From cheese labels to New Era cartoonist: How this artist sketched his way to drawing for Church magazines

SALT LAKE CITY — For more than 40 years, many Latter-day Saint youth, when they received their copy of the New Era magazine, flipped straight to their favorite page: the comics page.

Val Chadwick Bagley has a lot to do with that. His iconic cartoons have been regularly featured in the New Era since 1978 and the Friend since 2000. Having recently celebrated his 40th anniversary of drawing comics for the church magazines, Bagley estimates he has drawn close to 1,000 cartoons for the two magazines during that time.

“Pretty much most of my life I’ve known what I wanted to do for a living; I just didn’t know it would be drawing for the Church,” Bagley said.

Bagley’s love of drawing can be traced back to his childhood. His mother kept drawings he made when he was 7, which he still has today, and he submitted his first cartoon to the Friend at that same age. It was published six months later, but he was disappointed with the final result because he felt he could do better. He threw the magazine away.

Val Chadwick Bagley's mother saved these pictures that he drew when he was seven years old.
Val Chadwick Bagley’s mother saved these pictures that he drew when he was seven years old.

Despite his initial discouragement, Bagley continued to draw, and it was during his mission in Virginia for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that Bagley first submitted one of his drawings to the New Era in 1978.

“I kept four cartoon journals on my mission, and that is how I learned how to draw,” Bagley said. “My mission president assigned me to be the mission public relations director. I drew cartoons for visiting general authorities and also drew cartoons for our mission newsletter.”

Returning home, Bagley at first struggled to turn his love of drawing comics into a successful venture.

“I went to college four different times but never finished a quarter,” Bagley said. “They don’t really teach cartooning, which is more of an individual drawing skill. One of my art teachers told me I could be ‘a really good artist if I just gave up this cartooning thing.’”

In addition, Bagley had a nationally syndicated comic strip called “Goblin” that ran from 1986-1987 in several newspapers, including the Deseret News. His initial excitement at “discovering his calling” was diminished when a survey revealed that “Goblin” was “overwhelmingly hated.” The comic strip was dropped from syndication soon after.

“When it was canceled, I laid out on my front lawn and bawled and cried and wished I was a plumber,” Bagley said in a previous interview with the Deseret News. “It was my life’s dream. I thought I’d be doing that forever.”

Unable to find another job cartooning, Bagley went to work designing cheese labels and hot dog packages for seven years.

As a missionary in Virginia, Val Chadwick Bagley kept four different cartoon journals (as well as two “regular” journals).
As a missionary in Virginia, Val Chadwick Bagley kept four different cartoon journals (as well as two “regular” journals).

It was a scripture that brought Bagley back to cartooning.

“While waiting in the temple, I randomly was turning the pages of the Book of Mormon, and out of the 6,604 verses, one verse jumped out and grabbed me because of one word,” he said in an interview.

“Yea, and we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and … in all manner of precious things of every kind and art; …” (see Helaman 12:2).

The word “art” gave Bagley the inspiration he needed to begin his cartooning business called “The Cartoonist Guy.”

Bagley’s initial idea was to teach cartooning, but he soon discovered he didn’t like teaching. Instead, with the help of a contact he made at Covenant Communications while designing cheese labels, Bagley drew the pictures for a coloring book back in 1992, his first job for Covenant Communications. That partnership continues to this day.

Through the years, other cartooning opportunities have arisen that Bagley never even expected, including being commissioned by the church to “draw a cartoon illustrating a talk by then-Elder Dallin H. Oaks. It was shown during his talk in general conference on April 1, 2001," Bagley said.

The ideas for what Bagley draws can come from many different places.

“Sometimes I get the ideas from the things people say, but generally I stare at a blank piece of paper and try to think of relatable situations that the youth will get, then hopefully make it funny,” Bagley said. “My youngest son, who was about 6 at the time, made a comment at church which I turned into a cartoon that was printed.”

Inside pages of "Sunday Activity Book" by Val Chadwick Bagley.
Inside pages of “Sunday Activity Book” by Val Chadwick Bagley.

Speaking of family, Bagley jokes that “like being a prophet in their own country, my family for the most part is unimpressed that I draw for the New Era."

Yet, Bagley acknowledged in a previous article that “he is grateful that his grandchildren can enjoy his books and for the unwavering support of his wife, Ruth.”

Bagley’s ideas for drawings have referenced many gospel topics, but he notes the ones he’s done the most include Noah’s Ark, the Book of Mormon, bishop interviews, missionaries and other topics for youths.

Bagley, however, draws a fine line with his cartoons when it comes to the sacred aspects of the gospel.

“My cartoons may be gospel-related, but they don’t have anything really to do with the gospel itself. I will concede that sometimes my cartoons are based on certain scriptures … but I actually think this is a good thing because potentially it could cause a person to look up that scripture,” Bagley said in an interview. “For the most part, my cartoons are about people living the gospel, not the actual teachings themselves. Also, I already know the New Era would never print a cartoon that made light of sacred things, which I wouldn’t draw anyway.”

Val Chadwick Bagley with several of his books and drawings.
Val Chadwick Bagley with several of his books and drawings.

Along with publishing his cartoons in the New Era and the Friend, Bagley has illustrated more than 100 products — including books, card games and coloring books — for Covenant Communications that has contributed to over 1 million products.

His newest publication from Covenant Communications is the “Sunday Activity Book,” a 190-page book that includes dot-to-dots, mazes, coloring pages, seek and find, crafts and games.

And all of it began with drawing a cartoon for the Friend as a 7-year-old.

After 40 years of drawing cartoons for the New Era, Bagley has no plans to slow down or stop drawing the cartoons that generations of Latter-day Saint youths and adults have come to love.

“I’ve pretty much picked all the low-hanging fruit, and yet I still keep thinking of new ideas,” he said.