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Capitol Crime
I was sitting in the U.S. Senate the other day, and I couldn’t help noticing the décor.

One of the reasons I couldn’t help it was that Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley was reading a long, impassioned speech into the public record. If you’ve ever heard Grassley speak, you’ll know that I had to focus on something, anything, to keep from nodding off.

But back to my thesis: the U.S. Senate, for all its magnificence, is a nightmare of tackiness. Now, before you start getting huffy about lack of respect for treasured national icons, let me just say, “U.-S.-A.! U.-S.-A.!” So I’m a patriot, okay? I am simply suggesting that the upper house needs a visit from “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

First of all, nothing matches. The wallpaper, the carpet, the furniture, the hair plugs — there’s just no consistent theme. While there is nothing inherently wrong with contrasting patterns, the Senate chamber has become a blizzard of clashing elements, styles, and colors, including a shade of green I would name “Twilight Nausea.”

I advise the 113th Congress to take it on the road, spend 2013 and 2014 lawmaking in the Hollywood Bowl, and let a team of interior designers create something to match the eminence of this august body.

Come to think of it, all of official Washington, D.C. needs a radical re-do. Is anybody else tired of the classical style of architecture? It worked for the Greeks, then the Romans overdid it, but now we’re into sloppy thirds, and this burg resembles nothing less than a field of Transformer droppings.

I’d keep all the monuments, the White House, and the Supreme Court, but the rest of these architectural blots should be hauled away to the landfill. I’d probably keep the huge, hulking Capitol itself, as well. It is, after all, the mother of all statehouses. On the other hand, it would be tempting to start from scratch, go modern, and get all Gehry with it.

Or how about a log-home look for some of the office buildings? You know, to honor Honest Abe? An all-Lego version of the Library of Congress might be interesting, too. The whole idea would be to have fun with it — maybe with a giant roller coaster spanning the Potomac!

Also, while we’re at it, how about team uniforms? Republicans in red, Democrats in blue, perhaps with some details picking up the design themes of the new décor … tiny brushed nickel eagles on the epelets, say, or modest satin sashes draped over the shoulder (slashing left for the men and right for the women, if you like).

Anything to jazz it up a bit. On the day I visited the Senate, Oregon’s Democratic Senator Ron Wyden was the acting President of the Senate and the only other lawmaker in the room besides Grassley. Imagine the exciting contrapuntal splash of color he could have added to set off the Kansan’s attire. Maybe that would have kept us awake in the gallery.

Again, this is not meant as an attack on the institution itself. I only wish that we provide the best possible working environment for our leaders. Is it too much to ask for a little style from my government? It’s not as if I’m complaining about content.

Face Off II
Can we agree that Obama and Romney are both good-looking? Then let me re-assert my corollary: that makes them difficult to caricature.

Studies have shown that there is a kind of golden mean for facial beauty. If you ask people to rate faces according to their attractiveness, you discover that those selected share a surprisingly consistent set of spatial interrelationships among their facial features.
If your features reside within those blessed parameters, then you are easy on the eyes — but hard on the cartoonist.

For starters, it’s difficult to pick any one thing to exaggerate. I’ve tried to stack up the skinny guy wrinkles around Obama’s mouth and eyes, for example, and I’ve had some success with that approach. Unfortunately, that wide grin doesn’t leave a lot of room at the edges. Worse, he ends up looking the same to me every time I draw him, and that is a sign of a failed caricature. I’ve noticed that other caricatures have emphasized those funny-looking lumps between his chin and lips, but I still can’t get the hang of it.

Romney has his own share of lumps and wrinkles, but they never seem to add up to anything recognizable, either. Oh sure, people are able to deduce that it’s supposed to be him, but I want more than that. I want to excite a genuine, gut-level recognition in the minds of my viewers. I’m not complaining, mind you, but is it really necessary to have pretty boy presidents?

Take Bill Clinton, for instance. I wouldn’t call him good looking, even though, during his first run at the White House in 1992, he was known in the Mexican press as El Guapo, the Handsome One. Perhaps they were seeing his straight, good-boy posture and that full lantern jaw. Both are attractive traits by themselves, but Bubba’s good looks break down when seen as a whole.

