Almost three decades ago, The Jasper Booster—precursor to Jasper’s current community newspapers—had a space to fill in its newsroom.
The Booster’s long-standing editorial cartoonist, Thomas Boldt—or Tab, as he became known for his work with Sun Media Newspapers—was moving on.
Then-publisher Haf Bailey had an idea. Her roommate sent out hand-drawn Christmas cards every year. Could he fill the spot?
Like many Jasperites, Bailey’s roommate had come from eastern Canada as a university student to see the mountains. His first summer job in Jasper was driving tour boats for Bill Ruddy up at Maligne Lake. His first winter job was operating the ski lifts at Marmot Basin.
Then he got a job as a dispatcher—first for the local fire brigade, then for Parks Canada.
He was sharp-witted, had a devil-may-care attitude and created funny doodles.
But could Derek Hammell, known to his friends as Deke, be a political cartoonist?
“I said I’d run out of things to cartoon after about six months,” Deke recalls.
That was 25 years ago. He hasn’t run out of ideas yet.
Unless you’ve worked with him, lived near him or walked dogs with him, you probably don’t know Deke. Sure, you’ve seen his name (and his likeness) on the newspapers’ opinion page, but Deke lays pretty low. He likes it that way.
Not that he doesn’t mind stirring the pot.
Deke remembers with a chuckle the series of cartoons that marked the beginning of the end of his tenure with the Booster. The first one was a joke about bylaw officers (it wasn’t even his joke, he points out). Either way, the ‘toon rubbed mayor and council of the day the wrong way. They wanted an apology from The Booster.
And while the publisher at the time was willing to issue a mea culpa, Deke was not. Instead, he drew a cartoon depicting himself as a shopper at an “Apology Store.” The sales clerk was explaining that the store “didn’t have any cards that say I’m sorry but also, Bite Me.”
It didn’t exactly smooth things over.
Long story short: Deke walked.
“I was right, they were wrong,” he laughed.
It’s that lack of diplomacy that makes Deke such a strong political cartoonist. But pointing out what he sees doesn’t mean he’s taking side. He’s just an observer, he insists.
“If I ever drew people looking silly, it’s not because I made them look silly, it’s because they were silly to begin with,” he said.
He’s not always political. As fans of his work know, he’s as liable to cartoon about the wacky weather as he is about a backwards government policy. But no matter what the topic, if you have a problem with Deke’s sense of humour, beware the backlash. He recalls the Chief Park Warden confronting him about working for the government while simultaneously taking pot-shots at it.
“I said ‘I assume you’ve heard of freedom of speech,’” he said. “After that I pretty much had immunity.”
The government may not have been able to touch him, but his style has rubbed his other employers the wrong way. Deke cartooned for the Fitzhugh for five years, with a couple of stand-offs. One skirmish resulted in him submitting a “non-political political cartoon”—simply a blank box where his drawing usually resided. Related to that incident, in 2007 he drew himself holding a long list of topics of which he had to stay clear. The reader saw Deke exiting his publishers’ office, where a silhouette of Mickey Mouse ears drove home the artist’s feelings on the issue.
Other than himself, the locals Deke has depicted the most often include ex-bylaw officer/dyed-in-the-wool cowboy, Bob Barker and former wildlife conflict specialist/warden Wes Bradford. Mayor Richard Ireland certainly makes the list, as do other local government officials, but Deke gets a bit cryptic when pressed about specific residents. He blames it on his “poor drawing.”
“I go through erasers way faster than pencils,” he claims.
Regardless, Jasper has been enjoying Deke’s take on this community for nearly three decades. Even if they don’t always get the joke.
“People will come up to me and say ‘Oh I saw that, that was so-and-so,’ but it wasn’t. Not even close. But to them, that was what made it funny.”
It’s the same thing for Deke, really. Even if he appreciates the accolades, he’s not cartooning for anyone but himself. He just likes doing it. He just finds certain situations absurd.
And if you don’t like what he’s been doing for The Jasper Local for the past six years, he’ll send you a card: Sorry, but Bite Me.
Bob Covey // email@example.com