When Stephen Breen tells you he's been good, you might want to take a cue from his old teachers: Keep an eye on him. He's a former Eagle Scout, goes to church and has a Pulitzer Prize. But a gleeful troublemaker lurks beneath his wholesome, Mom-and-apple-pie veneer.
It always has.
The Los Angeles-born, 27-year-old Huntington Beach High School alumnus admits he has lampooned his teachers and friends without the slightest qualm from the time he was in first grade.
"The teachers hated me," said Breen, who in April won the 1998 Pulitzer for editorial cartooning. "Well, not me. They just didn't like my drawings."
He remembers it was "a cool feeling" to put even his best friends on the cartoonist's rack. "I would draw the silly goings-on in the playground or the classroom," he says. "All my friends thought my drawings were funny."
In a recent chat from New Jersey, where he's been on staff at the 155,000-daily Asbury Park Press since 1994, Breen recalled: "They loved seeing themselves lampooned, and I loved seeing them laugh at the stuff."
In fact, some of his high school teachers laughed too. Lynn Aase still has a couple of Breen's cartoons stashed at home.
"You could see Steve was talented," says Aase, who teaches history and coaches the school's Model United Nations team, unbeaten state champs for 22 of the last 23 years.
Breen, who helped lead the team to a national championship in his senior year, credits Aase with fostering his love of current events.
But until the budding artist got to college at UC Riverside, it never dawned on him that he could earn a living making fun of the silly goings-on beyond the classroom.
Breen credits a college journalism professor, Bruce Reynolds, as the mentor who turned him onto editorial cartooning and the prospect of doing it professionally.
Before then, Breen said, his drawings took the form of gag cartoons strongly influenced by the style of Mad magazine and its cartoonists Mort Drucker and Don Martin. In college, he acquired new influences--especially Jeff MacNelly of the Chicago Tribune, "one of my idols," he said.
"I see myself as this young kid who got terribly lucky," Breen added. "But I won't say I haven't worked hard."
Reynolds, a former executive editor of the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, said Breen's modest self-appraisal is typical, and somewhat misleading.
"Steve's a very smart guy," he said. "All you had to do was take one look at the cartoons he was drawing in college and you could see they were every bit as good or better than [the professional] cartoons I was buying."
Breen's final-exam paper for his journalism class illustrates the point. Reynolds has it framed and mounted on his wall.
At the time of the exam, Dow Corning--a $1.8-billion subsidiary of Corning Glass and Dow Chemical--was in the news because of the defective silicon breast implants it manufactured.
Breen handed in a cartoon of a giant treasure chest marked "PROFITS," overflowing with gold coins. Two male doctors--one in a white lab coat marked Dow Corning--are seated on top of the lid, like a pair of construction workers on their lunch break. Three women are standing in the foreground. One of them, pointing to where the doctors are perched, exclaims: "Nice chest!"
"I take no credit for Steve whatsoever," Reynolds said. "He's self-taught. He used college as his petri dish. To have the vision to put it all together at his age is remarkable."
Breen was a sophomore, refining his skills at the college weekly paper, the UC Riverside Highlander, when Newsweek ran a cartoon of his for the first time. It was about the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
Two Kremlin guards are talking to each other in Moscow's Red Square. The dome of the Kremlin looms behind them with K MARX printed on it like a wrap-around store sign. The caption reads: "Frankly, comrade, this change is taking place too fast for me."
When the Pulitzer jury recommended the three finalists for this year's prize in editorial cartooning to the board that decides the winner, Breen was not among them.
The three were Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times and the Tribune's MacNelly, both three-time winners already, and Joel Pett of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.
"I knew I wasn't a finalist," said Breen, who was listed by the jury among the next three finishers. "So I really couldn't believe it when they picked me."
The Pulitzer board does not explain its decisions. One jury member has speculated, however, that the board wanted to give the prize to someone new but considered Pett too unconventional.
The prize, accompanied by a $5,000 check, is a giant arrow pointing to Breen as much as it points to his work. That can make a guy self-conscious when he's used to letting his cartoons do the talking.
"I definitely think there are many better cartoonists out there than me," Breen said. "There's a lot of them, like Jim Borgman at the Cincinnati Enquirer and [The Times'] Mike Ramirez."
Still, he's not about to do what Ving Rhames did. Rhames gave his Golden Globe award to fellow nominee Jack Lemmon, claiming Lemmon deserved it more. Breen is happy to keep his Pulitzer, and the check.
He's also glad to get back to his drawing board. The next cartoon, he figures, will be the sharpest way to cut to the quick. Because when he's good, well, he's gonna be bad.