Pete Wagner

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Pete Wagner (born January 26, 1955) is an American political cartoonist, activist, author, scholar and caricature artist whose work has been published in over 300 newspapers and other periodicals, and whose cartoons and activist theatrics have been the subject of controversy and frequent media attention.

Pete Wagner
Pete Wagner with Marv Davidov at Generic Demonstration, Univ. of MN, Minneapolis, 1982

Early life[edit]

Originally from a working-class neighborhood Bay View, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who also lived and worked in Madison, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Wagner is probably best known as a political cartoonist. He was staff editorial cartoonist for his high school newspaper, the Bay View Oracle, in 1969-72, and a number of alternative media, college, neighborhood and special interest newspapers and magazines starting in 1972, including the UWM Post (1972–74 and 1976), the Marquette Tribune (1973–75) Minnesota Daily (1974–76 and 1997–2002), MPIRG Statewatch (1979–1987), Republican News[1] (1974-75), Hustler magazine (1977-78), Minnesota Tenants Union newspaper (1979–82), Elliot Park, Minneapolis Surveyor (1981–84), Gay-Lesbian Community Voice (1979–93), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1985–87), City Pages (1982–92), Madison Press Connection (1978) and others. Wagner's mentors were Bill Sanders of the Milwaukee Journal, Herb Block of the Washington Post, and Ross Lewis, retired Milwaukee Journal cartoonist.

Cartooning career[edit]

Wagner was influenced by Sanders to work in an acerbic "sledgehammer" style of political cartooning,[2] which was considered "too in-your-face" by most commercial, corporate daily newspapers (to quote an editor at one suburban Chicago paper).[3] Determined to remain true to what Wagner considered the highest and best practice of the art form, rather than "selling out" by watering down his satire or drawing style, Wagner, inspired by the examples of Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau and I.F. Stone, forsook a career which by the time he was 20 years old held significant promise of wealth and fame to instead work for smaller but more journalistically feisty or risque alternative and college papers and magazines and to engage in radical political and cultural activism. Characterized by Isthmus as a "punk cartoonist" in a cover story about Wagner published in March 1978,[4] Wagner's political cartoons were syndicated by the College Press Service from 1973 to 1976, and reprinted in over 300 periodicals, including Time magazine, the Washington Post, The Progressive, In These Times, High Times[5] and others. In 1977, Wagner was recruited by Larry Flynt to draw political cartoons on a regular basis for Hustler magazine, under the banner "Drawing Fire, by Pete Wagner." Wagner quit less than a year later when Flynt announced that Hustler would be transformed from a pornographic magazine into a Christian publication, explaining that he did not want to "ruin my reputation by being associated with a religious magazine."[6][7][8][9][10] Wagner's cartoons won a national Society of Professional Journalists award in 1976 for a cartoon drawn while at the Minnesota Daily, six more SPJ awards between 1985 and 1991 for cartoons drawn while at City Pages, an honorable mention in the John Fischetti competition and several Minnesota Newspaper Association awards, also while at City Pages. One of his cartoons was shown in an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.


Activist career[edit]

