Election 2008: An Interview with Tim Kreider

Categories:  Features, Interviews

For hundreds of years, editorial cartooning has played a role central to the political process, criticizing, lampooning, and generally bringing down a peg those who have chosen to place themselves on soapboxes. The medium has proven itself an ideal format for those subject matters we’ve otherwise had difficultly expressing by other means.

We’re two days away from what many on all sides of the political divide have deemed the most important election of their lifetime, and while we’re not quite at the finish line looking back, we’ve certainly experienced enough over the past ten months to give us a fitting picture of how the majority of the 2008 presidential election has played out. The time seemed opportune to speak with a veteran political cartoonist about the ways in which the race has played out on their end—a state of the union of sorts for editorial cartooning.

When I put the call out suggested interviewees (thanks, Twitter), the majority of responses turned to Tim Kreider. Kreider has been producing his weekly strip, The Pain—When Will it End, since 1997. About three years into the process, said pain turned external, and the artist’s work shifted its focus toward the political, a move which soon consumed his work, transforming him, for better or worse, into a full-fledged political cartoonist.

Kreider’s work has since been anthologized as two books by Fantagraphics: The Pain—When will it End and Why do They Kill Me? Recently, the artist announced plans to end the publication of  his weekly strip in its current form, early next year.

We spoke to Kreider about the state of editorial cartooning in 2008, the role of equal time, and what precisely his proposed retirement means.

You didn’t start off as a political cartoonist.

I don’t think I started doing political cartoons on a regular basis until we were well into the Bush years. Truthfully, I don’t remember whether I drew any cartoons about the Bush/Gore election. I think if I did, they were pretty metaphorical. I remember one called—actually it wasn’t called anything. It was one of those scenarios in hell, where a demon was tormenting this poor shivering person in front of doors that said “Bush” and “Gore.” He said, “choose carefully, everything depends on your position.” And they both led to the flames, which was only an indicator of what was, at the time, a fairly widespread political naivete [laughs]. Only one of them led to flames, and that is the one we all walked through. I think I really only covered the last election in the sense that you mean. By that point, I had become a political cartoonist, whether I liked it or not.

At what point was it clear that you were officially a political cartoonist?

It’s sort of like becoming an alcoholic. There’s not really one moment where you see it coming [laughs]. There’s one point where you realized, ‘this might be a problem.’ I don’t know. I was just ranting on my Website a week ago that I never wanted to be a political cartoonist any more, frankly, than I wanted to be a Web cartoonist. It just happened by default. I think that it’s true of most cartoonists that rage is the raw material for your work.

Or fear…

Yeah—it’s not usually joy or a sense of quiet contentment and accomplishment. For a long time, for years—maybe for a decade—the source of most of my fears were internal. The cartoons collected in my first book are the product of that time. I guess it’s some small, incremental improvement that the source of my anger became external, after a while. Around the same time, the whole rest of the world went insane.

I don’t think I would have become a political cartoonist under the first George Bush, who was just plain old centric evil. But I remember sensing, even when I was very young, that Reagan was a slick salesman and liar, and I never liked George I, but I don’t think I would have sacrificed my career to what’s probably going to be recognized as fairly ephemeral art, if policies hadn’t gone completely off the recognizable scale. They’re not just policies I disagree with, they’re—in one of the few literal instances of the term—anti-American. I don’t think I’m very unusual in having been reduced to a kind of sputtering outrage on a more or less daily basis, by the news, over the last several years.

Is there a point you reach with your work, where you feel like you should be creating something truly important—that simply creating art for art’s sake is not as virtuous a pursuit as, say, political cartooning?

It’s hard to say what’s important. It’s hard to say whether art is important in some sense at all. I think what I’ve done in the past eight years has been important, in some sense, to some people. I get letters all the time from people who tell me, in effect, that I’m a voice of sanity for them. I’m letting them know that they’re not crazy, the world is. I certainly don’t imagine that I’m changing many people’s minds. I would say that, when you’re at work of any kind, only two-percent of you is thinking about the possibility that people in 50 or 100 years might like it. It’s impossible to predict those things. So it would be insane to make art predicated on what people in the future might think about it. But you know, one of the reasons you do art at all, is to make something lasting.

Do you think that political cartooning always has a short shelf life? We still read stuff by people like Jules Feiffer, even though his older work isn’t necessarily still topical.

Yeah, but, I’m not sure how read his is, outside of the insular comics world, though I guess my perspective on that is rather skewed. I think that, in order for political cartoons and art in general to be a little more lasting, it has to be more universal than topical, like Ralph Steadman’s work. It has to use more metaphorical statements. I try not to get too caught up in whatever the issue of the current new cycle is. I didn’t want to do any cartoons about Sarah Palin, for example, because I just refuse to recognize her as important at all. But in the end I did because I came up with a funny, puerile idea for a comic with her.

