Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How Barry Blitt became the master of the political moment

Matt Wueker in Politico Magazine.

Nothing cuts through our over-taxed frontal cortexes like a simple visual joke. It skips past the language centers of our brains and engages lower brain stem humor with bright color and energetic line, working with an elegance and speed and directness unmatched by other kinds of satire.

There aren’t a lot of masters of this genre—it is, after all, the simplest and hardest form of cartooning. But certainly one of them is Barry Blitt.

He’s been contributing the visual zingers that have graced more than 100 covers of the New Yorker magazine for more than 20 years, many of which are wedged into our visual memory banks. 

Images like the Obamas (Michele dressed as a Black Panther and Barack dressed as a Muslim) fist bumping in the Oval Office, or President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in an Oval Office filling up with the flood waters of Katrina, 

or more recently Trump belly flopping into the GOP primaries. 

Blitt’s wry images twist stereotypes and tweak the zeitgeist. 

They jump from magazine covers headed for the recycling pile to become icons of satire that are welded to our collective memory and to the historical record.

Blitt has a new book out on October 24 that celebrates his inky oeuvre, cleverly titled, Blitt.

As a longtime admirer of his work, I had the pleasure of chatting with him about his career, his approach to drawing and the challenges of political satire in the era of Donald Trump.


Congratulations on a truly beautiful book. It’s gorgeous. It’s great to get to see so much of your work all together and see it so beautifully reproduced. I’m going to commence the grilling with a tough one: If you were going to be stranded alone on a desert island and you could only have one colored pencil, what color would it be?

Cherry-vanilla. Or wait: daiquiri.

And if you only got to have one pad of paper, what kind would it be? (Toilet paper will be provided on the island.)

EZ Wider.

The word caricature apparently comes from the Latin “caricare,” which means to load something—as in to load a cart, a boat or a gun. Different caricaturists seem to load things up differently. [Ralph] Steadman certainly loads his with sulphuric acid, [Steve] Brodner likewise is pretty acidic. Your approach is much more whimsical and wry. How come? Is this by choice or a tactical decision?

Well, since we’re talking Latin, I think the root of the situation here is non ventrem or “no guts.” A cartoonist’s style is created by weaknesses and personal restrictions as much as strengths, and in this case, I just can’t seem to pull off a savage style. It looks forced and wrong when I try.

Who wouldn’t want to draw like Brodner or [Edward] Sorel or Philip Burke? But it doesn’t ring true when I do it. I wouldn’t call my approach tactical or calculated, any more than my personality is. It’s what seems to come naturally.

In these acidic, bare-knuckle times, do you wish you were less whimsical?

Wishing oneself were less whimsical seems like a very First World problem. At 59 years old, I’ve given up wishing I was someone else, for the most part. I do wish my color palette was a little more vibrant, but even when I consciously try and do something about it, everything still looks kind of pale and drab. It’s hard to change who you are. At this point, I’m just living out my remaining time.

Do you have a philosophy of caricature? Talk about how you approach a caricature. You do so much more than create a likeness.

I don’t have a philosophy of caricature. I’m not even sure I am a caricaturist, in the strictest sense of the word—I don’t really exaggerate much. For a while, recently, I was thinking of attempting a reverse-caricature of Trump; he certainly already appears to be a caricature of himself.

I wondered about de-caricaturizing him, scaling back his whole face and hair and visual excess, and attempting to shed light on him that way. But I got distracted, by Harvey Weinstein, I think.

The Politics of Fear, The New Yorker cover, July 21, 2008 (with sketches) | Barry Blitt

How about the process of caricature? Do you do lots of research and work from a bunch of photos or does it spring more from your mind’s eye? When you draw Trump, what do you focus on? How do you conjure our 45th president?

I know that you draw Trump out of your head, right? I’m amazed by people who can do that. I need photo reference, and good stuff. I’m usually at the mercy of the photo I have to work from. In Trump’s case—well, every photo of him is a good one, almost. Every angle, the back of his head, a full profile, gives me too much information, can occupy hours of amusement at the drafting table.

For a while, it was the sweep of his hair, like frozen yogurt in slow motion, that captivated me. Then, his mildly prissy overbite was all the rage. His chin and secondary and tertiary chins are what I’m stuck on these days.

So if you maybe don’t see yourself as a caricaturist, do you consider yourself a political cartoonist? I mean, you should. Many of the most memorable works of visual political satire over a number of years now have flowed from your pen.

I’m, like, not overly into labels, man. I’ve been referred to that way, but I tend to think of political cartoonists as constantly at it, producing more work than I do. I do, what, six or eight covers a year, maybe, and a bunch of illustrations as well, but how many do you create a year? I’m in awe of that, and I think the term implies being at it every day or at least weekly.

Getting to do nearly daily cartoons seems like an advantage editorial cartoonists enjoy. What you do, having to work ahead a week due to the magazine’s deadline and try to get a bead on things, seems way tougher. I heard your editor Françoise Mouly describe you as a lightning rod. I think she meant it as something that catches what’s in the air, as in capturing the zeitgeist with an image. 

