By Robert Tutton
From Benjamin Franklin’s segmented snake to Thomas Nast’s takedowns of Tammany Hall to Herblock’s relentless rebukes of Richard Nixon, the history of American political cartoons is as long as it is irreverent. In just a frame or two, these comics spoke truth not just to power, but more importantly, to the masses. Armed with inky satire, they turned dictators into harlequins, concentrated tangled issues into single visceral points, and cast a light on corruption and hypocrisy. At their best, they’re a punch in the gut.
Those legends of political cartooning would be glad to know their craft is alive and well today, their tradition thriving in the age of President Trump. And with an administration that’s been downright prolific in generating scandals, there’s a vast abundance of resentment to mine. Image Comics is releasing two new volumes of political satire: Pia Guerra’s comics compilation Me the People, out October 3rd, and the first volume of Mike Norton’s Lil’ Donnie, released last August. In Me the People, Guerra’s thought-provoking illustrations take aim not just at Trump—though he may be her favorite target—but at the current political landscape. Norton, on the other hand, crafts hilarious strips in the style of the Sunday funnies, casting Trump and his administration as a ghoulish cavalcade of ineptitude. Each work offers one side of the same coin: dark humor born of outrage, equal parts coping mechanism and spear jabbing at the new status quo.
“My comics are purely done out of spite. They are an exercise in creative pettiness. It’s catharsis,” says Norton, the creator behind Lil’ Donnie and artist on Revival. Lil’ Donnie began as a digital comic strip that casts the Trump administration as a Little Rascals-esque squad of hateful buffoons. He zeros in on Trump’s fragile ego, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s racism, and Vice President Mike Pence’s homophobia. His jokes are often couched in those character traits, which gives them the ability to land quick. Trump’s persecution complex and pathologic self-aggrandizing don’t need to be explained, so when Norton draws him telling the ghosts of Lincoln and Kennedy how he has been treated worse than any president ever, it’s an instant laugh.
Norton wasn’t much for politics before the Trump campaign and definitely never imagined himself making political cartoons. He “actively disliked” them, and for the most part, says he still does, though he sees their purpose. “When they’re done well, they’re a slap in the face. They’re a wake-up call and reminder of the absurdity and sometimes horror of it all. Pia Guerra has been doing this,” he says.
The cartoonist is more politically involved now, however. He has been donating his convention proceeds for the last year and recently started selling a Lil’ Donnie shirt, the profits of which go to “anti-Trump” organizations. But Norton’s stint as a political cartoonist won’t last forever; he says he will retire from it when Trump is out of office. “I said that I wasn’t going to stop until he did. Unlike him, I’m a man of my word,” he says.
While the punchlines are laugh-out-loud funny, the genius in Lil’ Donnie lies in the visual gags. One strip depicts a grotesque staring contest in which Bannon’s nose falls off while Sen. Mitch McConnell’s face melts like hot putty. Trump is always drawn with small hands and white rings around his eyes missed during tanning. “It’s that kind of joke layering that I find fascinating and rewarding. Something that can be enjoyed on the surface, but if you understand a reference or visual inside joke, [it] adds even more humor. I love that,” he says. Much like the political cartoons of generations past, the caricature is more than just an insult—it drives the point, so Norton may depict Steve Bannon as ruddy-faced and disheveled, but he always has a swastika lapel pin.
“Bannon is easy. He’s a racist goblin. Not much exaggerating going on there. Kellyanne I’ve always thought of as banshee-like, so I made her a literal banshee. Stephen Miller is a slender man that lives under your bed. Every ridiculous thing you think of when you look at these people is true in my comic strip.”
Where Norton counters heavy topics with humor, Guerra matches them blow for blow with heavy emotions. She first became known for her art in Y: The Last Man, written by Brian K. Vaughan, but her editorial cartoons appear on the political comics site The Nib and The New Yorker. And while she never set out to become a political cartoonist, she often found herself drawing current events that stirred strong emotions, like the Charlie Hebdo attack and the Hobby Lobby decision that allowed private companies to avoid covering contraceptives in their health plans. Considering she attended a Vietnam War protest in utero, it isn’t so surprising that she turned her artistic talents toward political commentary.
“My dad’s family were political refugees themselves, so I grew up with a lot of anti-Pinochet [a former Chilean dictator] rhetoric, getting dragged to benefit concerts, watching so many documentaries,” she says. “When our grandfather pulled out a projector, I would wish it was home movies but nope, it was always a documentary about South America or corporate exploitation or military coups.” Even still, she says, she resisted that, preferring to find her own machines to rage against, such as environmental issues or nuclear war.
But while the cartoons she’d shared on social media resonated with people, she was still unsure of their future. “Everything about drawing editorial cartoons was new to me,” she says. “And the more overwhelming it seemed, the more I decided to just keep drawing for friends on social media.” About a year before the election, Guerra watched a documentary on the great cartoonist Herblock, which largely demystified the process. “I could see where the ideas came from, that it wasn’t about the style or the look of the drawing, it was making an emotional connection to an issue,” she says.
The beauty of Guerra’s work lies in its ability to go straight for the gut, leaving the brain to catch up later. An image of a young girl playing with her dolls as a militarized ICE agent looms over her. A lone shoe lying beside tire skids made from swastikas and SS lightning bolts. A mother sending her daughter off to school, saying “If you don’t make it home again, I love you...”
Her most notable piece, titled “Hero’s Welcome,” shows Parkland teacher Aaron Feis, who died protecting students, welcomed into the afterlife by countless (mostly young) mass-shooting victims. It quickly went viral. The image came to her while watching news coverage of the shooting. “They showed his picture, said he was a father, that he protected students with his body... and I burst into tears. He was so young, and all I could think of was the senselessness of it, and then the Sandy Hook kids and the hundreds of other kids and teachers who’ve been killed before that,” she said. “I saw them all as a group full of stolen potential and wanted to express that. Just the waste of it.” These are heart-rending images, blunt instruments striking deep at your moral core.
It was shortly after the election that Guerra knew she was on the right track. While attending the massive Women’s March, she carried a sign featuring her drawing of Trump with his pants engulfed in flames. “One little kid asked his mother what the sign meant. The mother kneeled down next to him and asked him, ‘Well, what does it say?’ He read it carefully, ‘Liar, liar.’ Then his eyes got big and he yelled, ‘His pants are on fire!’ And he laughed. Wow, I managed to do an editorial cartoon a little kid could understand, and it felt amazing,” she recalls.
Later that day, after being stopped and complimented on her sign several times, she took a break in Lafayette Park. A man struck up a conversation about the sign, and she explained how she was inspired by the Herblock documentary. “He told me that he worked with the artist [Herblock] on an animation project years before. This man talked about the art and then said he hoped I would continue doing this because ‘I think you’ve got a good feel for it.’ That was also an amazing feeling.”