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Excerpt: Freedom Fries

One of the country's most scathing political cartoonists puts out a collection of his caricatures and satirical drawings.

By Steve Brodner - September 10, 2004

The last 30 years in American political life have been characterized by war, scandal, deception, hypocrisy, and corruption, followed by... more war and scandal. It's been fun. At least it has to me because I am a caricaturist. Professional satirists are endowed with a perverse pleasure mechanism; we're like bloodhounds who become elated at closing in on the body. And we provide, I think, a similar public service.

These pages contain the result of my travels since the mid-'70s, actual and metaphysical. Although some of the policy positions expressed in them don't have the same meaning for me that they once did, I can say that each of the illustrations in this collection was honestly felt and sincerely offered in its time.

Almost everything in this book was made with the collaboration of very smart people at a newspaper or a magazine. This book is a tribute to them: writers, art directors, and editors who made my life in illustration possible. We're now living through the most important time for making satiric art in my memory. Our democratic family jewels are being looted and plundered on a grand scale. Paradoxically, this has been met with a remarkable reluctance to tell that story with editorial pictures. My hope is that Freedom Fries will stand as an addition to and reminder of our long tradition of political graphic art and our need to continue to hand it down (and punch it up).

The Big "E"

Narrative art is about storytelling in the clearest possible ways. In illustration an artist can direct what the eye sees first, second, and third. You could even parse an illustration as one would a sentence, with a subject, predicate, object, as well as adjectives and prepositions. Your eye, in about a nanosecond, may be tracked looking at the elements of "The Creation" (at Michelangelo's firm direction) in this order: 1. The hand of God, 2. Who is a powerful and beneficent presence, 3. Who is reaching from his Heaven, 4. Surrounded by angels, 5. Touches and gives life to, 6. Adam, an ordinary guy, in the, 7. world below. The artist is in control and the picture tells a story. A very successful illustration! It is in the area of thinking in pictures that illustrators do the heavy lifting. The finishing of a piece of art is nothing compared to the struggle to get the thinking right. There must be extreme economy as well as meaning. To me where simplicity meets power is what constitutes eloquence, the big "E." It's the thing you work for.

A Question of Style

The look of my work has changed, subject to many influences. Like many young artists I was, for a time, confused about questions of style; which approach would be the real "me"? Although my work has gone through phases clearly being influenced by many artists (Thomas Nast, James Gillray, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Honore Daumier, David Low, Art Young, Ralph Steadman, Al Hirschfeld, Katsushika Hokusai, William Auerbach-Levy, David Levine, J.S. Bach, Count Basie, John Ford, Orson Welles, Buster Keaton, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, and many others), I came to recognize myself in all of it. The lessons of these artists were to give me tools and ways of seeing. My sensibility developed, I think, as my own. Influences that are nourishing are the best things that can happen your art.

Unified Theory

There's always been a kind of exaggerated karma to my work; a sense that everything in the universe of the picture affects everything else. Bodies, buildings, household objects each have weight and a certain amount of potential power as images. In their co-existence in a space they must respect the energy and influence each one has and accommodate it. Sometimes they squeeze, sometimes stretch. Together they work to make a cohesive whole. Whatever else they are doing, they are making a picture. It comforts me to perceive the world that way, as people, where I live, in New York, not only make all available space work, but insist that it all make sense. And then decide it's normal.

Early Scratches

I grew up in a time of great political friction in the United States. My coming of age coincided with the country's. When I was nine, the president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. It sparked my first political cartoon (the president, looking at his watch, being "late"). Social upheaval over the war in Vietnam and civil rights at home followed. In the cities, particularly in Brooklyn, my hometown, changing neighborhoods touched off an ongoing racial cold war. One was constantly seeing anger, hatred, misunderstanding first hand. I think that behind all my work there has always been a belief that if points of view can be made clear, as clear as in a drawing, a flash of perception could illuminate a debate. After all this time I still believe some version of that.

Steve Brodner's illustrations, cartoons, and illustrated reporting have appeared in nearly every major periodical in the United States. This is excerpted from Freedom Fries, by Steve Brodner. Copyright 2004 by Steve Brodner and published by Fantagrpahics Books. Excerpted with the permission of the author. You can buy Freedom Fries from Fantagraphics.

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