Rex Babin, staff cartoonist for the Sacramento (CA) Bee and recent past-president of the
Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, passed away early on the morning of Friday,
March 30, following a long battle with cancer. He leaves behind his wife Kathleen and his
10-year-old son Sebastian.
During his quarter-century of involvement with the association, Rex was one of its most
devoted and hard-working members. His humor and restless pursuit of stylistic
development made him a pleasure to be around and an inspiration to his colleagues.
Jack Ohman, staff cartoonist for The Portland Oregonian, was a close friend of Rex's and
wrote the following tribute.
Tribute to Rex Babin
by Jack Ohman
The death of Rex Babin has hit our now-miniscule cartooning family very hard, harder than anything we thought we might be prepared for. This magnificent man, this vital athlete, this superb artist and thinker, has left an intellectual and emotional void in the community we love.
I first met Rex at the AAEC Washington convention in 1987; he was 24, and me, at 26,utterly detested for having the MacNelly client list handed to me in a silver chalice in 1981. It was my first, nervous convention, and his. Rex came to greet me, along with many others who weren’t, you know, bastards.
Rex had the soul of a polymath. Everything fascinated him. Further, no one thought himself more integral to the success of his newspaper—not his career—than Rex. Rex preached local cartoons, and I doubt he could have had any more influence in California politics than he had. While privately delighted at the attention, he would have snorted at the tributes, which were along the lines of “them damned pitchers.”
Sometimes, Rex fussed over the things we all from time to time have fussed about. Ultimately, the gifts we sought in our careers either seemed hollow or a fluke. The gift Rex took was the gift we should all share: the love of craft, and the perpetual desire to improve. He would also say the love of his peers, which is like being in the coolest club in the United States. Cartoonists know they have instant B&Bs from coast-to-coast. No reservations.
Rex was always trying new pens, new paper, new computer programs, new gadgets, and seeking new influences—writers, painters, architects, sculptors, instead of bogging down in the usual mire of our trade. If you knew Rex, you also knew that he loved nothing better to have a microscopic conversation about line quality or lettering. One day, in the hundreds of days we spoke on the phone—blunt, profane, whiny, raucous conversations—he asked how I was. I replied, “Ink drag.” Then he was off on a soliloquy about how letting the top off on ink bottle for a few days was a science: new ink, too light, man…but slightly aged, goopy ink could create a line to die for.
But if it was too exposed to the air: Ink drag. Bad.
Other days, we may have greeted each other with an impression of an air traffic controller conversation: “United 228 Heavy hold at six thousand, clear runway 6-L, uh, thank you sir.” Other times, he may have just said, “Hey F***er.” And I knew he was referring to me.
To us it was a warm up to a chat about…anything. Which lasted for hours. Sometimes he would call, usually on Friday afternoon as I was about to pass a watermelon covered in broken beer bottles on deadline, and simply say, “Scratchin’?”
Yep. You? Yep. We would describe our respective ideas, which I hated, because mine sometimes were not reduceable to a set-up/punchline. But, neither were his. Except one time, late in the 2010 California governor’s race, I called him after Meg Whitman was described as a “whore” by a Brown adviser. I said, here’s your idea: two guys in front of the statehouse, and the one guy says, “Who’re you voting for?” He drew it. It ran.My finest moment. He was lionized for his “Hands of God” cartoon about the Sullenberger Hudson River miracle. He was prouder of how well he drew the hands and the plane. Later, I would say, oh, just draw the Hands of God holding Gingrich or whatever. He had a crooked smile that migrated up the left side of face, and he would say, screw you. He knew his cartoon was amazing.
Rex’s cartoons sometimes were so different that I would wonder how the hell he got there. While I was dutifully executing a candidate standing at a lectern (boring, tedious), he might be meticulously rendering a 1700s Parisian street scene as a metaphor for the California budget. Oh, and there was a perfect Gov. Ahnolt in the frame. Sometimes I would just want to quit after seeing one. If Rex drew a cabinet, he would go into a furniture design book and faithfully draw a Stickley cabinet. Or an 18th Century French cabinet. Whatever he wanted.
He made me work harder because I knew he was working harder. He would casually (uh huh) mention he was drawing the South Front of the U.S. Capitol Building. That was my cue to try to draw the South Front of the U.S. Capitol Building. And so on.
He called me around Christmas 2010 and told me that he had cancer. Stage IV. Inoperable. He wasn’t falsely optimistic. I burst into tears on the phone. He said, “Stop it, goddamn it. I’m up for a fight.”
I called him about 2-4 times a week, usually at 9:15 pm. His treatment was discussed. Cartoon gossip was exchanged. Finally, he tired of discussing the various shortcomings of selected peers (discussed clinically), and so did I. What’s the point?
As we parted on the phone, he would say, “Well, I love you.” I would say it, too, even as my Minnesota frozen wingnut seemed static, frosty, immobile.
Toward the end, a few weeks ago, he said something fearful. I would listen for awhile. Then I would say, “Jesus, Rex, this isn’t Brian’s Song yet.”
“OK, Magic,” he said.
Well. I love you, too.
And I’ll never see 9:15 pm again without seeing your face.
Sacramento Bee gallery of Rex Babin's best cartoons: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/03/30/4379573/rex-babins-favorite-cartoons.html Rex's archive on editorialcartoonsists.com: http://editorialcartoonists.com/cartoon/display.cfm/108674/ Sacramento Bee story about Rex: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/03/31/4380418/rex-babin-sacramento-bee-editorial.html Albany Times-Union story about Rex: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Cartoonist-s-talents-recalled-3447888.php