AUBURN, NY–Some people in the public eye shy away from controversy. Not Cayuga State College cartoonist T. Eric Mayhew, a man who, for the past two years, has fearlessly taken on the most volatile of campus issues, unafraid of the personal consequences his hard-hitting, muckraking cartoons might bring.
Mayhew's goal in cartooning, he says, is simple: to get to the heart of the matter, regardless of how unpopular his unorthodox views might make him with those who walk the campus' corridors of power.
"The true artist–as opposed to the cowardly, toe-the-party-line, middle-of-the-road entertainer of the masses–must never back down from the truth," says Mayhew, 22, whose daily comic strip, Cougars And Other Animals, has run in Cayuga State College's campus paper, The Daily Bard, for the past four semesters and shows no sign of stopping any time soon. "My cartoons are not about appealing to the lowest common denominator, like some I could name. I consider myself a Platonic gadfly, whose duty to the public is to keep Cayuga State's entrenched power elite on their toes."
Even his comic strip's title, Mayhew says, is designed to reflect this commitment to dissent and diversity.
"The Cayuga State sports teams may be called the Cougars, but not all of us here on campus are mindless, team-spirit conformists ruled by the group hivemind," says Mayhew, running his fingers thoughtfully across his goatee. "There may be a lot of so-called 'Cougars' on campus, but there are other animals, as well, including alternative-minded activists like myself and my friend Scooter, committed individuals who are ready to buck the system, no matter the cost."
Adds Mayhew: "There are a lot of people on this campus who would love to see me silenced."
Cougars And Other Animals, which chronicles the lives and loves, the trials and tribulations of an ethnically diverse group of undergraduates struggling to live meaningful lives of social justice and progressive values at Cayuga State College, boasts a readership of several hundred. In addition to the strip, Mayhew takes time to do single-panel political cartoons for The Daily Bard's opinion page, zeroing in on campus political targets with the laser-beam precision and single-mindedness of an agitator who fears none.
All of this has not come without its share of pain and sacrifice. Mayhew receives only $5 for each cartoon he draws, even though he will sometime spend hours struggling to nail that ideal turn of phrase, that perfect shade of cross-hatching, and that nuanced line needed to convey his work's subtler undercurrents. What's more, Mayhew's grade-point average plunged so low last semester that he was forced to drop a class. Still, he says, the importance of his cartooning comes before such bourgeois considerations as academic performance or vulgar financial gain.
"My cartoon strip is not like the work of the typical campus cartoonists, who stick to easy, safe topics like cafeteria food or dorm shenanigans," Mayhew says. "And I include more than your standard stock characters like 'Frat Guy' and 'Sorority Girl.' I have characters who are black, characters who are feminist, even one who is a lesbian. Sure, including controversial types like that may ruffle a few feathers, but it's something I have to do. Blacks, women, and, yes, even lesbians are human beings, just like you and me."
Mayhew's rabble-rousing has not gone unnoticed by his fellow students.
"Uh, yeah, I'm pretty sure I've seen that comic," says Cayuga State junior Aaron Cohen, 20. "That's the one with the guy with the beard, right? I think I may have read it once. Usually, I just do the puzzle."
Despite such resonance among students, Mayhew's unflinching political vision has won him more than a few enemies. Last October, an anonymous letter was sent to Mayhew's place of work at Ding-Dong Video stating that his cartoons "suck donkey cock." In March, he received a letter at The Bard calling him a "pretentious, self-absorbed, no-talent hack."
Mayhew's most controversial artistic statement to date came in May, when, during a debate over minority student incentive programs, Mayhew ran a single, devastating image on The Bard's opinion page: a drawing of hooded Klansmen bearing the caption: "C.S.C. Regents."
"By depicting the Cayuga State Board of Regents as Klansmen, I made a powerful statement about the reality of racism in our society today," Mayhew says. "I was pretty sure the fur was really going to fly over that one. For some reason, though, the entrenched power elite chose to not to respond. I guess they'd rather ignore me and just hope I magically go away. Well, I won't, Chancellor Davis."
"I've taken on every major campus controversy: the proposed 2.3 percent tuition hike, the student-council elections, even the brouhaha over the seg fees board's refusal to provide an additional $400 for the campus multicultural center," continues Mayhew, his ink-stained hands clenched in fists of righteous rage. "But for the most part, no one has heeded my call to revolution. Why? Campuswide political apathy, that's why. I'm making that subject the target of my next editorial cartoon. That should hit those apathetic sheep where they live. The shit will really hit the fan then, let me tell you."