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The Illustrator at War

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
09.01.2004 | CULTURE

Outside his guild, few know Steve Brodner by name. Aside from a brief stint as political commentator on PBS' Frontline, his face isn't widely known, either. If he stepped on your foot on the subway, he'd quickly apologize and you'd think he was a very polite high-school biology teacher. It's unlikely you'd suspect him responsible for some of the most ferocious op-ed art of the last three decades, or of being the mind behind some of the highest-profile cases of illustrated assault-and-battery since Watergate.

But it's the same guy. Anyone who makes a habit of picking up The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Esquire, the Nation, the New Republic, or any of the major dailies, has been confronted by the civic outrage of Steve Brodner's brushes and pens. His trademark style is perhaps best described as psychedelic-progressive. If Howard Zinn ever enjoyed peyote visions, they'd likely find a home in Brodner's nightmarish political dreamscapes.

The deepest origins of Brodner's work lie, as for all political cartoonists, in the drawings of Gilded Age icon Thomas Nast, an original print of whose graces Brodner's Washington Heights studio. "You could spend 10 minutes looking at all the detail in this one cartoon," says Brodner, pointing to a framed copy of Nast's 1871 Harper's drawing "The Tammany Tiger Loose." The picture shows a tiger (Tammany corruption) gnawing on the dead flesh of a woman (democracy) while Boss Tweed and his cronies cheer from the gallery. Here Nast accomplishes what Brodner considers the goal of editorial illustration: "To tell the important story through extreme economy, where simplicity meets power."

Like Nast's Tammany tiger, Brodner's caricature art often wields fangs, something that has won him both plaudits and pulled bridges in the chilled journalistic climate since 9/11. Harper's editor Lewis Lapham has compared Brodner to Twain and Goya, while the New York Times recently put him on a very short "do not call" list. According to a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, the other name on the Times' blacklist is Brodner's colleague and living hero, Ralph Steadman. When asked about the blacklist, Brodner just shrugs, "I guess we weren't hitting the right tone."

A new retrospective collection of Brodner's work, Freedom Fries (Fantagraphics, $29.95), shows that he has been hitting the same tone since he was a teenager in East Flatbush, drawing cartoons for the Kings Courier at 10 bucks a pop. He went on to study at Cooper Union, followed by a disillusioning stint at the Hudson Dispatch in Hudson County, NJ. After he was told to tone down his portrayal of Hudson Democratic-machine power brokers, Brodner returned to New York, where along with freelance work for newspapers and bar mitzvahs, he self-published the New York Illustrated News between 1979 and 1982. By the late 80s, he had established himself as one of the nation's premier editorial cartoonists.

Freezerbox recently spoke with Brodner about the RNC and caricature at his studio on 187th St., where his German Shepard Sassy keeps him company amid small mountains of sketches.

* * *

I think I know the answer to the question, "Why did you skip the conventions this year?"

A weird thing has happened to them. When I first started doing them in 1980, they were different kinds of events. They'd still do things during them, like pick the vice president. They had vicious arguments about platforms. They had big policy discussions where the stars of the party--secretary of state, congressional leaders--would hold conferences and the media could ask questions.

But they've learned through experience that the press, given the chance to cover many different things, will cover many different things. When you put a lid on the amount of news coming out, the press can be more easily controlled. Then you'll cover what they want you to cover, which is Kerry's medals. It comes down to a tv show. I watched it on tv, and I enjoyed it so much more than I would have live. There is no discussion anymore; everyone falls robotically into place. So if you want to cover it, get a tv.

What was the most exciting convention you covered?

The RNC in 1980. Nobody knew who the vice president was going to be. Kissinger was pushing for Ford, but Bush, like Edwards, was the popular choice. Reagan appeared on tv after the convention was stalled, so even then, if you wanted to know what was happening, tv was the way to go. Another great convention moment was Jesse Jackson's 1988 speech in Atlanta. It wasn't just an endorsement of Dukakis, it was a full-throated pledge of American beliefs. One of the great speeches of all time.

Are you going to be in town for the RNC this week?

