Ideas are flighty creatures. To nab one before it gets away, cartoonist Bruce Tinsley will interrupt almost any activity. With half his face shaved and half still lathered, he'll forage in his bedroom for an old phone bill, then scribble down a quick note on global warming. He'll reach out of the bathtub and scrawl on a magazine cover some thought on big government. Over breakfast, he'll grab a napkin and jot down public-education gripes. When he's ready to draw his next Mallard Fillmore comic strip, Mr. Tinsley trots all over his house collecting the random notes.
Not exactly orthodox work habits-but then Mr. Tinsley's comic strip doesn't exactly fit today's newspaper orthodoxy. His hero, Mallard Fillmore-a duck employed as a Washington, D.C., television reporter-comments on current events from a conservative perspective. Not only does Mallard irritate his cartoon editors; he irks real ones, too: Three years ago, eight to 10 newspapers per month were kicking the politically incorrect bird off their pages ("I'll never duck a controversy," WORLD, July 26/Aug. 2, 1997). But today Mallard is swimming strong against the liberal media tide.
Now the duck loses only about one paper every two months, and even then regains his roost after a flock of reader complaints. The New York Post, for example, banished Mr. Tinsley's strip this spring, but revived it after a flood of protest. "I am always blown away by how Mallard readers respond," Mr. Tinsley told WORLD.
Mr. Tinsley hatched Mallard Fillmore in 1990 for The Daily Progress, a Charlottesville, Va., newspaper. The premise: Mallard is the only duck hired under affirmative action at an all-human, all-liberal television station. Week after week, the big-billed, fedora-wearing fowl spikes his reporting with a dose of sharp commentary on topics ranging from Dan Rather to school vouchers. But after only 14 weeks of Mallard's conservative quacking-including a particularly barbed strip that poked fun at the National Endowment for the Arts-Mr. Tinsley's editor fired him. The artist and his duck, Mr. Tinsley says, didn't fit the editor's liberal leanings.
But the pair fit well at The Washington Times where they landed nine months later. Then, in the spring of 1994, King Features Syndicate picked up the strip for national distribution. Mallard now appears in more than 450 newspapers and reaches more than 5 million readers.
Mr. Tinsley is a cartoonist second, and first a stay-home dad. He fathers Burke, 3, and Willa, 18 months, full-time at his lakeside home in Indiana. It is early morning, late night, or nap-time when he steals away to his loft office and the antique, wood-and-iron drafting table-a gift from an uncle-where he creates Mallard's adventures.
In his spare time, Mr. Tinsley mentors aspiring cartoonists at a nearby high school, and on Sundays he and his family attend a Methodist church. Mallard's creator struggles with feeling he is "not temperamentally suited" toward the stereotypical notion of Christians as kind, loving, peaceable folk, and is concerned about his daily witness. "My faith forces me, against my will, to step back from every cartoon that I draw and say, 'Bruce, you have told reporters that you believe in God and that you are a Christian. How will this strip affect people's view of Christianity?'"
Many people wish Mr. Tinsley would just quit. Hate mail scribbled in orange crayon or magic marker befouls his mailbox: "Somebody ought to make sure you don't write anymore cartoons." About one in five letters labels Mr. Tinsley a Nazi, a fascist, or some unprintable epithet. "I'm always shocked," he says, "by these compassionate liberals who wouldn't hurt a tree to save their own lives, yet can write such ugly, vitriolic things." He usually sifts through about 100 reader e-mails each week, but after a hot topic, he gets so many his e-mailbox crashes. More than 4,000 letters poured in, for example, after a strip this year on the Army's adoption of black berets.
Mallard Fillmore's controversial content has prompted many papers-though no one knows exactly how many-to carry the duck on editorial pages, instead of in the comics. Mr. Tinsley agrees that some of the strip's darker themes belong on editorial pages. "Even my conservative readers have said they don't like to be reading the comics to their grandson and come across something about condoms, abortion, or Monica Lewinsky. That is a legitimate objection."
Other objections are less so. "I'm often told I am a 'mean jerk,'" he laughs. "I often write those people back, and say, 'Imagine what a mean jerk I'd be if I wasn't a Christian.'"