Cartoonist Gary Cangemi does his part for the pro-life movement through ‘Umbert the Unborn’

Story and Photos by

Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

Correspondent

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Gary Cangemi, creator of “Umbert the Unborn,” holds a copy of his book, Umbert the Unborn: A Womb With a View, at a booth he sponsored at the National Right to Life Committee Convention held at DFW Airport June 27-29. 

Some dedicated pro-life workers join protest marches. Others quietly pray in front of abortion centers. Gary Cangemi changes hearts and minds about abortion with a cartoon character.

The talented graphic artist is the creator of “Umbert the Unborn” — a comic strip published regularly in the National Catholic Register and 100 diocesan newspapers and magazines (including the North Texas Catholic), church bulletins, and newsletters around the world. More than a million fans look forward to the regular antics of the precocious, pre-born baby boy as he anticipates life and all its potential from the comfort of a mother’s womb.

Cangemi gave birth to the witty, thoughtful character in 2001 after years of crafting edgy, often negative political cartoons.

“I wanted to do something positive for the pro-life movement,” says the resident of Scranton, Pennsylvania. “It was a cause I sympathized with but never contributed my time to.”

Remembering a political cartoon he once did featuring a fetus who took issue with being called “a blob of tissue,” Cangemi conceived a comic strip featuring an unborn baby with a face, personality, and voice.

“I thought it would give a certain reality and humanity to the unborn child instead of objectifying it,” he reasoned. “The comic strip is about celebrating life in the womb and giving the unborn child dignity.”

Some of the character’s musings are designed to draw a smile or laugh.

I realize I’m getting all the nutrition I need in here,” Umbert observes in one panel. “What I could really go for is a triple thick shake. Hello? Womb service?”

Others are more thought-provoking and tackle controversial issues.

Who says I’m unviable?” an outraged baby asks. “Because I’m dependent on my parents for everything? Because I can’t live outside the womb on my own? By that standard I won’t be viable till after college!”

But Umbert’s creator says his intentions aren’t confrontational.

“I don’t want to confront people except to point out their own illogic. At the same time, I’m not shy about addressing pro-life issues,” says the cartoonist who admits using the word “abortion” occasionally. “I didn’t want to water down Umbert and make it mundane, so he talks about abortion from the naive perspective as a child who hasn’t experienced the outside world yet.”

Helping the cartoon character tap into the emotions and psyche of a growing audience are a cast of other preborn pals. There’s tiny but assertive Vita the Viable, resident bookworm Elwood the Expected, one-inch tall embryonic Cousin Eb from Texas, frozen embryo Fredo, and a guardian angel who nurtures the growing boy and acts as a spiritual advisor.

One colorful persona spent only a limited time in Umbert’s world. Joyce for Choice ran against the comic strip star when he campaigned for President of the Unborn States of America. Umbert won the election by forfeit when Joyce for Choice’s mother phoned Planned Parenthood to make an appointment.

I don’t understand. What happened to my opponent, Joyce for Choice?” Umbert questioned after being declared the winner.

Her mother exercised it,” another character responds somberly.

The perfect mix of wit with weighty message, makes Cangemi’s readers think.

“Sometimes I make people laugh and give them a good chuckle. That draws them in,” the cartoonist says, explaining his approach. “Then, after I have their attention, I hit them with something poignant.”

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With the help of audience participation, Gary Cangemi draws a strip at a workshop he led at the NRLC June 28.

Drawing Umbert is a labor of love for the Rockville, Maryland, native who grew up learning how to sketch on used paper his father, a printer, brought home from work. He refined his talents as a student at Robert E. Peary High School where a popular comic strip, drafted for the student newspaper, received an Award of Excellence from the Maryland High School Journalism Association.

After three years in a Jesuit seminary discerning a call to the priesthood and a short stint as a human services employee, the quick-thinking caricaturist decided to pursue a career as a full time freelance artist. Twenty years later, inspired by legendary cartoonist Charles Schulz, he created Umbert.

“Schulz’ “Peanuts” was a very powerful comic strip. It was spiritual and had a very Christian theme to it,” Cangemi says, describing what he believes made the pop culture classic so appealing.

To honor Schulz, the cartoonist borrowed a feature from Peanut’s character Charlie Brown for Umbert.

“Both characters have a curlycue on their head,” he discloses. “Umbert’s is vertical where Charlie Brown’s is horizontal. It’s a little tribute.”

Like the “Peanuts” franchise, “Umbert the Unborn” is developing a fan base thanks to books, (Umbert the Unborn: A Womb With a View and Umbert the Unborn: Labor of Love) a website, T-shirt, and other novelties. When Cangemi isn’t imagining new adventures for his characters, he operates a graphic arts studio, serves as chairman for Pennsylvanians for Human Life, and speaks at pro-life events like the recent National Right to Life Convention (NRLC) convention in Grapevine. During a workshop presentation, the ardent pro-life advocate crafted a comic strip with help from convention participants to publish in the future.

“Thinking on my feet is one of the things I do,” he said with enthusiasm. “I love to think out loud under pressure. Deadlines don’t bother me.”

Unlike other cartoonists who achieve success and live off royalties, Cangemi has no plans to retire. The cause he fights for is too important.

“I hear from a lot of women who’ve had miscarriages. They honor me by saying my strip sustained and lifted their spirits,” says the married father of three who gives unborn children the attention and respect they deserve. “Those things just blow me away and I’m very gratified.”

But the feedback isn’t always positive.

A pro-choice activist from Austin spotted Cangemi’s booth at the 2013 (NRLC) convention and called the image of Umbert the Unborn “deeply unsettling.” She mentioned his cartoon in an online rant demeaning the comic strip and the pro-life gathering.

Critics like her ask: How can a fetus have friends and a computer? How does an unborn baby think, speak, or do things?

“If they find that absurd, what about Garfield and Snoopy?” he points out. “These things make millions of dollars but no one thinks twice about humanizing a cat or dog.”

Cangemi fields the occasional vitriol he receives from pro-abortion advocates with a polite, respectful response.

“After all, I want to change their hearts and minds, too.”

 See Also:  

NRLC_Button.jpgNatl. Right to Life Committee renews pro-lifers at convention days after Texas abortion bill blocked

Laraine Methke attended the 2013 National Right to Life Convention at the DFW Hyatt Regency Hotel on June 28 with renewed determination. Days earlier, the St. Joseph parishioner watched from her Arlington home as pro-abortion advocates shut down the legislative process in the Texas Senate and prevented passage of a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks.

Gary-Cangemi-BUTTON.jpgSome dedicated pro-life workers join protest marches. Others quietly pray in front of abortion centers. Gary Cangemi changes hearts and minds about abortion with a cartoon character. The talented graphic artist is the creator of “Umbert the Unborn” — a comic strip published regularly in the National Catholic Register and 100 diocesan newspapers and magazines (including the North Texas Catholic), church bulletins, and newsletters around the world. More than a million fans look forward to the regular antics of the precocious, pre-born baby boy as he anticipates life and all its potential from the comfort of a mother’s womb.

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