Wagner described himself in the 1970s and 1980s as "an activist who also happens to be a cartoonist,"[11] a "professional radical"[12]and a "cultural revolutionary."[13] Wagner frequently utilized guerrilla theater as a way of responding to controversies[14][15][16][17][18][19][20] and criticisms of his cartoons,[21][22][23][24][25][26] as well as on its own apart from cartooning,[27][28][29][30] in the capacity of a political activist and organizer protesting events staged in Minneapolis by the New Right, specifically appearances by Anita Bryant in 1978, President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1982, among others. Mentored directly by Paul Krassner and Abbie Hoffman, founders of the Yippies or Youth International Party, Wagner used creative nonviolent and comical costumes, narrative, memes and surprise tactics to make political statements which tended to attract attention from mass media.[31][32][33] For example, after being elected as a Student Senator in 1972 at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, he mocked the impotency of student governments at universities by running for student vice president in 1973 at and in 1976 he ran for student president of the University of Minnesota on the "Tupperware Party" ticket, in both cases promising to leave town if elected, and in both cases following through with a move out of town. The comedic application of the "Tupperware Party" name to a student political party was the brainchild of UWM students James Rubin and Donnie Goetz. Wagner won the primary at the University of Minnesota in 1976 defeating all other candidates, and his campaign garnered the attention of national news media including United Press International and NBC News.[34][35][36] In 1982, after tiring of trying to persuade leftist steering committees he found stodgy, humorless and politically correct[37] to incorporate more theater and humor into protests they were organizing in Minneapolis, Wagner conceived, designed and organized a demonstration at which the public was encouraged to demonstrate "for or against anything you want."[38][39] The "All-Purpose (Generic) Demonstration" capitalized on the new cultural and marketing phenomenon of generic brand packaging and attracted more than 5,000 participants,[40][41][42][43][44][45] was copied by students at a college in Denver,[46] and received intense media coverage including a front-page article and photo on the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch and a story on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." The Generic Demonstration was the final action in which the "street theater gang" organized by Wagner in 1981,[47] the 1985 Brain Trust, was involved. The Brain Trust was a collective of mostly University of Minnesota students who formed a cult-like group with Wagner that created and performed numerous myth-making actions and publications between May 1981 and June 1982. The Brain Trust resembled a highly politicized version of Andy Warhol's "The Factory" in its relationship to Wagner[48] and collaborated with The Church of the Subgenius, publishing some of its earliest works. A history of the group is detailed in Wagner's second book, "Buy This Too". The Brain Trust's original core participants or instigators (the group denied having "members," declaring "We have no members, only leaders"[49]) were Tom Pettersen, who became a popular blues musician in Germany, Jim Hobson, whose performance and environmental art has been installed at numerous Burning Man events, Aaron Helfman, a successful Chicago designer and businessman, Theresa Blanchard, who later worked with various theaters in Minneapolis, and others.[50] Wagner first encountered Pettersen and Helfman while hawking copies of "Buy This Book" at a newsstand in Dinkytown, a business district adjoining the University of Minnesota campus, in the spring of 1981. While organizing and performing theatrics that launched the Brain Trust in response to the annual appearance on campus by Brother Jed and his traveling ministry, "the Destroyers," Wagner met Hobson and Hobson's housemates at the University of Minnesota Student Co-op, who conceived and performed as the "God Squad" and "C.R.A.P." (Christians for the Revival of Ancient Precepts) alongside the Brain Trust.[51]

Wagner worked with more traditional methods of activism earlier in his career, for example when he organized ECO, the Environmental Cleanup Organization, as a junior at Bay View High School in 1969. ECO initiated recycling programs, conducted roadside litter cleanups and successfully fought the test-marketing of a non-biodegradable container by the Morton Salt company through the Milwaukee City Council between 1969 and 1972.[52] Wagner continued working as an environmental activist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he worked with Mike Walker to oppose energy waste. Wagner was a speaker for Zero Population Growth, Inc. from 1973 through 1975 in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. He served as co-chair of the Benjamin Spock for President campaign in 1972, when the famous pediatrician ran for U.S. president on a socialist platform which called for socialized medicine and a ceiling on personal annual income of $50,000. In 1974, Wagner was elected chairman of the University of Minnesota Irish Northern Aid chapter, and became a regular contributor of articles and cartoons opposing British imperialism for the Republican News in Belfast, Northern Ireland.[53][54][55] In more recent years, Wagner has worked with Minneapolis environmental activist Leslie Davis, joining Davis as his running mate in Davis' bid for governor of Minnesota in 2002.

Writing, speaking, standup performances and publishing[edit]

Wagner's political activism also has taken the form of creating and performing multimedia political comedy shows ("Pete Wagner! Pete Wagner! The Un-American Boy!" toured 33 colleges in the late 1970s and early 1980s),[56][57][58][59] and authoring and publishing books, including "Buy This Book" (1980)[60][61][62][63][64][65][66][67] and "Buy This Too" (1987)[68] and writing for, editing and publishing a mass-circulation precursor to The Onion, probably the first free tabloid humor publication in the U.S., "Minne HA! HA! - The Twin Cities' Sorely Needed Humor Magazine" (published sporadically in volumes of one to fifteen issues between 1978 and 1993). Minne HA! HA!'s satire was typified by issues like "The Lighter Side of Total Global Nuclear Devastation." Wagner's book designs were innovative for their time, influenced by the designs of Marshal McLuhan's books done by Quentin Fiore, and likened to MAD Magazine by WCCO-TV's Marcia Fleur in an interview with Wagner on "Newsday" in November 1987. Wagner also performed stand-up political comedy and satire at Dudley Riggs Brave New Workshop Theater in the 1970s and at Scott Hansen's Comedy Gallery on a regular basis in 1990. In addition to comedy and humor writing, Wagner has written numerous opinion pieces and editorials for various newspapers, including the Milwaukee Journal.

