R. C. Harvey’s Best of 2009: Editorial Cartooning for the Ages (Part One of Two)

Posted by on January 27th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Trampling along, day by day, we have at last destroyed an entire year’s worth of calendar and can now participate in the annual anal retentive ritual, the Janus drill. This is when we look backward and forward, like the old Roman, Janus, the god of gates and doors, who grew two faces the better to look in both directions at once. So pervasive is this double-edge duty among human (sic) sapiens that we’ve named the whole month January in order to invoke the obligation. Here, however, we look back with greater enthusiasm than we look forward. We look back because what do we have to look forward to? Gasbag pundits and other political inebriates are already contaminating 2010 with campaign talk: the off-year election scheduled for next November (we just had a November, and now we’re obsessing over the next one?) will consume their energies and pollute the airwaves and pages of the so-called news media every day for the next ten months. We’re already worn out.

The past year’s congressional and political and even societal shenanigans provided ample opportunities for political cartooning of the worst—that is the most vicious—sort. In other words, the very best political cartooning. Progress, retired editorial cartooner Jim Ivey reminds me, is the opposite of Congress, but with John Boehner appearing on TV every other day with yet another linguistic contortion to explain how saying “no” and doing nothing is in the best interest of the public weal, I hardly need reminding. If we need any more reminders of how out of touch congressmen are with their average American constituencies, we need to know only that 44 percent of congressmen are millionaires. None of that, however, is “news” or, even, peculiar to 2009.

Surprisingly, in surveying various cartoonists’ work for the year at cagle.msnbc.com where Daryl Cagle advertises his Cagle Cartoons syndicate, and in pawing through my copious file of 2009 editoons, I found no cartoons in which zombies or vampires impersonated Darth Cheney, proving only that editoonists sometimes forego the obvious. Mostly, this year, they’ve been battering the ridiculous (that is, right-wing Republicans). Herewith a few images displaying our partial harvest of the year. In determining which editoons are among the best, my bias always veers off in favor of a telling image, a visual metaphor that can burn itself into the brain of the observer and shape forever after his/her perception and understanding of the depicted event.

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Above is the indisputably best editorial cartoon of the year, the subtlest, the most insidious — Jay Bevenour’s cover for the Stranger, a weekly altie in Seattle. Bevenour’s effort capped a week sopping with obit cartoons commemorating the departures of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Gale Storm (star of TV’s My Little Margie, a popular 1950s series), pitchman Billy Mays, and, the ultimate dead man with face to match, Michael Jackson. MJ’s surprise departure a few hours after Farrah left us on June 25 quickly eclipsed all the others. On cable TV, a 24/7 loop began that Thursday and didn’t stop for four days. Then it went on for another three with only intermittent breaks between eulogistic spasms. All the while, MJ remained dead. The news, in other words, stayed the same. Unchanging for a change. And therefore no longer “news.” But the news media were undeterred: They plowed on as if the dead growing deader by the day were some sort of unprecedented novelty. Under the circumstances, the best editorial cartoon commentary on the grief-besotted week was the Bevenour’s cover drawing.

Layers of meaning can be peeled away from the picture. Stupendously, outrageously grotesque, the picture combines and compounds so many of the nauseating aspects of the extraordinary fortnight that began with Fawcett’s death. When I first saw it, I thought the face was Farrah’s, disease-wracked at the point of death — thus, a kind of death mask. Then I realized the mask was MJ’s face — as always lately, deathlike. Just as his death supplanted Farrah’s — coming only a day after she died, Jackson’s death shoved hers off the front pages of popular culture — so does his morbid likeness take over her body in the drawing. The silly pointlessness of his accidental demise thus consigns the heroic struggle of her last days to limbo. The satire cuts many ways. Combining the plastic mask of Michael’s visage with Fawcett’s famed poster image, the picture alludes to MJ’s dubious sexuality and makes Farrah’s celebrated toothy grin into death’s rictus, a frozen lifeless grimace rather than the bonding lineaments of human warmth. Moreover, Farrah’s MJ death mask on the classic nippled pin-up body mocks our preoccupation with so transient a thing as young female beauty. But Bevenour is also commenting upon our celebrity-obsessed culture. Michael’s face superimposed upon Farrah’s celebrated picture enacts the very evolution of the week’s events: the media’s excessive treatment of the singer’s death overshadowed the actress’s death, overwhelming one tragedy with another until Farrah’s death — and McMahon’s and Storm’s — receded into a dim and forgotten past, a merely momentary blip on the screen of our cable-TV culture. Bevenour’s picture is thus the ultimate emblem of our grotesque irresponsibility and infantile preoccupation with things that do not matter much.

Imagery prevails in the following cartoons. Among the first of the runners up for best of the year, Pat Oliphant indulges his penchant for hilarious exaggeration to make his point about the futility of O’Bama’s Afghan surge, grandiose in its hopelessness.

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Next is John Sherffius, who has lately perfected the use of emblems borrowed from other corners of our culture to make his points. Here he deploys the title logo from TV’s Mad Men. Sherffius gives the logo the elephant head of the Grotty Old Pachyderm thereby imparting to the GOP the soullessness of the 1950s advertising industry, its overweening interest in selling the product regardless of the product’s quality, and, with the same stroke, Sherffius brands Fox News as the advertising agency for the Republicans. Note also the slogan “where the truth lies,” a deft and revealing play on the last word. Fair and balanced, you betcha.

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Finally, we have Bill Day providing the perfect visual metaphor to show how the right-wingnuts have been able to pass themselves off as Grand Old Pachyderms lately.

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Then we have John Darkow’s apt evocation of the thrown shoe incident at the end of GeeDubya’s reign: In Iraq during a Bush press conference, an irate Iraqi displayed his disgust by throwing his shoes at the U.S. Prez. In Darkow’s cartoon, the shoe-thrower is the now notorious Joe Wilson, Republican congressman from South Carolina, who gave “loudmouth” a new totem by shouting “You lie!” to the President as Obama addressed a joint session of Congress. But Darkow is scarcely equating Wilson with the heroic Iraqi; he has made Wilson’s shoe a clown’s shoe, effectively characterizing the indecorous Wilson. Wilson’s performance was the signature event of a society grown absurdly, albeit dangerously, uncivil, as manifest nationally last August in “town hall” meetings distinguished by the churlish behavior of many of those who attended, some of whom — troglodytes mostly — showed up, alarmingly, with guns in a pre-emptive protest against any attempt to infringe upon their precious Second Amendment rights. This is now our world, kimo sabe — a world seemingly made expressly to provide employment for cartoonists.

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Tony Auth has pungently captured the moronic irrationality of the summer’s debate on the health care reform legislation.

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