Friday, April 21, 2023

Keith Knight's Good On Both Sides

Gentleman Cartoonist Keith Knight is a polymath. From his days as a musician, to his TV show Woke (based on his own life), to his prolific career as a cartoonist, he's always been doing it all, all the time. As a cartoonist, he has three different outlets. The Knight Life is his syndicated strip, and he has the three or four panel approach for the punchline down pat. The K Chronicles is his classic single-page strip, usually with multiple panels that talk about something personal or cultural. Then there's (th)ink, his single-panel editorial strip. While political and cultural issues are essential to all of his work, especially with regard to race and police brutality, (th)ink is notable because of its format. Knight excels at clever turns of phrase and images with regard to some contemporary issue.

His latest (th)ink collection, Good On Both Sides, tackles the fertile subject of the latter years of the Donald Trump presidency. Reading a collection of these strips, one understands that Trump was almost too fertile a subject for scorn and parody. When you have a person who feels no shame whatsoever, loves attention, and changes the outrage narrative every single day, it makes a satirist's job nearly impossible. As such, some of the comics in Good On Both Sides reference events that I can't remember. The tidal wave of toxic nonsense was just too great to keep track of everything, and there's only so much a political cartoonist can do to explain a reference without it resulting in literally spelling out every aspect of a joke. 

Knight mostly manages to get around that problem by using clever visuals to take a specific reference and apply it to Trump's wider universe of greed, sexual harassment, white supremacy, anti-intellectualism, out-and-out lies, and the general alternate reality that the ex-president and his supporters live in. If Trump's an easy target, it's because he's too vast to possibly ignore, and too crudely stupid to resist direct hits. Knight's skill is taking an outrage point (like Trump saying there were "very fine people on both sides" with regard to a white nationalist rally) and shifting the joke (there's an angel and a devil on either side of him, and Trump is feeling up the angel). Knight's stumpy, cartoony figures are exaggerated and rubbery, giving his characters a kind of sweaty, neurotic energy. Knight is not only funny, he draws funny, and he rarely varies from this style in all of his material. There's an almost gentle, welcome quality to his drawing style, providing a little distance for when he goes all-in, like his incredible "White Power Rangers" gag. He's also proficient at taking a news item (like a golf club calling the cops on a group of black women playing on the course) and pulling out a dagger of a punchline ("...they're swinging at something WHITE!")

There are also moments of sincerity, as Knight honors figures like Bill Nunn, Billie Holiday, and Thurgood Marshall with naturalistic portraits and key quotes. In this political climate, simply honoring Black figures from American history is a political act. Knight suggests that like it or not, simply being Black is a political act, and he's not afraid to say this out loud. He's even more unsparing in his lectures about police violence; if anything, he mostly pulls his punches and goes for gags in (th)ink; he could be a lot meaner. The final comics in the collection address the then-incipient Coronavirus; he nailed the conspiracy thinking surrounding it from the very beginning. Despite the fact that so much of this book is so contemporaneous of roughly 2018-2020, the strips relating to race are not only still relevant but are even somewhat understated when one considers right-wing attempts at whitewashing everything. Knight's foresight, comic timing, and cartooning skill elevate Good On Both Sides from a standard collection of editorial cartoons.

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