Sad news to report. Talented cartoonist Mike Ritter, the art director for GA Voice in Atlanta and a former Cagle.com contributor, died suddenly on Sunday after emergency open heart surgery. He was just 48.

After attending college at Arizona State, Mike was hired as the editorial cartoonist for the Arizona Tribune in 1992, where he stayed for 13 years before leaving in 2005. His cartoons were syndicated by King Features, and he won a slew of awards, including the Thomson newspaper chain’s highest award for illustration and a Freedom of Information Award from the Arizona Newspaper Association.

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Here’s Mike (right) at the 2004 AAEC Convention. To the left is a smiling Gary Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury. (Photo courtesy Brian Fairrington)

Most notably was that Mike was an openly gay staff cartoonist at a mainstream daily newspaper in a harshly conservative state. According to former Editor & Publisher reporter Dave Astor, Mike was a former registered Republican, but as time went on his views became more and more libertarian.

Clay Jones, who draws cartoons for the Free Lace-Star, was the first cartoonist Mike told he was gay. Mike wanted Clay to help out him, but Clay refused, only to go on to accidentally out him later in a funny anecdote which includes Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Michael Ramirez:

“I was visiting Los Angeles and I was in the offices of The Los Angeles Times visiting Michael Ramirez.  We were in the midst of a conversation when Mike Ritter’s name came up and somewhere in there I related how Ritter wanted me to out him (I assumed by this point everyone knew).  This was several months after Mike had confided in me (don’t know if “confided” is the right word since he wanted to be out, but didn’t want to do it himself).  Ramirez was in shock and immediately picked up his phone and called Ritter.  I’m screaming no but Ramirez gets on the phone and asks Ritter, “are you gay?  Clay just told me this.”  Ritter laughed and said yes and then the three of us, on a speaker phone had a 20 minute conversation.”

After Mike left the Tribune he fell off the radar, stopped coming to AAEC events and relocated to Georgia, where he would eventually become the art director for the LGBT newspaper GA Voice. He didn’t stop drawing cartoons – here are some of his best from his time at the GAVoice:

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“Mike was a dear friend, a great person. He made me laugh. He made me think. He made me a better person and a better editor. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of old music and old movies. A true Renaissance man,” said Dyana Bagby, GA Voice editor. “He kept his great sense of humor until the very end even though he was in pain and uncomfortable. We at the GA Voice are heartbroken.”

Many friends and former colleagues have taken to Facebook and other channels to talk about the impact of Mike’s work:

“He was such an inspiration for me when I started out. And he was extraordinarily kind to me at my very first convention in Lexington. He will be missed.” – Adam Zyglis, Buffalo News

“I don’t think I’ve laughed harder than the year we were in Lexington, when Mike was president of the AAEC. Marshall Ramsey also put in an ultra-rare appearance that convention, and between the two of them in the hospitality suite on the last night, I had trouble breathing.” – JP Trostle, Indy Week

“What a horrible loss. I only really knew him through his work, which was awe-inspiring.” – Rick McKee, Augusta Chronicle

“I’ll forever remember helping a very happily soused Mike (singing show toons) make our way back to the hotel in Chattanooga. The guy was always in perpetual party mode and a super talent.” – Jeff Parker, Dustin