Yeah. I hope to give book signings [that double as] lectures on aspects of illustration and caricature, and give talks about the campaign. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

These seem to be tough days for getting scathing satire into the mainstream.

I think we're at a time where it's been very low water. Just a few years ago, artists were given a lot of free reign to do strong work. Now, it's different. A lot of it has been marginalized.

Post-9/11, or is it a more general trend?

It's a general trend that was taking place before 9/11. You saw it during the 2000 election, you saw it during the theft of the election, with the Supreme Court. Magazines were loath to run anything critical of the Bush administration.

How do you explain the tightening?

I think it comes from the commercial straightjacket. The feeling that you don't want to upset the advertisers. Someone who pays a lot of money for an ad on the right-hand side of the page does not want to have on the left-hand side of the page, some bloody illustration that's gonna make you stop and go, "What!"

There is scathing stuff being published about Bush. You're saying there is a double standard with regard to illustration? There's definitely a double standard. You can have Molly Ivins and Maureen Dowd writing a column comparing the entire Bush administration to the Sopranos, and that's perfectly fine. They would never let a picture of mine run that showed that.

If we're at a low point, what was the last high point for caricature?

I think one of the greatest times of all was the early 70s on up to the early 80s. There was a sense during Vietnam and Watergate that what an artist had to say was important. There wasn't a fear of it. There was a feeling that as a culture we could accept all kinds of things, [including] somebody doing an angry drawing that's going to upset the leadership and the president. And it's not an act of sedition or treason to be critical of the current administration. It is actually the most American thing there is.

For some reason, maybe it's just the wrong collection of people who got into jobs at the same time, I don't know, but that's changed for illustrators.

This spring the Columbia Journalism Review reported that you and Ralph Steadman have been blacklisted at the Times. Are you friends with Steadman?

I've met Ralph twice. He's always been a hero to me, and he's exactly what you'd expect Ralph Steadman to be like: audacious, opinionated, but sweet and very gentle. I never knew he liked my work until Fantagraphics got him to blurb the [new] book.

You seem to use an airbrush to similar effect.

Actually, I use a toothbrush. I was influenced by Ralph. He was an influence on all of us. His spray is finer than mine, though. I can't adjust mine.

Going back to the blacklist at the Times, does it sting a little because you've done so much work for them over the years?

You can't be sentimental, because it's all different people. The turnover is pretty rapid. The New York Times is just a big hotel. When Gail Collins came in [to take over the op-ed page], I thought I'd make a big presentation all about the great history of art on the op-ed page. It turns out she had no concept at all. She was very dismissive. Strictly a word person.

Has the chill in editorial art bled over into more straight political cartooning in newspapers?

Not so much. They've had their own problems, because of what's happened to newspapers. There are fewer jobs. But those jobs that are there, they aren't going anywhere.

Who do you like among the op-ed page regulars?

Tom Toles at the Post and Michael Ramirez at the L.A. Times, who is far too conservative for my taste but a brilliant cartoonist and a marvelous artist. Tony Auth in Philly is a great thinker. Those jobs are secure and those guys are great. But other than Ramirez, Mike Luckovich, Jim Borgman and a few others, I don't know how many are concerned about drawing. They're more like writers using pictograms. And many of them are more concerned with the joke than with making a strong, important point.

In the introduction to Freedom Fries, you write, "We're now living through the most important time for making satiric art in my memory."

Right now, we should all be asking what the greater goal is--why are we doing this? Cartoonists are also citizens. Is there a greater goal? If not, then why do politics? Because it's another sporting event?

That's one of our big problems. We have the World Series, the Olympics and now the presidential year. Kerry/Bush--who has better hair? Who has a dog? It's that kind of homogenized issue-free coverage that is not only about nothing--it also keeps us from the bigger discussion.

