Star-Bulletin cartoonist Corky Trinidad


POSTED: Friday, February 13, 2009

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s “Corky” Trinidad, whose editorial cartoons for 40 years recorded life and lampooned politics in Hawaii and the world, died at 2 a.m. on Feb. 13, 2009, of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 69.

In a 2001 interview, Trinidad predicted he’d die at his drawing table, spilling ink one last time.

“Corky was a Star-Bulletin treasure,” said Frank Bridgewater, editor. “Many people, everywhere, started their day by checking out Corky. Even people without Hawaii connections who didn’t understand some of his cartoons looked forward to them. When Corky went on leave, readers immediately began calling and e-mailing me from everywhere wanting to know, ‘Where’s Corky?’”

Trinidad had been on leave for several months, battling pancreatic cancer.

“Any Hawaii cartoonist works in Corky’s shadow; he’s the ultimate local cartoonist,” said former MidWeek cartoonist Daryl Cagle, who syndicates Corky’s work. “Most of us marvel at how Corky is so prolific, drawing a color cartoon for the front page and a black-and-white one for the editorial page—every day! It’s the feat of a super-cartoonist. Even with that crazy output, Corky keeps his quality up and is one of the best cartoonists anywhere.”

Trinidad was one of the last two cartoonists whose work appeared on the news pages of a daily newspaper, as opposed to only the editorial page, Cagle said. The other, Brian Duffy of the Des Moines Register, was recently laid off.;

“Corky enchanted and infuriated more readers than anyone else in the newspaper’s history—and they were often the same people,” said Mary Poole, Trinidad’s editor. “The politicians he skewered with his pen were often the first in line to acquire the original drawings, including most of the U.S. presidents who have passed through the islands.

“Every time a good story would break, I thought, ‘Oh, Corky will have fun with that.’ He gave us a gift every day, twice a day—once in the news section and once on the editorial page.”

Francisco Flores Trinidad Jr., was born May 26, 1939 in Manila, Philippines. He was the first Asian editorial cartoonist to be syndicated in the United States, appearing in publications as diverse as the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Time, Newsweek, Punch of London, Paris Herald Tribune, Politiken in Sweden, Buenos Aires Herald, Philippines Daily Journal and Manila Chronicle.

Video: SPJ president's tribute to Corky

Video: Corky retrospective from '09 SPJ awards

Son of a newspaper columnist and a broadcaster, and a survivor of Japanese occupation during World War II, Trinidad’s sympathy for underdogs led him to consider joining anti-government Huk rebels. Instead of a weapon, Trinidad picked up a pen—his nickname Corky comes from a favorite character in the comic strip “Gasoline Alley.”

 Earning a degree in journalism from the University of Ateneo de Manila in 1960, Trinidad signed on with the Philippines Herald in 1961 as a political cartoonist and columnist, doubling as graphics director for all Herald publications. By the mid-’60s, Trinidad was the best-known cartoonist in Asia, drafted by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post Syndicate as the first-ever non-American editorial cartoonist. Trinidad created the comic strip “Nguyen Charlie” during the Vietnam War for Pacific Stars and Stripes, coming to the attention of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. He joined the newspaper in 1969.

“He really had to leave the Philippines because of harrassment by Ferdinand Marcos,” said Carl Zimmerman, former Star-Bulletin editorial writer. The Philippines president, who would declare martial law in 1972, did not like the criticism. “If he had stayed, he’d have wound up in prison because of his cartoons.”

At the Star-Bulletin, “I think I’m one of the lucky ones,” Trinidad once said. “I work for a paper that has a journalistic attitude toward the cartoon and an editorial philosophy compatible with my own.

“I agree with Bill Mauldin, who disdains the title ‘editorial cartoonist.’ The craft cries out to be treated for what it should be: a cartoon commentary. I’m glad my paper agrees—sometimes wholeheartedly, sometimes grudgingly.”

John Simonds, Trinidad’s former editor, recalled a dinner nearly 30 years ago at which Trinidad received an award from the Hawaii American Civil Liberties Union. Trinidad’s response might have surprised the ACLU crowd, said Simonds, as he “reminded the gathering that the U.S.A. was his home by choice, that he was happy, grateful and proud to have become an American citizen. He did not take any of its benefits for granted.”

In addition to nearly four decades of daily and often twice-daily cartoon panels, Trinidad syndicated the comic strips “Zeus!” and “Aloha Eden,” both reflecting his interest in ancient mythology. Trinidad also taught cartooning at the University of Hawaii and always welcomed young cartoonists into his office.