Television and digital cartooning[edit]

Wagner made efforts to adapt political cartooning to television beginning as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Mass Communication and Journalism in 1977, as a regular on Laird Brooks Schmidt's late-night television show on KSTP-TV in 1978–79 and in new media throughout the 1990s. He produced Public-access television cable TV shows at the Minneapolis Television Network in the early to mid-1990s with Schmidt, worked on ways to use digital media to draw political cartoons using Amiga computers from the late 1980s to late 1990s, and drew live political cartoons on KMSP-TV, Channel 9, the FOX affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul, on its morning news program on a weekly basis in 2004. Some of his new media cartooning efforts are posted on Wagner's [1] website of political cartoons, most of which were drawn between 1997 and 2002 for the Minnesota Daily.

Illustration and caricaturing[edit]

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Wagner funded many of his activist projects with income generated by caricaturing at parties and illustrating and designing books, posters and periodicals. "Get Off My Brain: The Lazy Students Survival Guide", published by Free Spirit Publishing, was one of his most successful book designs, based on the numerous printings of the book.

Cultural impact[edit]

Despite the intensity and offensiveness of some of his work, Wagner developed a history of charming or winning over as friends many political enemies and targets of his attacks, something like the French philosopher, Voltaire. Bernard Casserly, editor of the Catholic Bulletin based in St. Paul, MN, wrote a scathing editorial in 1975 against Wagner in response to a cartoon about the Kenneth Edelin trial in Boston, condemning Wagner as "vicious," "poisonous," "malicious" and "sophomoric." Yet Casserly wrote the glowing foreword 12 years later to Wagner's second book, "Buy This Too," after the two became friends. Minneapolis Daily American editor Francis R. McGovern, an extreme right-wing conservative who would have fit into today's Tea Party movement, at first lambasted Wagner but later praised his use of humor to engage students to participate in political activism, and also stated that he was "honored" to call Wagner a "great friend" and "a damn good clown." Rev. Joseph Head, an outspoken conservative activist who wrote a four-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter calling Wagner "A DANGEROUS ENEMY OF OUR COUNTRY!" in 1975,[69] was a major participant in Wagner's "Generic Demonstration" at the University of Minnesota in 1982, and local news coverage by KSTP-TV broadcast the image of the 80+ year-old Head, in his three-cornered American Revolutionary hat and in front of his giant replica of the Liberty Bell, grinning happily with his arm around his former "foe," Wagner.[70] Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee J. Martin Klotsche and one mayor of Madison, Wisconsin were among those fans of Wagner who requested and in some cases paid for original cartoons that had criticized them,.[71][72] United States Senator Paul Wellstone, who was criticized by Wagner for his positions on regulating nutritional supplements, hosted exhibits of Wagner's cartoons in his offices.[73]

Current activities[edit]

Since the early 1990s, Wagner has worked primarily as an instructor of cartooning at the University of Minnesota, where he completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2004 summa cum laude and completed all but dissertation for a PhD in Design between 2004-2005, and at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and as a caricature artist performing at private events as an entertainer and drawing commissioned pieces from photographs. Wagner's frequently draws caricatures with his wife, Dian, as a team.


