You might recognize the name Marc Murphy for his comic art, syndicated not only here in the Courier Journal, but in publications throughout the country. Murphy’s art cuts to the core of his political truth, and one that we happen to share here by and large at Never Nervous. He doesn’t flinch in the face of controversy, which is reflected in some particularly insightful imagery. By day, Murphy is a lawyer primarily working high profile white collar crimes, specifically in regards to environmental, anti-trust issues, and healthcare and tax fraud. We caught up to Murphy to ask him about his art, his legal work, and how to make a difference as an ordinary citizen.
Never Nervous: Tell us a little about your history. Have you always been an artist? Was it something that you grew up with or did you gravitate towards it? What’s your origin story?
Marc Murphy: I always drew. Once my pirate ship was published in Highlights Magazine when I was four (4) and the national acclaim and respect of my colleagues that came with that I knew there was no turning back. Actually, while I did always draw – I was That Kid In Class who did all of the posters and the occasional cartoon of the teacher with the big nose – I was drawn (no pun intended) to politics, history and law pretty early. Art was always second, but always there.
“Once my pirate ship was published in Highlights Magazine when I was four (4) and the national acclaim and respect of my colleagues that came with that I knew there was no turning back.”
I didn’t grow up in Louisville, but moved here for law school and then again after leaving the Army. I knew Hugh Haynie’s work and reputation, and Nick Anderson’s after him. After Nick won his Pulitzer and left for Houston it bugged me every day for all of those years that the Courier-Journal didn’t have a full-time cartoonist here, to add Louisville and Kentucky commentary to the national cartoons the paper pulled off the syndicates.
Finally, I decided to give it a try. To say the least, no one asked me to. I worked in secret for a while (the equivalentof learning three (3) chords on a cheap guitar) and presented a drawing to the Courier’s Keith Runyon. I owe him, David Hawpe and Pam Platt a lot for taking a chance with me. At first I drew on paper with ink, and the process was laborious and time-consuming. For the last several years I’ve drawn the cartoons on my iPad which allows me to draw anywhere, and transmit them to the Courier and to the parent Gannett Company (USA Today) with the press of a button. This allows me to publish five (5) cartoons a week.
NN: What was your undergrad? What led you to be a lawyer?
MM: I’m from Ashland, Kentucky. We weren’t poor but I needed money to go to college, and was fortunate to receive an Army scholarship to Notre Dame to do just that. The scholarship was life-changing, to say the least, both because of the opportunities at Notre Dame and in the Army, after. I majored in Economics – liberal arts – the bigger picture stuff. I can’t add, multiply, use algebra or balance a checkbook. But I do know how things will come out on the Laffer Curve. I decided to try to become a lawyer when I was in high school. Lots of reasons. I knew I would love trials, I knew I wanted to run for political office, and – like 75%? – of my peers I wanted to be Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. And that’s not a bad thing.
“I wanted to be Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird.”
NN: Why focus on white collar crime? What have you learned working on commercial property related crimes?
MM: I have been a prosecutor three (3) different times and ways in my career (Army Judge Advocate General, Indiana Deputy Prosecutor, and Jefferson County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney), so it’s natural that when I’m in private practice I want to practice criminal law. For various reasons I’ve always been in a large law firm in private practice (the former Brown, Todd & Heyburn and now Stites& Harbison) and the bulk of the defense work is the white collar variety. I enjoy it, but there are so few trials. I don’t want anyone to die in an untimely or suspicious fashion – I want that on the record – but I would prefer to have murder trials one after the other. From a professional standpoint they are the perfect mix of serious law, the human condition at its best and worst, and drama. That’s the lawyer’s perspective, of course.
“Commercial property related crimes” – like all crimes and, really, like all cases, are really at their core about people. People who make mistakes, exercise bad judgment, or try to take advantage of someone, or who have been taken advantage of. As others have said, trial lawyers have backstage passes to a world that is kept hidden from the rest.
NN: What’s the highest profile case that you’ve worked on?
MM: It depends upon the jurisdiction, really. I defended a Louisville man charged with murder in a rural Kentucky county. There was daily media reporting – pages and pages of newspaper coverage including testimony and photographs in papers in that and surrounding counties. Won that one. On the other side of the spectrum I wrote briefs for the US Supreme Court while I worked in the offices of Frank Haddad, Jr. here in Louisville. The decision changed the law of search and seizure in the United States, and I watched Dan Rather announce the decision during his newscast while I was in a bar with friends. Lost that one.
NN: Speaking of, what kind of environmentally oriented cases have you worked?
MM: Ordinarily the EPA and the subject of its investigation can come to terms and resolve regulatorydisputes civilly. Sometimes things fall apart – or are more serious at the outset – and the Department of Justice becomes involved. This can involve hazardous waste, Clean Air and Clean Water and even record keeping problems.
NN: Relative to that, what do you think of Trump’s silencing of the EPA and various other agencies, in regards to their scientific findings?
“The election of Donald Trump presents the greatest threat to our country since, perhaps, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even then there was no risk of our enemy undermining basic, long understood and agreed-upon Constitutional and democratic principles.”
MM: I think the election of Donald Trump presents the greatest threat to our country since, perhaps, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even then there was no risk of our enemy undermining basic, long understood and agreed-upon Constitutional and democratic principles. The danger from Trump and those who carried him to the White House isn’t so much what they will do and try to do, but HOW they are trying to do those things: By diminishing and actively attacking the free press, by bullying domestic “enemies”, and by actually ignoring and violating Constitutional requirements and restrictions on their actions. He may have committed treason.
Worse, he is encouraging dishonesty, both actual and intellectual, and our nation and what it used to represent – and needs to represent – is being soiled daily. This is not an argument aboutpolitical philosophy, or a good faith disagreement about strategic goals for the United States. He and his core crew are dramatically incompetent and underprepared, and refuse to seek assistance because they are either actually bad people or are insecure. This is already obvious to any objective observer. He is ruining America, and its promise.
