I first met Mike Ritter in 1999, on the rooftop patio of this great little bar in Chattanooga. Directly across the street from the daily newspaper, it was where all the reporters went to drink after deadline (or, maybe, before), so we cartoonists felt right at home. Mike was going on and on about the classic ‘Road to …’ comedies of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, which, as I would soon discover, were not just his favorite movies, but quite possibly his favorite anything. I remember thinking at the time, ‘no one can talk about Dorothy Lamour’s outfits for 20 minutes and not be gay.’ So, got that right….
Others have recounted his incredible talent, wicked wit, and sense of humor. All true. Mike’s passion and insight were keenly refreshing. He once described the AAEC convention as a necessary way station to recharge his inspiration every year, always giving him just enough of a kick to make it through to the next year’s convention. ‘It’s like one of those turbo boosters on a Hot Wheels track, launching the car around for another lap.’ There isn’t a cartoonist gathering I’ve gone to since where I haven’t thought about that.
I loved Mike’s drawing style and warped perspective — both literally and figuratively. As energetic as his line could be, his work often had a dark tinge to it, full of shadows and inky blackness. My all-time favorite cartoon by him was one on a national frenzy over a huge lottery jackpot, after people had reportedly spent their savings on tickets. A forlorn figure hunches over a pile of shredded lottery tickets in the middle of a vast, empty apartment. The small child sitting on the floor looks up at the figure and asks, “Did we win?” It is heartbreaking.
Looking back now, I realize it’s been almost 10 years since Mike and I talked, twice as long as the handful of years we were friends. We worked together when he was President of the AAEC, but even then it was clear he was starting to pull away. Mike got harder and harder to get ahold of and, as happened to so many of us, stopped returning my calls altogether. I was happy to hear he had resurfaced in Atlanta a few years ago, apparently successful in rebooting his life.
It sounds as if Mike had begun to reach out to old associates recently. We had friended each other on facebook and traded a few chats, but his untimely demise ended that chance to get drinks and catch up.
You know, I believe “Road to Morocco” might cheer me up. I know Mike would enthusiastically agree.