What Might Have Been: My Comic Strip Collaboration with Cartoonist Mike Ritter

Urbana test strips

My friend and fellow editorial cartoonist Mike Ritter died over the weekend of a severe heart problem. He was 48.

Mike and I were members of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, which is how we met. At the time, he was a conservative Republican, on staff at the since-defunct Tucson Tribune. He was an energetic, extremely funny guy, popular among our little fraternity, but as I got to know him better, I saw some darkness there too.

He was gay but deep in the closet.

I was the only person he knew who lived in a big, gay-friendly city (New York), and so he confided his secret and sought out advice. I encouraged him to leave Arizona, which at the time was even more conservative than now, and go somewhere where he could live openly. The more we talked about the importance of personal and sexual freedom, I could sense his politics drifting left as well.

As he considered life after a staff job, in 2003 we began talking about collaborating on a daily newspaper comic strip. He was a great artist and I’m a strong writer. We hoped to convince a syndicate to pick up “Urbana,” which, looking back now, kind of anticipates the conceit of “The Boondocks” as a fish-out-of-water story in which urban sophisticates move to the sticks to save money. Some samples are above.

Urbana_test strip

Mid-collaboration, Mike went silent. It wasn’t just me; he vanished from the AAEC radar. There were sporadic Mike sightings over the years, but for the most part, he stopped communicating with his former colleagues. But he was working, as an openly-gay cartoonist and art director for the Georgia Voice. Not one to insist on bothering someone who has obviously made a conscious decision to drop out of touch, I left him alone. But I missed him. Many cartoonists did.

Now I’ll miss him even more.

Rest in peace, Mike. His was an all-too-short life, but he lived it more brilliantly than many who log twice as many miles.