NN: What other type of legal work do you do? Are there any types of cases that you typically avoid?
MM: I prefer criminal defense as it is the practice – aside from civil rights – that is most closely and most frequently tied directly to the Constitution. But I’ll take any case in which there’s an opportunity for trials or hearings in a courtroom. I try to avoid boring things. But they cannot always be avoided.
NN: How did you get into cartooning? How does your legal work and your art correspond? How do you find the time? How does one inform the other?
MM: As I mentioned, I really just jumped into cartooning. It was an atrocious act of hubris. Probably still is. But I love it. The cartooning, not the hubris. Some days the legal and art work don’t correspond at all, which is good for my peace of mind. Drawing at night can take me to a place where I’ve got to clear my mind, focus, and create on demand. In that regard, as lawyers will tell you, it’s just like practicing law. Finding the time is always an organizational challenge as you can imagine.
There are two (2) usually distinct processes: The Idea and the Drawing. Ideally, through spot reading online throughout a work day, I can sit down in the evening and begin drawing. Frequently, though, I sit down and have nothing, and have to start studying from scratch, with a deadline looming. Bourbon is key to the drawing, as is music. But I can’t do either until I have the idea. My wife suggests that even she feels some stress while she’s, say, upstairs, and there’s only silence from me downstairs. She’s relieved as I am when she hears the music finally begin. And/or the liquor cabinet door open.
“I really just jumped into cartooning. It was an atrocious act of hubris.”
NN: Given the current socio-political environment, how do you cut through the noise when seeking a new subject for your art? I mean, Trump and company are making a lot of moves.
MM: There’s a flood of outrages – legitimately bad, scary things – each day. Someone said yesterday that “sarcasm is dead”: It’s difficult to responsibly parody actions that were just weeks ago literally unthinkable. I swear I wake up each morning hoping that someone, something besides President Trump or Governor Bevin becomes important or newsworthy enough for me to draw, to give me – and everyone – a break. I also try to avoid the “easy hit” or sight gags – these days that’s left to Facebook memes and some other cartoonists. But there’s a thin line between trying to express my opinion at a different, slightly more subtle level on the one hand and, on the other, just becoming opaque, or, too much “inside baseball”.
That’s one reason I tend away from large dialogue boxes and toward the use of recognizable iconic images – using visual cues we (mostly) understand to represent different ideas. I also try to trust the audience – I hope that with many of my cartoons a reader has to have a working understand of our history as well as current events. I’d rather shoot higher (and have some miss the point) than lower.
NN: What kind of feedback to you get on your art? How does that influence your decisions going forward? For example, if you get negative feedback on something, does that inspire you to do more or less of whatever it is that encouraged that response?
MM: I receive a lot of feedback. On my own social media sites, through the Courier and USA Today comments, and in person. I receive some anonymous phone calls. Those are usually not favorable. I like to hear these responses, good or bad. I’ve never blocked or “unfriended” anyone. For what it’s worth, I’m never afraid to draw anything out of regard for myself. And I never draw simply to hurt someone, even a politician (I think everyone I draw is a Public Figure as that is defined in the law), so, I could. Fear of criticism does not impact my drawing.
The questions I ask myself about a cartoon are: (1) Is it true? (2) Is it fair (a fair expression of my opinion, one that I could defend in person in discussion)?, (3) does it make the point in an interesting, compelling and/or emotional way? and (4) is it well-drawn? (Do I like the art?) I don’t always get it right. But I try every single time. Emotionally, for reasons we don’t have time for here, I’m a fighter and have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. This is not a compliment, but it’s pretty true.
So, yeah, I fight the urge, when someone complains, to say to myself “oh YEAH? Well, watch THIS!” I suspect someone couldn’t do this work without having a bit of that in them. It helps being a former politician and a lawyer – I have some sense for the necessary boundaries and implications.
NN: Does your politics impact your legal work in any way?
MM: Yes. The two are entangled and are inseparable. Someone once “accused” me of being biased. I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I’m biased. These are opinion pages, not news reports.
NN: As someone with legal expertise, what is the best way that ordinary citizens can affect positive change?
MM: Vote. Attend meetings with elected officials. Talk to them in person. And, if they refuse to talk to you, tell the newspaper – and their political opponent – they refused to talk to you.
NN: Switching gears again, what kind of music scores your art? What are you listening to when you get stuff done?
“Honestly I probably draw because I can’t play the guitar well enough to have a band.”
MM: As I described, I’m not really sure I’m capable of drawing without music. I’m an enormous music fan. Honestly I probably draw because I can’t play the guitar well enough to have a band. (Although, for the record, most “protest songs” are awful). The music changes a bit with each cartoon – and in some cases informs the art itself. There is music for anger and rage, there is music for sympathy, music for true concern about our future, etc. Personal opinion: Modern Popular Country isn’t music for anything I’m drawing, ever. Everything else is on the table. Lots of guitars, though. On an ordinary night, you’re probably most likely to hear good storytelling in the music, from among the genres.
NN: What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into comic art?
MM: Kind of the same thing they tell someone wanting to play music: Play music. If you want to draw cartoons . . . start drawing cartoons. In the arts, you can’t wait for the right school or job or opportunity. Draw. Share. Eat Ramen Noodles. And then decide for how long you are willing to eat Ramen Noodles. I just finished Bruce Springsteen’s Autobiography. He wrote, and his friends confirmed, that he decided early that he would never – never – do anything else. He doesn’t say it this way but the understanding is that had he ultimately starved literally to death playing music, well, so be it. That sort of commitment, of course, doesn’t have to work out. But you get the point.