April 2005

Karin L. Kross


Politics and Sequential Art

Last fall, with tempers running rather high in the pre-election climate here in the U.S., the editors of Fantagraphics Books decided to wear their political hearts right on their sleeves, starting with the "Special Bushwarming Edition" of their Holiday 2004 catalog. The Steve Brodner cover depicted George W. Bush as the Sorceror's Apprentice (as played by Mickey Mouse), chopping a Saddam Hussein-faced broom into yet more brooms, each bearing the face of Osama Bin Laden. Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, and company continued to put their money where their mouths were with the publication of Bush Junta (subtitled "25 Cartoonists on the Mayberry Machiabelli and the Abuse of Power," and co-edited by Groth) and Freedom Fries, a collection of political cartoonist Steve Brodner's work that covers over twenty-five years.

What you think of these books is going to depend in no small part on where your politics lie. Partisans on the right are going to be annoyed (sometimes very much so); partisans on the left will feel both angry and pleasantly vindicated; and the neutral middle will, of course, end up somewhere in between -- or possibly fail to care, having had a bellyful of this sort of thing from other sources. In the interests of disclosure, I should note that I voted for John Edwards in the Texas primary, and for Kerry in the November presidential election; I leave the degree to which that affects your reading of this column to your discretion.

In Bush Junta, editors Gary Groth and Mack White have assembled a team of cartoonists to cover, in some detail, the histories of the Bush family and the other members of the current administration. Alex Jones, in his introduction, describes the volume as "the first comic book in history to have a bibliography," which while perhaps not strictly true (Paradox Press's Big Book series tends to be sourced, if I remember correctly) is meant to establish certain bona fides for the content that follows.

The cast of assembled artists is notable -- Steve Brodner contributes a piece on the George W. Bush environmental record; Spain Rodriguez does a quick overview of the current war in Iraq (the brevity of which may be attributed to the fact that said war is still going in varying degrees, and there's not much in the way of historical perspective on that business yet); Carol Swain illustrates a woman's story of how she was never able to vote on Election Day 2000; and the bete noire of the American Right, Ted Rall, takes on the influence of the neoconservative movement on the current administration.

The result is a compilation that is about as polarizing as Fahrenheit 9/11, and in some cases covers much the same ground. And as with Michael Moore's film, conservative partisans will decry it as scandal- and conspiracy-mongering of the worst kind, and will find special fault with the occasional venture into potty humor -- as with Scott Marshall's attack on Donald Rumsfeld -- and the deeply unflattering illustrations of the subjects. Their opposite numbers will probably feel something akin to the mixture of outrage and exhilaration that the film provoked: outrage at the corruption and abuse, and exhilaration from seeing one's enemies being exposed for crooks.
As a result, Bush Junta is somewhat review-proof: either you're going to agree with what it's up to, or you're not, and if you don't, you'll hate it. Period. If you agree with its politics, you may take issue with the quality of the art, or the excessive crowding of text present on some pages, but you'll be glad to see the message getting out, one way or the other.

Given that Steve Brodner's contributions to Bush Junta are some of the stronger parts of the book (including the cover), it comes as no surprise that his own anthology, Freedom Fries, is itself a very good collection. Brodner's career as a political cartoonist effectively began during his years as a student at Cooper Union in the mid-1970s, during which time he won a $1,500 prize from the Population Institute for a cartoon on the effects of overpopulation. (Charles Addams won the third place prize in that same competition.) From there, he self-published three issues of The New York Illustrated News before going on to a distinguished career as a freelance illustrator and cartoonist for a list of publications that includes Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker.

Freedom Fries's chronological arrangement of over 300 illustrations and cartoons starts with the Reagan years and proceeds through George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, and as such it's a valuable work. It's a satirist's-eye view of the last twenty-five years, and you can see the mood shift from frustration and bemusement under Reagan and Bush, to mostly bemusement and annoyance under Clinton, and finally to fierce outrage under George W. If you actually lived through those years, some of these cartoons will bring back not-so-fond memories; if you're my age, and were a little too young in the mid-1980s to fully understand what was going on Washington D.C. and the world, these reminders will add a certain amount of perspective.

Brodner is a gifted caricaturist, and his cartoons of politicians are precisely calculated to bring out the qualities of buffoonery, dissipation, or corruption as the situation demands. It's interesting as well to see those talents applied to ordinary people in his illustration work; his drawings of such people as struggling farmers, relatives of 9/11 victims, and attendees of the Million Man March are sensitively and empathetically done. All of the cartoons and drawings in this anthology are accompanied by Brodner's own, often dryly funny commentary, which offers some context and some hint of what he was thinking when he drew them.

It's a curious effect of satire that it often makes its point more efficiently and effectively than polemic, and that's the main distinction between these two timely books. Even a liberal might find themselves worn out slightly by the sustained anger that drives Bush Junta. Freedom Fries seems to take a broader view -- although that may be an effect of having so many disparate works collected and juxtaposed in one place -- and while Brodner's indignation is always in evidence, there's generally a sense that it's balanced out with the sense of the absurd that makes good satire possible. His notes on the last cartoon in the book say it best:

The final cartoon in the Tomorrow's News Tonight series involved a cat who, walking across a computer keyboard, happens to tap out the answer to world peace and e-mails it everywhere. On a very real level, I have optimism for the world. I personally know some very wonderful young people, artists and others, and I believe in them. I've also met some very fine cats.

In the end, it's that kind of optimism that's going to get us all through.

Bush Junta edited by Mack White and Gary Groth
Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 1560976128

Freedom Fries: The Political Art of Steve Brodner by Steve Brodner
Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 1560975938