Iowa cartoonist Rick Lem, founder of Toons, reflects on his career


Rick Lem was just a kid attending school in Ankeny when he discovered he could entertain his friends by drawing cartoons. It was the unofficial start of his illustrious career as a designer.

“Laughter is one of the greatest things,” Lem said. “It does a lot to help you maintain your sanity.”

Now, from an office in his home near Kelley, Lem continues to draw cartoons for the Tri-County Times newspaper and has long been the founder and owner of Toons, a free cartoon newspaper he launched in 1987.

Lem sold the Toons about four years ago, and under his new owner, the Toons stopped publishing last winter.

After graduating from Ames High School in 1971, Lem went to the University of Iowa where he was a finance student, “but boy, that was boring,” he said. The arts classes he was taking next door were where he really cared.

Lem started drawing cartoons for the Tri-County Times

After the University of Iowa, he had a few sales jobs and a short but miserable foray into a waterproofing franchise. He received a graphic design degree from Iowa State. It didn’t take long before he sold advertisements for the Tri-County Times.

“I started doing cartoons for (longtime editor) Ed Rood, and he loved them. Next thing I know, I was doing a cartoon every week, and Ed was kind enough to print them out – no matter how bad they were, ”Lem said. “I will always be eternally grateful to Ed.”

Rood is a renowned wildlife photographer and Lem suggested he take part in one of the photo trips.

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“Ed always had a reason why it wouldn’t work for me to go with him,” Lem said. “Finally, I just asked him, ‘Why don’t you take me with you?’ And he said, ‘Because you’re too loud. You would make everything run away for miles around. You cannot remain silent for 30 seconds.

“Well, I couldn’t argue with that. He was absolutely right.

Toons founder Rick Lem laughs as he tells a story in his home office, hears from Kelley on July 15, 2021.

But Lem was good at cartoons, which still appear in the Tri-County Times. Since he started drawing them around 1984, he has illustrated thousands of them.

Lem tends to stay away from political cartoons because “ultimately everyone, on all sides of politics, hates your guts. Almost all of my designs for publication are about family and things like that. The more they can be in common with your life, the more people love them. “

He often puts children in his cartoons, especially his two grandsons and two granddaughters. He also draws a lot of cartoons about fishing because it is an activity that has been important to his family through the generations.

Toons started out as campus cartoons

After Rick Lem sold his newspaper business, Toons, the new owner released two original Lem cartoon books, pictured at his home near Kelley on July 15, 2021.

In 1987, Lem wanted to do something on his own, so he started a free cartoon journal that published every two weeks for six months of the year.

“At first I called it Campus Cartoons. I would take the papers to the dorms and people would say, ‘Hey! The toons are there, ”Lem said. “So I started calling him Toons.”

The newspaper featured Lem’s own designs as well as a wide variety of designs available from the services and unions to which he subscribed.

“This business was tough, but it was really fun at the same time,” Lem said. “I used to stand on street corners and hand them out. “

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A childhood full of creativity, adventure and ice cream

Lem grew up in a creative household. Her father was a commercial artist, a position known today as a graphic artist.

“He would be downstairs illustrating gloves for a catalog or doing promotional paintings to showcase the virtues of the city of Ankeny,” he said.

Lem grew up in Ankeny in the third house built east of Highway 69, he said. He had a paper route in the afternoon delivering the Des Moines register to residents up and down that highway.

The pranks have escalated year after year at the Lem House, as seen in this cartoon from the archives of Rick Lem pictured at his home near Kelley on July 15, 2021.

“I was a bit hoarse and got the paper route to cut down a bit,” Lem said. “Then they moved the drop of paper to the Ankeny Dairy Sweet.

“So now I had the money and I knew all the women who made ice cream, and they would do ‘Something special, just for you, Ricky’, so I got bigger. legs, I could walk forever.

Lem rode his bike around town and walked about 3 km to school. “But I could do 3 miles very easily,” he said with a laugh.

“It was all cornfields and swamps – wonderful. My old fishing holes have long been paved.

Lem learned to draw as a child and often used his drawing skills to entertain his friends when he should have been careful with the teacher, he said.

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Rick Lem points out a detail in a sketch from a recent cartoon photographed at his home near Kelley on July 15, 2021.

Because having fun for people with his cartoons has always come naturally to him, he said.

“I have a chronic need to entertain, I was told,” Lem said with a chuckle. “I have tangential brain reception and transmission going on. A lot of people focus on one thing. I hear one thing and get all this impact from it.

“It can be great when you’re trying to come up with cartoon ideas, but it can be really bad when you’re having a conversation with someone and you need to be blunt.”

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