KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Chances are, most people couldn’t pick many big-name cartoonists out of a crowd, which is fine with Wiley Miller as he quietly goes about his life in Kennebunkport.
Though Miller doesn’t have the face recognition of titans like Charles Schultz or Stan Lee, his satirical comic strip “Non Sequitur” runs in 800 newspapers in 20 countries and his characters and settings draw inspiration from the Maine Diner, a restaurant in Wells.
“If you’re a cartoonist, the average person isn’t likely to even know your name,” said Miller during a telephone interview Sunday. “They’ll know the name of your feature, but they won’t know your name. That’s fine. It’s not a personal name recognition that you’re interested in. It’s the recognition of your work that you want.”
Aside from the obvious acclaim of “Non Sequitur,” as evidenced by its vast circulation, including in the Bangor Daily News, Miller said it isn’t always noticed in positive terms. He writes about the absurdities of everyday life with audiences of all ages in mind, but also chooses controversial topics meant to generate discussion. He found himself in the limelight in 2010 with a comic titled “Where’s Muhammad?” which was published on the heels of another comic in a Danish newspaper that depicted a drawing of the prophet Muhammad that infuriated many in the Muslim world.
Under the heading “Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher…” Miller’s single-frame cartoon, inspired by the children’s “Where’s Waldo?” series, featured people and animals in a typical park setting. The joke was that Muhammad, the founder of Islam whose visual depiction is prohibited by religious doctrine, was nowhere to be found in Miller’s cartoon. Despite that, most major newspapers in the United States refused to publish it, though many smaller ones did.
“It became a huge story all across the country,” said Miller. “The smaller papers all ran it, but the bigger papers were scared to death. Readers all across the country were just furious.”
Though Miller said he was surprised by the response, he was even more surprised last week when the Cleveland Plain Dealer pulled another of his comics and ran an editor’s note in its place. That comic featured a rabbit looking at a police lineup of various animals and saying “OK, I know how bad it sounds, but they all really do look alike to me…” According to Miller, an editor at the Plain Dealer saw racial undertones.
“Editors are word people. A cartoon is an abstract,” he said. “Today [editors] seem to be so much more afraid of a quote offending anybody that their first reaction is to err on the side of caution. Since they can’t fix the copy in it, they just cancel it. This was just a straight gag, very innocuous. The cartoons that you think are going to raise some hackles quite often get nothing. The ones you don’t expect to sometimes evoke some rancor.”
Miller, who has been drawing for as long as he can remember and who was a political cartoonist for many years at several newspapers, including the San Francisco Examiner, said seeing controversy among newspapers around his work where there should be none is disappointing.
“In the old days, that’s how the newspaper industry made their business; they weren’t afraid of controversy,” said Miller. “Today they’re so petrified of losing a single reader that they err way on the side of caution. This has become more of a problem with everyplace being a one-newspaper town.”
Miller said his own goals as a cartoonist are often at odds with that.
“I’m a satirist,” he said. “That’s the essence of my work. It does take on serious topics, but by putting a silly hat on it to emphasize how silly these things are.”
Miller, said he has been attacked from both sides of the political spectrum even though his work has targeted both. He sees that polarization as a major threat in American society, from the general populace all the way to a gridlocked Congress. He said so many people making judgments based on labels of “liberal” or “conservative,” or even “moderate,” is leading to the death of healthy debate about the actual issues. He sees that in the comment he receives from readers.
“What happens quite often when people get angry at something I’ve pointed out, they’ll immediately call me all kinds of names and question my intelligence,” he said. “One thing they never get around to doing is saying anything about the issue I’m hitting on or saying how I’m wrong. They launch right into an attack on you and your integrity. It’s the whole Rush Limbaugh mentality. Attack, attack, attack and ignore the issue. There is no discourse anymore, especially in government.”
Miller and his wife, Victoria Coviello, who is also a writer, moved to Kennebunkport in 2004 after many of years of being summer visitors. Maine is not just a home for Miller; it’s an inspiration. He said some of his settings and characters, such as Offshore Flo and Captain Eddie, are inspired by what he called the “solid people” of coastal Maine. More specifically, he said he often has the Maine Diner in Wells in mind while he’s writing.
“I hear from readers all the time who really love reading the Maine accent within the characters,” he said. “It’s part of the unique atmosphere of Maine. It really is a special place.”
Julie Bonser, a manager at the Maine Diner, said Sunday that it isn’t necessarily well-known among the restaurant’s employees that “Non Sequitur” is channeling them, but it doesn’t surprise her either.
“There are quite a few waitresses here that fit that bill,” she said.
Miller, 60, said he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.
“This is an art form; it’s who you are,” he said. “It’s not something you retire from. It’s something you die from. When I go you’ll probably find me slumped over my drawing board.”