  • Wagner, Pete, Buy This Book. A Charter Member of the Slandered Seventies Sticks up for the Me Generation, 1980.
  • Wagner, Pete, "Buy This Too". 1987.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Republican News
  2. ^ "I Was a Teen-Age Gadfly," by Pete Wagner. Minnesota Daily, October 11, 1974, P. 7.
  3. ^ "Cartoonist continues to spark controversy," by Josh Linehan, Minnesota Daily, Nov. 15, 1999.
  4. ^ "Pete Wagner: Cartoonist as Terrorist," Isthmus, March 1978, Page One.
  5. ^ "Trick or Treat or...," High Times, October 1984, P. 13
  6. ^ "Hustling For The Lord," Newsweek, Dec. 5, 1977, P. 611
  7. ^ "Madison Cartoonist Says He'll Quit Hustler." (AP Story & Wirephoto.) Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 26, 1977, P. 3
  8. ^ "Hustler Cartoonist Quits in Protestof Flynt's Conversion," by Liz Crusan. Capital Times, Madison, WI, Nov. 25, 1977, P. 27
  9. ^ "The Illustrated Miracle." The Quill, Magazine of The Society of Professional Journalists, Jan. 1978, P. 10
  10. ^ "Cartoonist Wagner Cuts Ties to Hustler," by Karl Vick. Minnesota Daily, Dec., 1977
  11. ^ "Pete Wagner-A Wild & Crazy Cartoonist," by James Newman. Twin Cities Reader, Dec. 24, 1980, P. 5
  12. ^ Buy This Book
  13. ^ "Tupperware Party Candidate Leading Student Government Race at the 'U'," KMSP-TV News, March 22, 1976
  14. ^ "Wagner: Controversial Cartoonist, Politician, Janitor and 'Imp'," by Cathy Dillon. Minnesota Daily, July 7, 1976, P. 4
  15. ^ "Cartoonist Throws Sparks," by Debbie Stone. UWM Post, Sept. 23, 1975, Front Page
  16. ^ "Controversy's His Game." Madison Press Connection, Feb. 9, 1978
  17. ^ "Political Cartoonist Revels in Rabble-Rousing," by Joan Bennett. Eau Claire (Wis.) Leader-Telegram, Nov. 29, 1980, pp. 3-5, 'Hilites' Section
  18. ^ "Pete Wagner-A Wild & Crazy Cartoonist," by James Newman. Twin Cities Reader, Dec. 24, 1980, P. 5
  19. ^ "Wicked Wit Fuels Wagner Humor: Cartoonist Always Draws Sharp Reaction," by Nancy Livingston. St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch, Mon., Feb. 18, 1985, pp. 3B-5B
  20. ^ "Cartoon in Pages Attacked as Porn," by Susan Stoddard. Minnesota Daily, Aug. 13, 1986, Front Page.**
  21. ^ "Wagner Rebuts Criticism," by Pete Wagner. Minnesota Daily, May ??, 1976.
  22. ^ "U Press Council Judges Wagner Cartoons 'Within the Limits of Responsible Journalism'," by Al Zdon. Minnesota Daily, April 3, 1975, P. 8
  23. ^ "U Council Defends Editorial Cartoon," by Greg Hughes. St. Paul Dispatch, April 3, 1975, P. 21
  24. ^ "U Panel Drops Complaint of Bias in Daily Cartoon," by Irv Letofsky. Minneapolis Tribune, April 3, 1975, P. 10B
  25. ^ "Daily Suspends Cartoonist for Recent Mall Antics." Minnesota Daily, May 19, 1975
  26. ^ "Freedom of Expression: How Much?" Minnesota Daily, April 22, 1975, Opinion Page.
  27. ^ "Today's Student Activists Take 'Quiet Approach'," by Lee Garrick. St. Paul Dispatch, Nov. 27-28, 1976 (two-part series)
  28. ^ "Ex-Daily Cartoonist Back Fighting Forces of Lethargy," by John Tibbetts. Minnesota Daily, Jan. 15, 1980, P. 3
  29. ^ "Profile/Pete Wagner," by Jim Adams. Minneapolis Star, May 21, 1981, Inside Back Page
  30. ^ "Interview: The Man Behind the Cartoons." University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal. April 7, 1978, pp. 3, 10
  31. ^ "It's the Pete Wagner Show!" by Neal St. Anthony. UpDate: A Publication for Friends of the University of Minnesota, Fall 1980, pp. 14-15.
  32. ^ "Wagner Pokes Fun at Institutions-And He's Serious About That," by Robert T. Smith. (Columnist.) Minneapolis Tribune, Oct. 2, 1981, P. 1B
  33. ^ "The Mysteries of Mythmaking Revealed! Master Mythologizer Pete Wagner Tells How To Bend Mass Media To Your Will," by Pete Wagner. [Sidebar: "Paul Krassner on Modern Mythmaking," Q & A by Pete Wagner.] Alternative Media Magazine, Alternative Press Syndicate, New York, Spring 1983, pp. 26-31
  34. ^ "Wagner Wins TCSA Primary, Olsen Second," by Nancy Keating. Minnesota Daily, March 4, 1976, Front Page
  35. ^ "The Politics of the Absurd Challenges Student Apathy," by Patricia MacCormick, Associated Press. Chicago Sun-Times, June 18, 1976.
