Mike Ritter, 1965-2014, !Presente!
With additional reporting by Matthew Charles Cardinale.
(APN) ATLANTA — Mike Ritter, art director of the GA Voice magazine; an award-winning editorial cartoonist; and LGBTQI rights activist, died Sunday March 30, 2014 of complications from open heart surgery. He was 48.
Ritter was born in Seattle, Washington, on August 21, 1965, and grew up in Ritzville and Spokane, Washington.
He was drawn to cartooning from an early age. He used a felt pen to draw animals by the time he was in the first grade, his father, Dr. John Wayne Ritter, 88, told Atlanta Progressive News.
“One was Myron Mosquito. The lady bug, I can’t remember the name,” Dr. Ritter said.
“When he was in Spokane, he was doing for the Spokane Theatre group… Michael was painting in high school, he was doing the backdrops on the scenes for these plays, he was already an artist, when he was just in high school, which I think was quite an accomplishment,” Dr. Ritter said.
“In Spokane, he also was part of a drama club in high school. He was proud of the part that the got to play, the cowardly lion,” Dr. Ritter said.
Mike attended Arizona State University, where he worked as a student journalist at the State Press and earned ten Gold Circle Awards from Columbia University’s Scholastic Press Association, including two First Place Awards in the editorial cartoon and comic strip categories. He majored in U.S. history and political science.
He went on to work at Phoenix’s Tribune newspapers as an editorial cartoonist for thirteen years and was syndicated with King Features Syndicate. He served as President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists from 2003-2004.
During his tenure at the Tribune, he won several awards including the Arizona Press Club’s first-place award for cartooning in 1993, 1995, and 1996; and the Thomson newspaper chain’s highest award for illustration as well as a Freedom of Information Award from the Arizona Newspaper Association in 1999.
According to Dr. Ritter, Mike was very conservative in those years. Mike appears to have been influenced by his father, who was active in Republican political circles in the Pacific Northwest and who served as a member of the school board in Seattle.
Mike and two of his friends in college were instrumental in taking down the Republican governor of Arizona, Evan Mecham, in the late 1980s, according to Dr. Ritter. Mike ran daily cartoons criticizing Mecham. Ritter had a comic strip called “Ivory Towers.”
“Then he actually had some cartoons that criticized the gay students at the university. But then about five to six years after he got out of college, then he began to have a little more liberal stance, and then he ran pro-gay cartoons,” Dr. Ritter recalled.
“The Tribune, which is run by the Mormons, stopped publishing his cartoon and eventually fired him,” Dr. Ritter said.
Mike also met best friend Will Alford while at the Tribune.
“We worked in close proximity. We were instantly friends. He had a gift for making connections and making you feel like you were the center of his attention when he was talking to you. He didn’t know a stranger,” Alford told APN.
Ritter was likely one of the first openly homosexual cartoonists at a corporate daily newspaper.
He moved to Atlanta in the mid-2000s after Alford and Alford’s boyfriend, Tim Messier, relocated to the city. Ritter had visited Atlanta often before he moved and already had several friends by the time he arrived.
“We were just new gays together,” Alford said. “We would travel along and go to parties and dance shirtless and all that good stuff. We had fun just being young and newly gay. We sort of came of age together and came out at the same time. We had that bond.”
Mike took a job at the Southern Voice magazine, where he worked until the newspaper went bankrupt in 2009.
Last year, Ritter become Art Director at the GA Voice. He also did work for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper and David Atlanta magazine.
“God bless him he loved print media,” Dyana Bagby, GA Voice editor told APN. “He was a diehard fan of print media and that was never going to go away.”
Ritter was well-known for his political cartoons in Atlanta.
Two of his popular cartoons dealt with the 2009 Atlanta Police Department (APD) raid on the Atlanta Eagle, a leather gay bar in Midtown. In the raid, the APD appears to have violated the constitutional rights of some 62 patrons and employees; the resulting lawsuits settled out of court. Atlanta Progressive News broke the story of the raid in 2009.
One of the cartoons depicted the APD on a boat with a giant net, pulling out of the ocean a beefy man wearing leather, with one officer asking another something like, “Should we throw ‘em back?” The Eagle made and sold t-shirts of this cartoon.
Another Eagle-related cartoon won third place for Best Original Editorial Cartoon in the National Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper contest.
“He is absolutely brilliant, witty, and smart, and funny, but also warm, and just the kindest, nicest guy you would ever meet,” Laura Douglas-Brown, GA Voice co-founder, told APN. “Not that that would stop him from eviscerating someone in a cartoon with biting political satire. But that was part of his genius.”
Friends who knew him closely noted Ritter’s “magical combination of intelligence, wit, and such a big heart.”
“He could talk about anything to anyone for however long,” Bagby said.
One of his favorite topics was vintage movies and music from the 1930’s and 40’s, of which he had encyclopedic knowledge. He would often sing old Bing Crosby tunes and make mix tapes for his friends, who say he was born in the wrong decade.
“I’ll always remember him as that wickedly funny man with a sarcastic sense of humor, political wit, and love for history,” friend Justin Ziegler said.
Ziegler had a special nickname for Ritter: he noted that Mike Ritter sounded like “My Critter,” which led him to call him Critter.
“You couldn’t hang out with Critter without learning about Napoleon or some war or battle from two hundred years ago. He was also the person to ask questions about ‘The Tudors’ at any point in the series. He would go above and beyond to help and be there for his friends – there are so few truly kind souls like that today.”
Ritter also was an opinionated APN reader. Ritter and APN’s News Editor often engaged in lengthy debates about editorial issues, including whether there is such a thing as objectivity in news, or whether the words “gay” and “homosexual” have the same meaning. Ritter’s comments and counterpoints helped to sharpen APN’s editorial policies.
Ritter is survived by his father, Dr. John Wayne Ritter, and step-mother, Mary Carmen Ritter, of San Dimas, California; his mother, Donna Copeland, of Salem, Oregon; numerous nieces and nephews; and six siblings: Patti Gering, of Moses Lake, Washington; Margaret Greer of South Carolina; Elizabeth Hardy, of Beaverton, Oregon; William James Ritter, of Salem, Oregon; Barbara Theroux of Long Beach, California; and Gina Weber of Ritzville, Washington.
Memorial services are being planned in Atlanta and in the Portland area.
The Atlanta service, “A Celebration of Mikeness,” will be held Tuesday, April 08, 2014, at 5pm, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Trustees Garden. Attire is recommended but not required, according to the Facebook announcement.