When push comes to shove, a good joke is the key.

It often overrides my better judgment, yeah. But I still think I’m a little too mired in the topical. I don’t think there are a lot of people who read cartoons from 20 or 50 years ago anymore, and I do worry about the shelf-life of the work.

Sarah Glidden mentioned that you had plans to pack it in, after January.

Well, there’s been some talk about that lately, yeah. As I said, I was kind of burned out in 2004. I was ready to give this up, after that election, and, like many people, I falsely thought that I would be able to. You know, at that point I felt like I barely able to make it to what I thought was the finish line, and it turns out that, no, that’s the halfway mark. This time around, yeah, I think I’m ready to quit at least doing a weekly topical political cartoon.

When you say ‘the finish line,’ you mean that this outrage isn’t as needed?

Well, the next few years are not going to be good ones for the United States. It’s not like the election will magically solve all of our problems. We’re in an almost unprecedented mess. But I went to a party last night where someone was saying how nice it would be not to be ashamed to be an American again. And on a purely symbolic level, Obama’s election would change that at least in our own eyes, if not in the eyes of the world, or go a long ways toward that.  There will still be plenty of material for political cartoonists, but I’m not really interested in taking on every little political issue and scandal that comes up. I feel like this country lost its collective mind over the last decade. It’s just not a place I recognize or want to live in. I just don’t want to keep feeling ashamed, every minute of the day. I’d be very relieved to go on to something else.

As a political cartoonist, how does 2008 differ from 2004 or 2000?

I hesitate to even speak about this, for fear of jinxing us all, but it feels this time like we might actually win. That’s based a little more on empirical evidence this time around, and less on general feeling. The last election, I went with a friend and colleague of mind to Philadelphia, and we canvassed to get out the vote for John Kerry.  Being part of a campaign, even in that kind of a temporary, marginal way, you get falsely caught up in the enthusiasm and hope of it. So we thought we were gonna win. And then, of course, that night turned very grim. This time around, the polls look good. I, in fact, am drawing my cartoon, which has to be turned in the day before election day, but will be published the day after.

The Doonesbury syndrome–Garry Trudeau ran into the same thing, and has already called the election for Obama.

Yes, I know, I just read that last night. You know, I never consult with my colleagues who do political cartoons—I feel like we’re off on our own—but I feel really tempted to write to Rueben Bolling, who does Tom the Dancing Bug, to ask, ‘hey man, what are you doing?’ Not  exactly what he’s going to draw, but how he’s gonna do. Do you hedge your bets and do a multi-part cartoon, presenting all of the options, which is what I did four years ago? Or do you just do an Obama victory and risk looking like the Chicago Tribune that Harry Truman held up? This time around I decided to go ahead an decide that Obama’s gonna win, in which case I will look very foolish indeed, the day after, if he does not, although that will frankly be the least of my concerns.

I was not just rudely shocked by the fact that we did not win last time because I was caught up in the spirit of the campaign, but because it was hard for me to imagine anyone voting for a republican, after the previous four years. I mean, I guess the differences between then and now are Hurricane Katrina, because it was like Iraq, but here in the United States, where you couldn’t embed journalists and restrict their access. We saw their incompetence, live on TV, and they couldn’t control it. And I think that’s put Iraq into a new perspective for people. And also, of course, the economic collapse.

Do you think there’s too much importance placed on the concept of equal time, in terms of mocking everyone equally.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about that. She is a very infrequent viewer of mainstream media, actually. And she was recently scandalized to see what was clearly editorial commentary presented as news by journalists, which most people have sadly gotten acclimated to—infotainment. I kept thinking of a quote by Hunter Thompson who said in the early-70s, that it was the rules of objective journalism that allowed someone like Richard Nixon to slither into office in the first place.

I recalled for her a clip I saw recently of some veteran political reporter—and this was an analysis—he showed an excerpt of that interview that Palin did with Katie Couric, where she gives one of her fumbling non-answers, and he just turns to the camera in speechless disgust and says, “I have never seen a more disgraceful performance, in all my years.” I think that’s the sort of thing that needs to be said plainly, when it’s true.

I feel like that the need to balance can do a real disservice to the truth sometimes, especially in the case of climate change. Whenever it comes up in the media, they always find a scientist who says we believe it’s real and some hack who works for a right wing think tank or the petro-chemical industry who says, “there’s not enough evidence,” lending the impression that it’s pretty much a 50/50 split. My sense  is that it’s probably more like 96 to four-percent in the legitimate scientific community. I’m picking those numbers out of thin air, but if anything, they’re probably conservative.

–Brian Heater

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