By Melanie J. Knox, Opinion Editor
Mark Cullum’s first cartoon at age 6 depicted a cat with a regular-size body and a huge head. His older brother thought the drawing was hilarious, so Cullum promptly turned around to make his second cartoon: a cat with a huge body and a tiny head.
“I didn’t get the same response,” he chuckled at the memory. “So I had my first success and my first clunker on that day as a cartoonist.”
Since that day however, his successes seem to have outnumbered the clunkers. Cullum, currently a tenured professor in the History Department, drew cartoons for David Lipscomb University and then ACU, winning awards along the way.
In 1985, he went to work for the Birmingham News in Alabama as the editorial cartoonist. In 1991, King’s Features picked up his comic strip, Walnut Cove, and for close to 10 years, Cullum’s strip appeared in about 140 papers, including the Houston Post, the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Chicago Tribune.
“Andrew is the main character, and there’s a fair amount of me in Andrew,” he said. “He’s kind of an every-man, but at the same time he’s a little bit shy and he’s got his various problems. He has a huge crush on Mary in high school, which actually went further than the huge crush I had in high school,” he joked. “But it’s basically going nowhere.”
Joey, named after a co-worker at the Birmingham News, is the outgoing personality and Andrew’s buddy.
“He’s the type of personality who would think nothing of dropping his lunch tray in the cafeteria to get a laugh, whereas Andrew wouldn’t do that in a hundred years,” Cullum explained.
While Cullum enjoyed doing the editorial cartoons, working on the editorial page and dealing with the issues that came and went, he gradually began looking for ways to pursue other interests he hadn’t previously had the time to pursue.
“Cartoons are great for some things, but you can’t write an essay with a cartoon,” he stated matter-of-factly.
This quest and desire to study deeper subjects, like the history of thought, led Cullum to England in 1996. He “picked up” Greek and Latin to solidify his interest and, with the help of a Rotary Club scholarship, landed at Bristol University for a year studying ancient history.
His spent the following year in St. Andrews, Scotland ,and earned a masters in ancient history. His goal had always been to study at Oxford University, home of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, or Cambridge University. That goal was achieved when a theology professor at St. Andrews recommended a professor, Mark Edwards, at Oxford’s Christ Church to him.
“I’m a big Lewis and Tolkien fan, and there was a certain mystique there; also there was just the challenge to see if I could do it,” he said.
Cullum’s interests lay in the history of thought; particularly the difference between medieval thought and classical thought and the transitions of change.
Cullum worked with Edwards at Christ Church for three years.
“That was great fun,” he said nonchalantly. “It was a charge, really, to be able to walk around the old buildings. It really kept your juices flowing. I’ve always had a taste for the big picture, which has been both a strength and a weakness for me.”
These ideas of the history of thought and the big picture exemplified themselves in Cullum’s cartoons as well.
He gestured to a cartoon hanging on the wall of two men talking about the progresses made in America and behind them a man skips along bearing the label, “violent crime.”
“When you walk around a downtown city in the United States, you are very aware that we’ve come a long way from the days of mud huts,” he said, “and there’s a lot of things in which we have gone forward; and yet there are some things which haven’t. All I’m trying to do is point out both sides of things.”
Cullum cited the danger in editorial cartoons as only using humor to get your point across.
“Editorial cartoons can forward the debate, but the danger is slipping into the bumper sticker part of the debate,” he advised. “That was part of what was kind of moving me towards finding something where I felt like I was contributing to the debate in a more useful way.”
Cullum continues to integrate his interests here as a professor. He teaches two honors classes, two history classes and one Bible class.
He tries to begin each class with a cartoon illustrating the point of the day’s topic and sometimes draws illustrations on the board.
Daniel Gray, freshman social work major from Memphis, Tenn., said that Cullum’s classes are a lot of work, but that he challenges the students to think.
“I really admire his vast knowledge of so much literature and seeing his Christian conviction through philosophical discussions,” Gray said.
Cullum said he has enjoyed learning what it means to be a professor and meeting the challenges therein.
As a professor, he has seen some students encountering the same language stumbling blocks he encountered as a student.
“People will chose their major on the basis of whether or not there is a language they have to take,” he said. “That’s a big mistake. You shouldn’t shut down those doors.”
In his experiences and studies, Cullum has discovered that hopping around looking for something that is rewarding and interesting but very little work is a futile mission.
“Eventually it started to click, that by working harder at things and finding something that is worth more work in the first place and immersing yourself in it is rewarding in a way that bouncing around can’t be,” he said.
If that’s true, then Cullum must have certainly been rewarded.