I suppose I was a bit worried as MoCCA’s panel on political cartooning came together that it might be a touch tepid, the three participants all left-leaning and long time friends. The intent was never to turn the 50 minute long session into a political debate, of course—there are plenty of forums for that manner of exchange, and a cartooning panel is certainly not the most ideal. But a politically homogenous conversation would likely have disappointed as well.
Of course, given the lineup, I had little reason to worry. All three artists approach politics and cartooning different angles, and the result was spirited, to say the less—far removed from the sort of idealism many predicted as the Bush years transitioned into the first Obama term.
One cartoonist has retired from cartooning, another is plugging away perhaps a bit more indecisively than he’d prefer, and the third has entered this term with a new-found vigor, finding the president an even greater potential threat than his deservedly despised predecessor.
I’ll let the artists introduce themselves in this first part, since they did such a fine job of it on the panel.
Let’s start by having everyone introduce themselves and plugging their most recent project.
Ruben Bolling: My name is Ruben Bolling, and I would like to plug Arthur, which is a movie in theaters now, and we have a clip… Brian? Oh, no. I do a comic strip called Tom the Dancing Bug. It’s a weekly comic strip distributed by Universal U-Click to newspapers and it also appear appears on Boing Boing, which is a website—a directory of wonderful things. I’ve had three books out, and I’ve got three children, and I can’t think of other things to say, so I’m going to let Tim talk.
Tim Kreider: My name is Tim Kreider. I used to draw a cartoon called The Pain—When Will it End, which ran in the Baltimore City Paper and other similarly prestigious and well-paying publications for about 12 years. I quit that after the last inauguration, and now I’m an essayist. My work has been in The New York Times and on Nerve.com. I’m now promoting the work of my past self in the form of a book called Twilight of the Assholes, which collects my work from 2004 to 2009.
Ted Rall: Hello, I’m Ted Rall, and I’m a syndicated political cartoonist for Universal U-Click. They distribute three of my cartoons. I also do a comic about Central Asia for EurasiaNet.com and stuff for Mad Magazine and I write a column. I will promote my most recent book, which is a call for the armed overthrow of the United States government, called The Anti-American Manifesto. End up on a watch list, it’s fun.
I wanted to open up with a question specifically for Tim, but I think everyone will be able to chime in. We did an interview, two or three years now—
TK: Two sounds right, which probably means it was four.
It was at the dawn of the Obama years. The universal question at the time was: what are all of the progressive cartoonist going to do now? Everything’s going to be okay, right? You won’t have anything to write about.
How have the last few years been treating you?
TK: For about a year, I didn’t pay any attention to the news at all. I started paying a little attention during the Iranian uprising and then quit again. And now I pay, you know, intermittent attention—probably about as much as most Americans. It’s actually really nice. There would be plenty of things to write about, if I were still inclined to do that.
But unlike some of my colleagues, I never thought of myself as a political cartoonist. It’s not something I ever wanted to be. My early cartoons were surreal non-sequiturs, but I feel like I was kind of conscripted into duty as a political cartoonist. I didn’t feel like the Bush years were just the opposition in charge. It felt like a true aberration in history, like the McCarthy years. It’s something I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut about. Once it was over, I was very, very happy to quit, but I wasn’t going to quit before George did.
Following the news is too stressful? Too time consuming?
TK: It’s not that it’s too time consuming. I have plenty of time to waste, I love wasting time. But it’s painful. I’m not able to cultivate the kind of engagement without bitterness that political writers like Mencken or Molly Ivins seem able to do. They really enjoyed it. For me, I was just enraged every week. It’s hard on you. It’s just not fun. Well, it is fun, but like a lot of other things that are fun, it turns out to not be all that good for you.
It’s like drinking. It’s fun, but it’s hard on the liver. And rage is hard on other parts of you. It changes you. And I’m glad I’ve been able to give that up. I’m not happy to be disengaged from the news. I don’t think that’s great of me as an artist or a citizen, but I just never figured out how to moderate, in any area at all.
Do you guys sympathize with that? The pain of having to keep up with the news?
RB: I know Ted is going to have a very different perspective, because Tim and I both see ourselves as cartoonists first—people who want to be funny and interesting—who got into political cartooning, in my case, because I found it interesting and after 9-11 found a certain ethical obligation to talk about it. And it was also an excuse to try to be funny about. And I found that my political stuff became popular, I think because the bar is lower for the sort of humor you have to have when you’re doing something political.
People are dying to laugh at it. It’s like making fun of the teacher. When you make fun of a politician, your joke can be second rate, but you get this huge appreciation for it, because you’re saying something that everyone wants to hear in an amusing way. So, I think that we both came from it from a different perspective, and I think we’re both willing to give it up if nothing about the political landscape either is worthy or interesting for us to draw comics about, or just a pure artistic decision—“I’m not going to do comics about this because I’ve done it plenty of times.”
But this is an interesting time to do comics of a more progressive bent. Tim bailed and didn’t have to deal with criticizing Obama, who we had such high hopes for, and I’m sort of in the middle. Ted’s going to have a very different perspective, because he’s jumped into the Obama years with great gusto, and I feel as though I’ve treated him with kid gloves a bit. I very much go with my gut. Unapologetically. Whatever I want to write about, I write, and I haven’t really criticized Obama. I’ve criticized political decisions and certainly the Republican opposition, but I think it hasn’t resonated me with an artist. It just hasn’t happened.
TR: Are you serious? Are you serious?
RB: Here’s someone for whom it has resonated greatly, who has been a critic of Bush and now a critic of Obama.
TR: You really don’t have any criticisms of Obama?
RB: Did you hear what I said?
TR: I know, but—
RB: I said I had the criticisms, but as an artist, as a cartoonist, in my gut, I haven’t criticized him personally. I have criticized policies, but what I find interesting is that I have not drawn him as a villain, the way I did with Bush. And I think he is different than Bush, and that may not be justified—
TR: He’s worse.
RB: Well, here we go. And we’re off!
TR: Well, he’s a much more interesting villain than Bush, because Bush was like a cartoon villain, like the Joker, and you saw him coming. Obama looks great, and he’s handsome and sweet and charming—and pure evil, and his policies are to the right of Bush. But anyway, I don’t want to turn this into a political debate…
Just to answer the question, I’m a news junkie. I would be watching 24 hour news, regardless of whether I drew another political cartoon or wrote another column. I’m always watching. I have MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN on all the time. I read, like, five or six newspapers a day. I’ve always been like that. What this is is more like an alcoholic who gets a job reviewing bars. I’m doing the research anyway. It’s not like I decided that I wanted to learn about political cartoons, so I should follow politics. It’s more like I’m a political junkie and I have thoughts about politics, and I’m going to use this extremely well-paying medium to express myself.
You’re not getting mental cirrhosis doing this? Is it unhealthy to immerse yourself in politics like that?
TR: No. I think most people are like Tim in that it’s very hard to feel anger and rage at a president who thinks that torture is okay or doesn’t lift a finger to help people who are in trouble economically. But, for me, I think I would really upset if I had no way to express myself. I would just be at home seething. There’s no left in this country, so you can’t join an organization that would help. Marches don’t do anything. This is about as close as you get.
It’s not going to change anything either, but at least you can vent. I love being able to vent.
[Continued in Part Two]