience."
His most controversial storylines were the Kennedy-Clinton spring-break trip in 1996, and the 1994 series on the anniversary of Woodstock. "Essentially I was making fun of this bunch of aging hippies who now are either burned out, living in an attic somewhere with cats, or else they're people who are the editors and publishers of newspapers and professors at universities. I got a lot of really angry mail about that."
He also learned about the power of local teachers unions when he published a two-week story about homeschooling, which praised home education while belittling public schools. Several newspapers dropped the strip, some under pressure from teachers.
While Mallard has his cantankerous critics, he also has some high-profile fans, like Judge Lance Ito, who requested an original cartoon Mr. Tinsley had drawn of him. And Sen. Jesse Helms loved a cartoon in which he made fun of the senator from North Carolina. "I don't get that from liberals. Maybe conservatives are more tolerant of that kind of thing."
The marketplace of ideas needs more strips like Mallard, Mr. Tinsley says, and more conservative columnists, and stories written from a wider range of viewpoints. "I don't believe in the idea of objectivity as an attainable goal. I think the best we can hope for is lots of different subjective points of view from which a reader can draw his or her own opinion."
He has published two collections of Mallard Fillmore strips, and awaits the arrival of the Mallard Fillmore doll. "I'm not like Bill Waterson," Mr. Tinsley says of the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. "I don't have any ethical problems with making a lot of money off of those kind of things."
As for any similarities between Mr. Tinsley and his duck, they are not hard to spot. "Mallard is pretty close to me," he says. "I'm a little taller."