  36. ^ "U Candidate's Campaign is Mockery of Student Government," by Lee Garrick. St. Paul Dispatch, Mar. 11, 1976, P. 29
  37. ^ Interview, Minnesota Public Radio, June 1, 1982.
  38. ^ "Generic Protest to Try Out New Techniques," by D. Hayne Bayless. Minnesota Daily, June 2, 1982, P. 3
  39. ^ "Demonstration Marshals Will Be Armed With Butterfly Nets," by Robert T. Smith. Minneapolis Tribune, May 23, 1982, P. 2B
  40. ^ "Pete, Cindy and a Cast of Thousands." Minnesota Daily, June 3, 1982, P. 6
  41. ^ "Edina Issue Keynotes U's All-Purpose Rally," by Bill Gardner. St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 3, 1982, Front Page
  42. ^ "Humorist Rallies Campus Originality," by Walter Parker. St. Paul Dispatch, June 2, 1982, Front Page
  43. ^ All-Purpose Gathering Held at'U'." Minneapolis Star & Tribune, June 3, 1982, P. 3C
  44. ^ "Good-Time Activism; Pete Wagner: He's Trying To Demonstrate Something," by Dick Dahl. City Pages, June 10, 1982, P. 3
  45. ^ "Generic Protest," by Jeff Barge. Twin Cities Reader, June 2, 1982, P. 6
  46. ^ "The Generic Rally," by S. Calhoun. Westword, Denver, Colo., July 15, 1982, P. 7
  47. ^ "In Brains We Trust," by Paul Fishman Maccabee. (Columnist.) Twin Cities Reader, Aug., 1981.
  48. ^ "Inside Guides: Ultra Vivid Scenemaker and Cartoonist Pete Wagner," Mpls. St. Paul magazine, July 1990, pp. 52-53 (Cover Story)
  49. ^ Buy This Too
  50. ^ Buy This Too
  51. ^ Buy This Too
  52. ^ "Education: The Solution to Pollution," by Pete Wagner. Insight Magazine, Sunday Milwaukee Journal, June 18, 1972, P. 36.
  53. ^ "Anglo-American Press: Irishmen are Violent Men," by Pete Wagner. Minnesota Daily, Feb. 6, 1975, P. 7** (Reprinted in the Irish Republican News, Belfast, April 1975)
  54. ^ "British Self-Interest Sparked Irish Problem," by Pete Wagner. Minnesota Daily, Jan. 30, 1975, P. 7** (Reprinted in the Irish Republican News, Belfast, April 1975)
  55. ^ "Historic Roots of Irish Violence," by Pete Wagner. Minnesota Daily, Jan. 28, 1975, P. 5** (Reprinted in the Irish Republican News, Belfast, April 1975)
  56. ^ "'Un-American Boy': Cartoonist Pokes Fun at 'Ridiculousness of Reality,'" by Sue Freidenberger. Kansas State Collegian, Oct. 12, 1979, Front Page
  57. ^ "Caustic Cartoons Cause Controversy: Wagner to 'Draw Out' Political Satire," by Sue Freidenberger. Kansas State Collegian, Oct. 11, 1979, Front Page
  58. ^ "Wagner 'Un-American Boy' Speaks," by Ken Cormier, University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal, April 23, 1979, P. 3
  59. ^ "Wagner Draws Critics in Comic Revue," by Cindy Currence, Minnesota Daily, Jan. 25, 1979
  60. ^ "Wagner, Pete. Buy This Book..." by Sanford Berman. Small Press Review, May 1982, P. 4
  61. ^ "Buy This Book..." by Pat Aufderheide. In These Times, Oct. 1-7, 1980
  62. ^ "Buy This Book," by Mulford Q. Sibley. Minnesota Daily, Nov. 4, 1980, P. 7
  63. ^ "Taking The Offensive," by Doug Moe. Milwaukee Journal, Sept. 21, 1980, Sunday Lively Arts Section
  64. ^ "Pete Wagner: Mean, Irreverent, Nasty-and Downright Funny," by Gary Peterson. Capital Times, Madison (Wis.) Daily Newspaper, Sept. 11, 1980, P. 26
  65. ^ "Buy This Book-if You Went To College in the'60s or'70s and Dig Cartoons," by Tim Campbell. Gay and Lesbian Voice, Sept. 1980, P. 5
  66. ^ "Vision For The Future," by Ken Peterson. MPIRG Statewatch, Sept. 1980
  67. ^ "Assaulting the Establishment With Ink and Venom: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Cartoonist," by Pete Wagner. Excerpt from Buy This Book, Alternative Media Magazine, Alternative Press Syndicate, New York, Spring 1981, pp. 22-25
  68. ^ "Manic Indignation," by Steve Eide. Vinyl Arts, Jan. 12, 1988, P. 16
  69. ^ Minnesota Daily, Oct. 1975 (specific date needed)
  70. ^ "Eyewitness News," KSTP-TV, June 2, 1982
  71. ^ Letter and personal check from Gov. Perpich, Wagner Archives
  72. ^ Isthmus newspaper, Madison, WI, 1980 (circa late August-specific date needed)
  73. ^ "Wellstone Exhibit," Minneapolis Television Network, Nov. 1992