“Corky really became the face of the Star-Bulletin for many years,” said Zimmerman. “Not just because of his cartoons, but because he made hundreds of visits to Hawaii classrooms to talk to kids.”

“In the fifth grade, I first met Corky at the Pearl City Library,” recalled cartoonist Jon J. Murakami. “He gave a talk about cartooning and was one of my major inspirations. He was extremely humble and always invited me over to his studio at the Star-Bulletin. He always was eager to give advice, always with a smile. Corky always made a statement and depicted it in a way that got to the point in a humorous way.

“Corky’s acclaimed cartoons were a distinct hallmark to the Star-Bulletin, giving a local flavor to the publication I looked forward to. I’m proud to have called him my peer, my inspiration and one of my dear friends.”

Trinidad began earning awards early, including a Ten Outstanding Young Men award for journalism in 1965; a UCLA Foreign Journalism Award in 1967; the top award twice for editorial cartooning in the Salon Des Humour competition in Montreal, Canada; the ACLU Allan Saunders Award in 1982; Freedom Foundation Thomas Jefferson medal in 1980, and the Fletcher Knebel journalism prize in 1998.

In 2005, when he was inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists’ Hawaii Journalism Hall of Fame, Trinidad’s citation noted that he fought pen-and-ink battles “against the wars in Vietnam in the 1960s and in Iraq today, for civil rights, for justice for all, for compassion for the poor, the homeless, Palestinians, for the disenfranchised, for blacks, for Filipinos, for Hawaiians, in defense of the environment, for a cleaner society, physically and ethically.”

Four decades after joining the staff of the Star-Bulletin, Trinidad was still the only daily political cartoonist of Asian ancestry working in American newspapers.

Trinidad shared his talent and experience freely with other artists. He and Hawaii cartoonist and educator Dave Thorne worked together to create a local professional cartoonists association to inspire young artists.

“Corky was not only my friend, but also one of my heroes,” said Thorne. “He had such a great knack for drawing funny, which is a compliment for a cartoonist, and also getting a point across clearly.

“Corky was not bothered by an ego problem. He didn’t mind sharing the spotlight with other cartoonists. He encouraged it! He’d get cartoonists together to do things. We were called ‘The House of Cartoons.’ We brought in speakers and held workshops, and had cartooning exhibitions called ‘The Strip Show.’ We displayed our art and also drew cartoons and signed autographs for free—Corky was always the main force behind this. ...

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Corky’s up there with Harry Lyons now and getting him to convince Bill Mauldin, Thomas Nast, Sparky Schulz, Milton Caniff and the rest of the cartoonists who have passed, to form a Paradise Cartoonist Society.”

Trinidad’s philosophy for young cartoonists was as simple as it was elegant: Take a stand.

“Aside from following the basic journalistic aims of informing, instructing and entertaining, the editorial cartoon, first and always, must make a statement,” he wrote. “It must BE a statement.

“I have never see a great cartoon that sat on a fence. I have never seen a great cartoonist who tried to be loved by everybody on all sides of an issue. ... The ultimate purpose is to take a very particular, topical subject and react to it in a way that sets down a universal principle.

“I don’t know if I succeed day after day, event by event, six days a week within deadlines. Probably not. But the purpose every day is to try.

“And a few drawing skills help.”

“It takes great bravery to be an editorial cartoonist, to put your opinion out there every day and not trip over the chips that fall,” said Poole. “Corky took both praise and criticism in stride; the important thing to him was making a statement and being honest. He was our conscience. Just watching him every day taught me that ideas really matter—and you remember them better when they make you laugh.”

“Something Corky told me one time stuck in my mind and I have referred to him many times when dealing with reporters and photographers,” recalled editor Bridgewater. “He said he never used his first idea for a cartoon—the first is too easy and anyone could have thought of that one. That’s a good lesson for everyone.”

Corky’s primary Honolulu competition came from the Honolulu Advertiser’s Dick Adair.

“He was better than me, I’ll tell you that,” said Adair. “We were two different kinds of cartoonists. I illustrated the editorials. Corky was on his own, the authentic, the real thing, the guy who commented on life with good humor, but he was also always right-on with his ideas. He was also the most cheerful guy you’d ever meet. What a smile!”

Adair was recently furloughed by the Gannett newspaper, and now Honolulu has no daily cartoonists at all.

Trinidad is survived by wife Hana, an artist and dance director, and five children: Lorenzo, Emmanuel, Pia Sprague, Lara Nishimura and Anela Trinidad; and two grandchildren, Kera Nishimura and Matty Sprague.