Vol. 12, No. 2,856W - The American Reporter - March 18, 2006

Ink Soup

by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
Seattle, Wash.

SEATTLE, WA. –- When I was a schoolboy, long before I knew the word "caricature," I knew how to represent Adolf Hitler, and so did all my fellow students who could hold a pencil.

Even without a swastika, surely one of the easiest national symbols ever devised, Hitler's little toothbrush mustache and the flattened hair brushed across his forehead served to identify him.

All the world leaders of that era were easy to represent with a minimum of fuss. Franklin Roosevelt's immense chin, little pince-nez glasses, and cigarette holder jutting at a jaunty angle–these required no monogram for identification.

Churchill? Short figure in black with a huge cigar and fingers held up in a vee sign. Stalin? The mustache alone was almost enough. Mussolini was already a caricature: a jutting lower lip over a chin in uniform, strutting like a circus clown.

The greatest genius of the day among editorial cartoonists was David Low, who came from New Zealand but flourished in London.

There are caricaturists today whose skill matches that of Low. The late Al Hirshfeld specialized in the difficult field of theatrical caricature–difficult because the lineaments of movie idols were so familiar to millions that one could not hope to get away with the sort of shorthand mustache-and-hair that meant Hitler.

David Levine, the artist at the New York Review of Books, has a merciless eye. If your novel gets a prominent, even a positive, review in the NYRB pages, you can still come undone by looking at how Levine sees your face. Editorial cartoonists everywhere, whatever their politics, must be rooting for Sen. John Kerry to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency, for Kerry is a caricature waiting to happen. He is nearly as easy as Hitler or Stalin: that chin alone is sufficient, but throw in the shock of hair, the eyes, the chiseled features, the lanky physique ... you can do him in the dark.

His likely opponent, however, President G.W. Bush, has one of those faces that lack anything striking. The perpetual smirk is familiar to all but nearly impossible to draw. The art of caricature, the deliberate distortion of character, depends upon there being some character there in the first place.

What happens in such a case is that almost all the artists come to some sort of tacit and certainly unacknowledged agreement. Bush will therefore have immense ears, tiny squinting eyes, and an enormous upper lip. Until further notice, that is Dubya.

Unless you are David Horsey, the enormously gifted editorial cartoonist for the local Hearst paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, familiarly known as the Pig Eye. Horsey's Dubya looks like Dubya himself, not like the agreed-upon mask.

Garry Trudeau's great strip Doonesbury is so monomaniacally political that most papers run it not on the comics page but on the editorial or op-ed page. Here, one might think, is the one place among the strips where caricature would be found.

But no. Trudeau solves the problem with a symbol, not a distorted likeness. Dubya appears in Doonesbury as an asterisk beneath a large cowboy hat (or a Roman helmet). The first Bush was merely an empty space. Newt Gingrich is a bomb with a lit fuse. Dan Quayle was a feather. If Donald Rumsfeld appears in the strip, he is nothing more than a flood of words spilling out of a tv set.

AR Correspondent Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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