As someone who chases the zeitgeist around, do you find the increased velocity of the news in the digital age a good thing or a bad thing? Keeping up with the zeitgeist seems a lot harder these days.

Luckily, my limited attention span is well suited to the velocity of the news cycles. True, there’s an assault of stories coming at you on even a slow-ish news day, but certain things just tend to stick out. The lightning rod Françoise is talking about is just an antenna for absurdity or particularly flagrant hypocrisy. 

Certain stories just seem to have an odd sort of electricity. It does get tricky when you’re pitching an image that won’t hit the newsstands for another week. Not only can other, bigger stories break in the mean time, but other cartoonists, daily cartoonists, can also come up with the same idea—this is the most depressing thing—and put it out there so yours looks old by the time it’s published.

They should just make you into an actual lightning rod. I envision a handsome bronze statue of you on top of the New Yorker building holding a long rod over your head ... waiting for absurdity to strike. You do have an amazing gig, running around after the zeitgeist with your rod or pen or whatever and then getting to launch your retorts on the cover of the New Yorker. When you were starting out, is this the gig you imagined you might someday have?

I don’t know what I was thinking when I was starting out. I was hoping I’d get paid to draw realistic pictures of hockey players. I still hold that hope alive.

Talk a little more about your starting down this unusual career path. How did you get from drawing hockey players to finding yourself Françoise Mouly’s personal lightning rod?

I am but one of many lightning rods at Françoise’s disposal. My career path has unfolded organically, not unlike that of Forrest Gump. I got out of art school and showed my portfolio around to magazine art directors. Half the drawings I showed them were realistic, hero-worshipping portraits. The other half were dashed off, smart-alecky pen and ink sketches. The only interest I received was in the latter.

After kicking around for a few years, I had regular gigs doing small, funny drawings for Entertainment Weekly and Spy magazine, among others. When Monicagate hit D.C. in the ‘90s, suddenly political figures were creeping into the pop culture assignments I was getting. 

I was already doing small drawings for the New Yorker when I was introduced to their new art editor, Françoise Mouly. She suggested I send cover sketches in, which I did without any real hope that anything would come of it. And nothing has.

Who were the early influences that got you started drawing? Beyond Mad Magazine, what sparked your imagination? Did a favorite aunt introduce you to [the late cartoonist] Chas Addams? Where there other mentors or turning points along your path?

Beyond Mad Magazine and hockey—does there have to be more than that? I was close with my maternal grandfather. He was a businessman, but also a Sunday painter. His copies of Norman Rockwell paintings hung in our house. He used to bring me to art stores. He was very encouraging. I think he used to have New Yorkers around, too. That was the only culture that seeped into the extended family. Oh—I forgot about Popeye. I loved Popeye as a child, used to draw him all the time.

You have a knack for finding the funny bone. I don’t know who said it, but I love the line I heard somewhere, “making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.” Your stuff is funny and really makes people laugh. As an editorial cartoonist who can veer into the scoldish, not-very-funny lane, I’m envious. What’s the secret to the funny business?

I love that quote. Said by Michael O’Donoghue, I think. Your cartoons are incredibly funny. Especially the scoldy stuff. I’d love to be a scold, I don’t have the gravitas. I wish I knew what makes something funny. I aim for wry titters. Anything more is gravy.

Do you have a single all-time favorite drawing [of your own]?

I drew some quinoa cakes for Cooking Light magazine I didn’t mind. Actually, maybe the W Oval Office picture engulfed in water after Katrina. Or there was a cover of a commuter—a “straphanger”—in his living room, standing like he was on the subway, that I kind of liked. Both of those were quite a while ago. It takes me some time to get used to them.

I find quinoa is always tough to draw. How about any cartoons you regret doing? Caricature can be a mean thing.

BB: Yeah, I regret them all. Certainly immediately after I’ve sent them in, I panic about the execution, or about how the idea might have been funnier. And also, if there’s any potential insensitivity involved. Who could wish ill on Jeff Sessions, or Donald Trump, Jr.? Not me.

While we’re on the topic of political satire in the brave new Trumpian Era, what do you think of the current state of political satire? Is it a golden age? And where do you go for political humor?

If this isn’t a golden age of satire, it’s only because the characters are already self-satirizing caricatures. There is a lot of great work being done, funny stuff-wise. But the Trumpian Era is really just dawning, no? Hard to judge yet.

As a caricaturist, are you a nose man or an ear man? Do you have a favorite feature?

Um. No favorite feature, every face is fresh meat, so to speak. Though, since you mention the ears, it’s funny how much difference they can make if you leave them off. The nose, too, now that I think of it.

To wrap up and go back to the beginning: If you were stranded alone on a desert island with only your cherry-vanilla and daiquiri-colored pencils, and you could have one other person (alive or historical) to caricature, who would it be?

Are you serious? You’re saying I’d have to live on a desert island with the person? So if I said Steve Bannon or Trump… I don’t like the sound of this deal. I’d really prefer to be by myself, with lots of good photo reference.

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