The man behind the cartoons

Robert Denton hasn’t let a neurological disorder keep him from what he loves to do

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Diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease at age 11, Robert Denton never imagined he would someday be an award-winning cartoonist.

Denton says CMT, an inherited neurological disorder that’s currently incurable, is attacking his body’s peripheral nervous system which has led to the loss of muscle tissue. Now confined to a wheelchair, Denton has little mobility in his extremities and his voice is now gravelly and faint.

Although it didn’t dawn on him as a child, the diagnosis put Denton’s passion for drawing in jeopardy.

“Nothing was ever really discussed with me,” said Denton. “I was a kid. It’s all I knew. Drawing was something I loved to do so at the time, the diagnosis had no bearing on my diagnosis. My brother and I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up so we spent a lot of time together drawing. We would draw for hours and that was our entertainment. It didn’t stop because I was given this diagnosis.”

Denton continued to draw into his teens. In the early 1980s, he applied to an art school. Despite being accepted, he didn’t go. Instead, he applied to vocational school to become a graphics designer.

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As the school year approached, he was the first person on the waiting list to get into the program. No one dropped out, which forced Denton to alter his plans.

“I opted to do architectural drafting,” he said. “I graduated and actually spent some time doing some draft work. A year later, I went to university and studied psychology and education. At the time, my plan was to work toward a doctorate.”

Denton’s thirst for academics led to a shift in focus which meant he didn’t have as much time to draw.

He knew it was only a matter of time before his disease would start to take hold of his body. By his mid-20s, doctors expected he would require the use of a wheelchair. Denton defied the odds and continued to walk until he was in his mid-30s.

In 1997, he was forced to retire from his job as a counselor working with recovering addicts. He’d reached a point where he was collapsing because his body had become so weak.

“I naturally resisted moving to a wheelchair,” said Denton. “Stephanie, my wife, and I had just been married. We hadn’t been married a year when I got the wheelchair. She supported me in every way. I never would have made the transition as easily as I did had it not been for her. I became bored and depressed. I was inconsolable.”

It was then Denton would return to a passion he had all but pushed aside for close to 10 years.

“Every now and then I’d find myself doodling or scribbling but it wasn’t anything serious,” Denton continued. “After we got together, Stephanie had found a picture of my father typing, which I had drawn before I met her. After I was in the wheelchair, I told her I didn’t know what to do with myself anymore. She just looked at me and said, why not take up drawing again?”

That same week, Denton says a second sign pointed toward his return to drawing.

“The kids came home with their school book orders and one of the books was called ‘Learn How to Cartoon,’ said Denton. “I had always wanted to learn to draw cartoons and be a cartoonist. Stephanie bought the book for me along with some pencils and sketch pads and that’s what really got me back into it.”

By 2007, Denton was so immersed in his drawing that he opted to return to school. He enrolled at the Nova Scotia Community College in Truro where he took digital animation.

The course introduced him to computer programs which opened even more doors.

Coming out with two diplomas, Denton’s four years at NSCC also took a toll on his body.

“When I started, I could draw and paint on a canvas,” he said. “Over the four years at school, I slowly lost my ability to work on paper. At that point, I was exclusively working on a computer.”

Even though his movement was decreasing, Denton had no intentions of giving up his passion for a second time. In late 2011, he became the cartoonist for this publication. Five years later, he continues to produce a monthly cartoon – Tidal Bore – using a unique computer setup.

The setup features a secondary device that has a screen similar to the size of an iPad. He uses a touch screen digital pen on this device, which is connected to his main computer. As he glides the pen across the pad, his drawing appears on both screens.

“I can no longer grip a pencil with my fingers,” said Denton. “When you think about a pencil and paper, there’s a friction that occurs but in my case, it’s not there. The pencil just falls out of my fingers. With my computer screen, I wear a glove which allows my hand to slide. I can alter the settings in my software to a point where the pen doesn’t even have to touch the screen for it to register. I can free hand draw without having to grip my digital pen. It just rests in my hand and I guide it much like I would on paper.”

This past April, Denton was honoured with the Outstanding Cartoon award at Newspaper Atlantic’s Better Newspaper Competition in Halifax. Newspaper Atlantic represents more than 40 newspapers in the four Atlantic Provinces.

His winning cartoon highlighted the battle between the Province of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. It featured Premier Stephen McNeil as the Grinch taking away all of the presents under the Christmas tree while leaving behind nothing but legislation.

“The Grinch resemblance is unmistakable,” said the unnamed judge.

“I like the artwork to be sure but it’s the perfect metaphor for the teachers who were in a wage dispute with the government before Christmas. The Grinch forgoes the wages, raises and pensions in his sack for back-to-rule legislation instead. Merry Christmas teachers. It does what a political cartoon should do. It’s funny and caustic and it tells a story.”

Denton was speechless when he learned he had received the award.

“I’ve never been one to go after money or fame,” he said. “I have very simple interests. In my mind, there is something to be said for being able to produce a cartoon at a level where people want to actually look at it. That’s where my satisfaction comes from. I definitely appreciate being recognized in this way but for me, drawing is something I do.”

When it comes to his cartoons, Denton says his most enjoyable ones involve Colchester County. He says they’re the ones that hit home the most with people. Denton often talks to those he’s closest with to help generate some ideas before going to work.

His goal with each cartoon is to get people to stop and think, even if it has more of a comedic slant.

“I always try to have a message in my cartoons,” he said. “It’s always fun when you can have a cartoon that people get right away but when you can have some underlying focal points that require a little more thought, that’s fun too.”

In addition to his cartooning, Denton has also been hired by local businesses to produce some artwork and his caricatures receive rave reviews. He’d also love to do illustrations for a book in the future.

“This is all I have left,” said Denton. “There’s no medication available that can slow down what’s happening to my body. I’m losing my voice and I’m getting weaker with each passing day. I’m working with an occupational therapist and that’s helpful. I’m also looking at how I can build devices that will allow me to keep drawing. That’s the only way I can really move forward. But without my wife and drawing, I honestly have no reason to be alive. They both keep me going.”