In the first panel of a cartoon drawn by Mike Mount, a crowd stands in front of a multi-story building under construction. Together they shout the name of a popular grocery store, expressing the common hope that she will find a home on the ground floor of this structure.
Through cartoons, he captures life in the suburbs of Washington
“Wegmans! Wegmans! Wegmans! Wegmans! Wegman!
In the next panel, the building stands in its final form, and two panels indicate which businesses have actually moved into the first floor.
“Nail – Spa”, it reads. “Tan,” reads the other.
If you live in a big city or a small town, you might be thinking “Huh?” or “Is this supposed to be funny?”
But if you live in one of Washington’s suburbs, this sketchy scene probably strikes a familiar disappointment. Mixed-use buildings are on the rise, bringing with them the hope that they will attract exciting new businesses, and then disappoint when those occupants end up looking like those that already exist a few blocks away. Mount’s cartoon caption read, “The Arlington Mixed-Use Lottery.”
“How many tanning salons, nail salons and ABC (liquor) stores are needed here?” Mount said one recent morning when I asked him about this cartoon. “I can think of a thousand things that can go into these places.”
Mount is not a professional designer. He’ll tell you he’s not even that great. He’s self-critical that way. “Drawing hands is one of the worst things for me,” he said. “I just can’t control it.”
But the father-of-two has long been a fan of the art form and in the past year has become a community cartoonist. He creates weekly cartoons for online media in his county of Northern Virginia, capturing in these scribbled squares the weird, comical, and relatable parts of life in one of Washington’s suburbs.
He does this work for free because he believes in supporting local journalism – which is dying one publication at a time across the country – and because of the critical eye he brings to his work.
“I would feel bad getting paid for things that weren’t worth it,” he said.
Value is subjective, but there is value in cartoons that focus on local communities. They reveal the problems, priorities and absurdities of the places, and in the case of the Mount cartoons, they do so about life in the suburbs. When someone from another state learns that someone is from Washington, they probably think of monuments, memorials, and city streets. But that term has become a generic shorthand for DC and its neighboring counties of Maryland and Virginia. These suburbs are places of concentration of wealth, power and social struggles. It is also where many of the people who make decisions with national consequences live and work.
Arlington, where Mount has lived for more than 20 years, is home to the Pentagon, Reagan National Airport and Amazon’s new headquarters.
One of Mount’s cartoons denounces Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos’ investment in space travel. It shows two people looking at a rocket with the word “Arlington” on the side firing up. The caption: “County Council consulted Bezos on fiscally responsible ways to spend its budget surplus this year.”
Another of his cartoons features two couples talking outside a house. The caption: “We moved to Arlington for public schools, but our house payment is really tuition.”
It’s funny (and moan-worthy), because it’s true. It has become increasingly normal for a house in Arlington to cost in the seven figures. In January, a headline on the WTOP website read, “Want a house in Arlington? $1.3 million should be enough.
Mount had no intention of becoming a community cartoonist. His work is born out of his admiration for others. It has all the books from “The Far Side” creator Gary Larson. “Like Seinfeld episodes, I can read them over and over and still laugh,” he said. So when the urge to create his own cartoons hit him about eight years ago, a few years after he went from being a national security producer for CNN to doing public relations work for a defense contractor , he accepted. He researched subjects worthy of social commentary, sketched them into scenes, and submitted them to The New Yorker.
The result: lots of rejection.
“I’d come with these cartoons and show them to my wife, and she’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s hilarious,’ or ‘I don’t understand,’ and send them over,” Mount said. . At some point, he realized he would have to submit hundreds of cartoons to maybe publish one. “I just didn’t have time to do that with work and family. But once in a while, I would round up 10 people and send them off, and then get email rejections.
Eventually, Mount started looking around and realized that the stories airing on ARLnow, an online medium that focuses on Arlington, provided a lot of material for the comic.
He now creates cartoons for the publication which air monthly online and weekly in a newsletter for paying members.
“Mike is well versed in local issues that really matter to Arlingtonians, but can seem almost comically minor to everyone else,” said Scott Brodbeck, founder and CEO of Local News Now, which publishes ARLnow, FFXnow and ALXnow. “Local to the point of absurdity is where I – and I suspect many readers – find a lot of the humor. But there’s also real satire and social commentary in there, that which helps highlight community topics that deserve more attention and consideration.
So far, his cartoons seem to be resonating with locals, based on feedback they’ve received on the site.
Of his mixed-use building cartoon, someone wrote, “I’ve never seen anything depict Arlington more accurately than Wegmans’ cartoon.”
About his cartoon about the high cost of housing, someone commented, “Taxes instead of tuition is a very real decision. Not a cartoon.
And after redesigning the county’s logo, depicting it with an overturned car in its center, someone praised its work, then snapped a photo of Maryland’s driver skills. This person wrote, “I’m shocked – shocked and appalled – that the overturned car doesn’t have a Maryland license spot.”
In an ARLnow article that introduced Mount to readers in August, he talked about having a large cartoon collection he calls “Rejected by the New Yorker.” It also set reader expectations.
“My cartoons don’t always make a home run, and one of these days I’m sure I’ll have a big collection of ‘Rejected by ARLnow,'” he reportedly said. “In the meantime, I hope people have fun with them.”