BELFAST, Maine — If the old adage is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s not a stretch to figure that Douglas Coffin’s collection of editorial cartoons for the Waldo Independent from 1985 to 2008 tells the story of a changing community, one panel at a time.
When Coffin, 72, arrived in Waldo County in the late 1970s, Belfast was “chickens, shoes and empty storefronts,” a city that might not be easily recognizable to people who love it today. Instead of an inviting waterfront, there were grain silos and processing plants, a crumbling pedestrian footbridge and no tourism to speak of.
“There were trucks with chicken feathers blowing out the back. Stores on Main Street with weird smells in them,” the Stockton Springs man said. “Belfast did not get here overnight. It evolved slowly. It still is evolving.”
In “Belfast: Our Town and Times in the Editorial Cartoons of Douglas Coffin,” a show that will run in the Barbara Kramer Gallery at the Belfast Free Library until March 31, people can get a feel for the grittier, less polished city that existed then and its transformation to what it is today.
Among the chapters of the city’s evolution he captured with his pen are the pitched local fights over waterfront development, the fate of the Armistice Footbridge and the future of the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad, which was owned by the city and had its terminus on the harbor. His cartoons are a window into the arrival and impact of credit card giant MBNA, the rejection by voters of big-box stores in the city and more.
The Waldo Independent, which launched in 1985 as a breakaway alternative to the Republican Journal, was a scrappy, well-read newspaper that brought another voice to the city’s media landscape. Coffin’s cartoons were a weekly highlight, according to Jay Davis, the first editor of the Independent.
“In a paper like the Independent, we write about so few things every week. Some of them might be in a column, or a news story or an editorial. Douglas put them into picture format, and often that was the clearest view of the issue of all,” Davis said. “Douglas’s graceful lines stood in good contrast to the hammer approach of the editor writing editorials.”
By the time he began doing editorial cartoons for the Independent, Coffin, from Lewiston, already had garnered quite a lot of artistic experience. He had spent his 20s in New York, trying to become a cartoonist. He drew a comic strip called “Cronies” for the Maine Times, an alternative weekly, from 1977 to 1979.
“I had my start there,” he said.
But he had bigger aspirations, pitching the comic strip to big syndicates, but was rejected 21 times before one finally said OK. That launched his three-year career as a nationally syndicated cartoonist, who drew six daily panels and one Sunday strip of “Fletcher’s Landing,” a comic set in rural Maine.
“It was a tough job. The toughest job I ever had,” Coffin said. “I could never get ahead.”
After the strip was canceled, he and his now ex-wife went to Philadelphia, where he worked as the creative director at a small advertising agency. That’s where he was when he started doing the editorial cartoons for the Independent.
“He and I would talk about things he wanted to draw,” Davis said. “His cartoons always came back with a Maine accent.”
When Coffin and his family moved home to Maine, Waldo County was, perhaps as it always is, a tumultuous place with a lot of scope for an editorial cartoonist. His pen was there for all of it. Visitors to the library can see his quirky take on national events and local happenings as reliable as Thanksgiving, mud season and annual town meetings in March.
But he also captured the decline of the poultry industry, the devastation that budget cuts wreaked on local school districts and the trouble the all-volunteer Belfast Planning Board had in coping with big, out-of-state developers.
Coffin’s panels are a snapshot of a time when the city’s future was far from settled — something he believes is still true. But a better understanding of the past can help.
“I hope people who see the show gain an understanding that Belfast has evolved in the last 30 years. It’s quite different now, and it will be quite different in the future,” he said. “These are living places and they change.”