Mosher memorabilia: An intimate conversation with political cartoonist Aislin

The Gazette‘s cartoonist reflects on a 50-year career.

Mary Hughson and Terry Mosher

“Sparky doesn’t give a shit,” Terry Mosher, known by his artist name Aislin, says chuckling. Sparky is Mosher’s dog, a Havanese breed. Sparky walks from one side of the living room to the other as Mosher, relaxed, lounging on his couch sits next to a pillow that reads “Just You, Me & the Dog.” The dog itself, gentle and toy-like, is Mosher’s second love. Mary Hughson, his second wife, who he met at The Gazette and is also an artist, is the first. “We tell the kids we love the dog more than them,” Mosher says smiling. “They know we’re joking.”

Mosher has been drawing political cartoons for The Gazette for 50 years, a career birthday he celebrated in 2017. He also turned 75 on Nov. 11, though his youthful vibe — iPhone and iPad at each side, slick black v-neck knit and jeans, and sharp wit — puts him closer to 25. Mosher, Sparky and I hang out in Mosher’s living room, a spacious place with big windows that look out towards the Lachine Canal. Mosher and I chit-chat about movies. District 9 is his favourite. We talk about music, which he says “you stop absorbing” at 40, or that’s his theory. “Maybe there’s just too many memories,” he says.

Mosher in the 1960s

Mosher moved to Montreal in 1967. “It was serendipitous. I was in the right place at the right time.” He might be one of the few I know who would say 1967 was a “right time” for Montreal; the city was experiencing an extreme political weather warning — a tornado of sorts — which called for a vicious awakening of Quebec nationalism. Mosher didn’t know about the political tornado. Instead, in 1967 he was following his heart.

“She didn’t like Toronto, so we moved to Montreal,” he says about his first wife. “And thank God we did,” Mosher says, laughing. “Imagine if I had gone to Pittsburgh for God’s sake.” Hughson, who’s now sitting in the living with us in a chair to the left side of the couch, laughs along. “Imagine…Jesus, it would have been awful,” says Mosher.

As Mosher speaks, I notice an unfinished circle on his left hand between his thumb and index finger, the same place someone who’s been to prison typically gets tattooed. Cons or ex-cons, however, do not usually get unfinished circles. The unfinished circle is, as Mosher says, “a reminder that nothing is perfect.” The tattoo is the Japanese symbol for imperfection.

“Out of the 13,000 cartoons I’ve drawn, I like to say I’ve actually drawn a couple of thousand good ones, and I boil those ones down to the book [Trudeau to Trudeau: Fifty Years of Cartooning was published in April 2017].”

When Mosher first came to The Gazette he noticed a flaw in the drawings. “They couldn’t produce the grey tones,” he says pointing to a cartoon of Leonard Cohen in his book. “To get that effect, I rapidly developed what’s called cross-hatching. And I became famous for that,” he says. The flaw Mosher caught wasn’t a human flaw, but a technical issue: the printers couldn’t reproduce the details. “Now, the curious thing is, this doesn’t show up on the computer screen,” Mosher says as he continues flipping through the book, showing me the different technical nuances in his drawings.

Origin story

Mosher didn’t graduate high school; he was thrown out for possession of marijuana. And he was kicked out of art school for “one thing or another.”

“My parents were wonderful people. They weren’t too sure what to do with me, but they knew I could draw so they sent me to technical art school to learn commercial art, and I did quite well there, but then again I got thrown out of that school.”

Mosher then left Canada and hitchhiked around the States in an attempt to outdo Jack Kerouac. “Jack Kerouac was hugely influential on me, and in fact, because of reading On the Road, I started hitchhiking, and I hitchhiked thousands and thousands of miles over a two- or three-year period. I remember being in Chicago and trying to get back to Detroit, and excuse the language, but I got to Detroit and said, ‘Fuck you, Jack, I did it.’ He took a bus.”

While on his Kerouac challenge, Mosher was picked up by a stranger on their way to San Francisco. The stranger was going to a dinner party and noticed Mosher’s work, “He said, ‘You’re an artist, look at this neat stuff, look at these drawings.’” Mosher went to the party and sold some drawings — a little taste of financial reassurance for his work. However, it wouldn’t be until Quebec City, after his beatnik-inspired journey, that Mosher would fully feast on his talents.

