Why Do They Kill Me?, by Tim Kreider (Fantagraphics, $14.95).
Political humor is very difficult to pull off without it being either hopelessly cliched, didactic or both. Very little political humor is worth reading after its reference point passes. These points are all addressed by Kreider in his author's commentary for the strips. Speaking of why another political cartoon didn't work, he notes "I decided that the cartoonist, like most liberals, just wasn't mean enough. He's angry about the new Republican regime's policies, but he doesn't hate them. He doesn't consider them personal enemies. I do; that's my advantage, my edge as a cartoonist. As the Emperor once said, 'Your hate has made you strong.'"
Of course, it's easy to find plenty of hate-mongering in the world of politics. Most of it is from the right, but there's an increasing amount from the left as well. The problem for both sides is that this vitriol is neither incisive nor even entertaining. A big problem with someone like Rush Limbaugh, who fancies himself a wit, is that he doesn't see himself for the joke that he is. What has made Kreider's body of work so appealing is that he spent years writing cartoons that focused more on being human than politics, and a large amount of the jokes were at his own expense. Even when he includes himself as a character in his political strips, they are largely self-deprecating. This serves to prick the balloon of the author's ego and forces us to concentrate on what he's saying rather than on his persona, which is completely the opposite of what people like Limbaugh do. Furthermore, Kreider is no leftist apologist. He is critical of what he perceives as dopiness and ineffectuality on the left and isn't afraid to go out of lockstep on a number of issues. His post-9/11 cartoons are downright patriotic (in his own manner, of course—he suggested rebuilding three towers that lit up to say "Kiss My Ass" in different languages) and he also does a nasty cartoon about Ralph Nader.
Kreider's viciousness gives his work righteous power. But the fact that he's a superior gag writer and excellent artist is what ultimately makes his work memorable. "How To Draw Political Cartoons" is a primer that takes an absurd drawing (a scientist setting fire to a monkey's ass as he and his humpbacked assistant laugh manically) and demonstrates that one can easily make a political statement by sticking a label on the monkey that says "employees" or "Israel" or "Palestine", one on the scientist that says "corporations" or "Israel" or "Palestine", and one on the lackey that says "government" or "the UN". Or generically, "you", "the man" and "society". Four drawings, all different captions, all excoriating the kind of hackneyed work that would NOT be seen in the book.
Kreider can shock. "Well, Well, Well" is what the Empire State Building is thinking when it sees the World Trade Center is ruined; he ran this a year after 9/11. "Bumper Stickers" features one labeled 'Heritage Not Hate' next to a swastika, ruthlessly mocking the slogan usually seen next to confederate battle flags. "After Hours At The Capitol" sees John Ashcroft nervously about to suck on the breast of the statue that he infamously had covered up. Upon Ronald Reagan's death, we see Kreider corpse-side with a hammer and stake, ready to drive it through Reagan's heart. His friends drag away a screaming Nancy, one calmly noting "It's the only way to make sure". In "The Photos They Won't Let Us See", there is a screamingly funny image of Donald Rumsfeld about to eat a kitten.
Another thing that makes this book so effective and hilarious are the aforementioned commentaries. Regarding the last cartoon, which talked about the torture photos from Iraq, he asks "Whatever your views on Iraq, you look at those photos and you have to ask: Would George Washington approve of this? Would Elvis? Would Superman? The fuck no." Discussing Joe Lieberman in a strip called "Who Wouldn't You Vote For Over George W Bush?", he ends a rant by saying "He ought to be marooned on a desert island with a bag of pork cracklin's, an issue of Black Tail, and a pistol, and left to figure it out for himself".
It must be said that one thing in Kreider's favor that most political cartoonists lack is that he has some serious cartooning chops. While a skilled-enough caricaturist, his real strength is in managing to combine realism with stylization that reveals the truth about the individuals depicted. I especially like the way he draws Cheney and Rumsfeld as vaguely crazed, Ashcroft repressed and desperate, and Bush as befuddled. There's both power and precision in his line that allows him to use a lot of detail while never cluttering up a panel.
I'll conclude by discussing my two favorite cartoons in the book, entries that sum up his worldview and sense of humor. The first is "George W Bush: International Cock-Block!" We see Kreider in Paris, getting rebuffed by a French woman who says that Americans are "unilateralists" and "preemptive" in bed. A fuming Kreider thinks, "This time, he has gone too far". Essentially, he's wondering out loud if Bush' policies are affecting Americans abroad who are trying to get laid, which is tangential politically but nonetheless hilarious. The other cartoon depicts an Aztec pyramid, atop of which is a high priest who has just ripped the heart out of a human sacrifice. Two men are at the foot of the pyramid, one looking sickened by the sight. The other man, with an expression of total moral certitude, puts his hand on his friend's shoulder and says "It may not be a perfect system, but it's still the best one there is." This cartoon sums up Kreider's work in a nutshell: a howl against so-called "moral clarity", suppression of dissent and funny as hell.