The bigger discussion this year is: The roof is leaking. Are we gonna fix the roof? You know, we have two handymen. And we're talking about the color of their hair? We want to talk about the way one of them speaks? The goddamn roof is coming down! We could have fixed it during the 90s when the sun was shining, but the sun isn't shining anymore. It's raining cats and dogs, and in the three years since 9/11, this guy in Washington had the responsibility of fixing the roof. But he went out and blew up somebody else's roof instead. And it turns out that the person had nothing to do with our roof at all. We're $144 billion in the hole. Thousands of lives lost on both sides. And I don't think we can afford to have another ordinary election. This has got to be looked at.

As willing as I am to vote for Kerry, he's treating us like children too. He's not talking about this stuff; he's being advised not to. But the guys in power now are doing nothing but peddling fear. And they're making things worse.

A lot of your stuff is very dark, always sort of hinting at the high stakes involved.

Beneath even the most biting satirical work is the belief that things need to be fixed. Things have gone wrong. When I look at all the work collected, I see an ongoing experience of missed opportunities. For every corrupt, small-minded bastard in politics, that's also a moment when something could have been done to help people, and that moment has been allowed to pass. I never forget that. It's a harsh reality.

What's your November prediction?

I'd be very surprised if Bush wins this election. He's violated a basic precept of American politics: He gambled the farm and lost. When this happens you don't get rewarded. There's just so much damage; you can't spin it.

Will you be out on the streets sketching?

Yeah, I hope to. Everybody adds their voice in their own way. I do it with my drawings, I try to say true things with my pictures. Everything I draw is based on something I believe. I try not to deal with hype.

Do you ever get a concept that you suspect won't see print, like Rush Limbaugh as an ass-face, or the Pope as a back-alley abortion doctor, and yet go ahead and do it anyway?

I usually won't take the initiative with a picture unless I really, really want to do it. I did one of George W. Bush as Mickey Mouse in the scene with the Sorcerer's Apprentice from Fantasia, where Bush smashes Saddam Hussein, creating hundreds of Osamas. This is exactly what I thought of the Iraq war. And I thought, surely someone will take it. I went to all the magazines. Nobody wanted it. And I think it was because of Disney. They are famous for litigating. You can't monkey with the Mouse. Not even Mother Jones would touch it.

How do you approach your subjects?

It's all about finding a new way of looking into a face. Unlike comics artists, illustrators have only one picture to express something. Doing comics is more like essay writing, and it's only lately that I've started to enjoy that; I never really did comics. I love that freedom, but an illustration is more like haiku. The article that accompanies it can elaborate, it can make the case for something, but the picture has got to pick one thing, just say one thing, say it as powerfully as possible. That's the game. And in order to do that, you have a set menu of images. That's why cartoonists always fall back on Uncle Sam, the elephant, the donkey--because there are just so few things you can play with. The great ones can reinterpret within those limitations, in a way that still shakes you up.

For me the goal is to find that one perfect solution, the perfect metaphor, where it's so well done, so simply done, eloquently done, that it just burns itself into a person's brain and stays there. Like a musician says toward the end of PBS' The Blues series, the goal is "to find that one chord that can strike a man dead."

Illustrations don't generate the reader feedback articles do, so when you hit that chord, how do you know it?

You never know. That's the worst part about illustration. You hear back from the magazine only when there's a problem. You've worked hard to get it right, making it a beautiful composition, thinking hard about the colors--there are maybe five, six, seven separate projects going into each image. And if you've done it well, it goes off into total silence. The art director is glad it came in on time, drops it in the hole and moves on to the next thing. You send it off and [whistles]...like crickets in the night..

You must sometimes hear about a bulls-eye.

Once in a blue moon, you'll get a letter of positive feedback. There are some art directors who really do thank you. Like the art directors at The New Yorker, but they're rare, truly rare. The New Yorker's a special place. They really appreciate illustration, and know what it's for. They've made their magazine illustration-centric. It's the only place where photography is placed on a lower level.

Another [form of] feedback is from peers. Every year there are awards and honors in the graphic-arts community. There's a very supportive community of illustrators. There aren't many industries like it. I'm very proud to be an illustrator. None of us are hacks. Even though we are paid less and treated worse, our level of work has risen. Despite everything, I think we are in a kind of golden age of illustration.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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