In the late 1960s, Mosher came back to Canada to attend École des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City, forging his high school diploma to get into the university. While at university, he worked as a street caricature artist making $50–$100 per piece.

Aislin on Leonard Cohen, 1969

“It was really on the streets in Quebec City that I discovered I had this ability to draw people and catch the character,” he says. The moment of change from street artist to career cartoonist happened thanks to a band called the Peanut Butter Conspiracy. One day when Mosher was drawing, a man approached him and asked if he could sketch Lyndon Johnson (the President of the United States at the time) in his underwear. “I said, yeah, I can do that,” says Mosher. “He wanted a poster (for his band), and signed me a cheque for $50, and it didn’t bounce. I said to my wife at the time, ‘I wonder if I can make a living, they’re so easy to do.’”

The age of outrage

Mosher has always been an independent contractor with The Gazette. Being an independent contractor means he has full control of his work, and he gets to share it regardless of The Gazette’s opinion. Today, if a cartoon gets rejected, he posts it on his Facebook page, opening discussions about the rejection to anyone, anywhere. In the digital age, putting your work on social media can be problematic. Some might even say that online and offline humour these days comes with a DIY crisis communications plan — a raw, sometimes crafted, apology ready to be posted at any winch of political incorrectness.

“It can be quite a threat, and I think it’s something we have to weather,” Mosher says about political correctness. Hughson recalls a trip she and Mosher took to a cartoon convention in the United States after 9/11. “The cartoonists were still trying to draw the hypocrisy concerning the invasion of Iraq and the bombing,” she says. “There was a huge amount of push-back, not only from the American government but from the right, sort of saying, ‘If you criticize things, you’re un-American,’ and some of the cartoonists, not all of them, started to censor themselves or criticize other cartoonists for not being American enough. It was really dangerous.”

Throughout his career, Mosher claims to have only apologized twice for his work, regardless of the fact that he’s lost good friends, like Gary Mulroney, and had a pot plant stuffed in his chimney. The artist, who wears a skull-like ring on his right ring finger (a gift from Hughson), has worked for over a dozen editors. “Sometimes they [editors] show up and say, ‘Maybe you should change this, maybe you should change that,’ but those editors don’t last long,” Mosher says with a laugh.

Over his 50 years as a cartoonist, Mosher has upset quite a few people. This past year, a contractor working on Mosher and Hughson’s home found the above-mentioned pot plant in their chimney. “His son got up on a ladder and brought it down, and it was a weed plant,” he says. “The cops came and we showed them the plant. They puzzled over it and laughed.”

Mosher says the police asked him how it got there, and then inquired, “What do you do?” When Mosher told them, the police suggested he “look at the aspect of it.” Shortly before the pot plant incident, Mosher had drawn a Mohawk flag as a pot plant in response to the 2017 marijuana busts in Kanesatake. While there was no direct public outrage over the cartoon, Mosher did apologize for it after receiving a letter from a mother who wanted her son to respect the Mohawk heritage. “I felt awful about it, so I wrote her a long, heartfelt letter,” he says. To this day, the pot plant remains a mystery.

In 1993, Mosher was denounced by the House of Commons. The artist had drawn then-prime minister Brian Mulroney face down in the snow. In the cartoon, Mulroney had fallen after being tripped by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. The cartoon stirred the House of Commons so much that they denounced Mosher’s work, claiming it as a ‘crime against fundamental Canadian values of decency and mutual respect.’ Before Mulroney’s fall, and before his election, Mosher called his brother, Gary, a friend.

“Brian Mulroney’s brother was one of my best friends before Brian was elected, and I said to him, ‘Gary, a time could come when, uh, if your brother becomes prime minister, know that I’m going to be tough on him.’” Gary Mulroney assured Mosher his Irish heritage was tough enough for the jokes. “Five or six cartoons later, we stopped speaking, or he stopped speaking to me.”

“The job always comes first, unless it’s family,” Mosher says, to which Hughson adds, “Never put the women in your life in cartoons.”

“I stay away from personal matters,” Mosher confirms, “except Sparky.” ■