His puffy eyes sag at the edges, and he’s got some fully packed bags hanging underneath them. The nose looks as if a small tangerine has been grafted onto its tip. He’s got that Elvis mouth, which is good, but it’s been shoved up a bit too close to the nose to fall within the golden mean. The hair, no matter where it sprouts, doesn’t seem to have a coherent organizing principle. The resulting picture is not ugly, to be sure, but Bill is no matinee idol.

My best evidence of his non-beauty, however, is that drawing his caricature has always been easy for me. I can capture his essence almost without trying. Not only are there plenty of features (and spatial relationships among them) to be emphasized, but he also has a garrulous, outgoing persona that provides an array of facial expressions for easy capture.

His predilection for biting his lower lip (even though it’s a transparently phony gesture) somehow lends credibility to his folksiness. Even though it’s a bogus move, I don’t doubt for a moment that he really does feel my pain. It’s like the lip bite is meant to make doubly sure that I know he cares. He’s a fake, but at least he’s real. Like him or not, he has a personality a caricaturist can sink his teeth into.

The present candidates have nothing like that to offer. Obama is cool; Romney is shuttered. Barack never has an unguarded moment, and I can’t get a read of any kind on Mitt’s personality. There may be a there there, but where? In both cases, their even-featured good looks just get in the way.

I admit it, then. I can’t do a decent caricature of Mitt Romney. I take full responsibility for that. On the other hand, I don’t really need my own inadequacy shoved in my face for four years. So please, gentle voter, if you care about me at all (and I’m biting my lip here) don’t vote for this man come November 6. Not because of his character or policies, but because of his blankness. Vote for Virgil Goode or Rocky Anderson or Roseanne Barr or anybody with strange quirks and at least a hint of ugliness — like the rest of us.

And if Obama wins, I promise to master those strange lumps below his lower lip. God damn pretty boy.

Face Off
Some say that this election presents a stark choice between two very different visions of our future. That is certainly true for political cartoonists — particularly when it comes to caricature.

I should note here that, while many political cartoonists use caricature in their work, most of them are not true caricaturists. A good caricature will capture something of the essence of its subject, some special aspect that evokes an involuntary flash of recognition in the mind of the beholder. Most political cartoonists do not meet or even try to meet that test.

There are exceptions, of course. Mike Luckovich, Milt Priggee, and Tom Toles come to mind. Most of us, however, resort to using an exaggerated feature or two that have already been seeded in the minds of viewers as representing the subject. People saw the big ears in a drawing of W and quickly concluded that it must be him because everyone drew him that way. Or they saw a ski nose and five o’clock shadow on a cartoon character and deduced that it had to be Nixon. Their perception of identity came from learned associations rather than from gut-level recognition.

Obama is another good example. You see a skinny black guy with big ears and thick eyebrows, and that’s enough to make the connection. No labels necessary.

If he loses, all those identity cues will be lost, and a new set will have to be developed for Romney. The task will be made more difficult by the fact that he is a good-looking guy, and good-looking people are the hardest to caricature. Their even features, combined with the attractive spacing and arrangement of those features, make them all look alike.

That wasn’t a problem with Nixon and W. No offense, fellers, but you’re both a tad on the ugly side. That makes you easy to draw because you are already clearly distinguishable from everyone else (except, perhaps, from crooked undertakers and smirking chimpanzees).

Not so with handsome dudes like Romney or Obama. Really good caricatures of either — ones that capture their essences — are hard to come by. The Romneys I’ve seen (and drawn myself) tend to feature a big, slick pompadour, eyes tucked under heavy brows, and an oversized jaw.

Romney is more than that, of course. He’s analytical and cool, as is the Spock-like Obama, but he also projects a stiff, robotic persona, like Data without the lovability. These qualities are hard to capture for cartoonist and caricaturist alike. How do you convey the concept of a vacuum with a simple line drawing?

I don’t have a prediction for this election, but either way, I foresee four more years of frustration for political cartoonists. We are expected to somehow extract misshapen ugliness from the clean, attractive features of these male models. No matter which vision of the future wins, we are doomed to get eyestrain trying to depict our president’s essence as anything more than a cartoon character.

Even that dismal prospect, however, will not make me long for the good old days of Tricky Dick.
Mirror, Mirror
Of all the plot devices in all the Star Trek episodes and movies, none persists in my memory like the Tantalus Field. It appeared in “Mirror, Mirror,” an installment in which Captain Kirk is accidentally switched with his alter ego in another universe.

That episode is perhaps most famous for its depiction of a parallel, goateed Mr. Spock looking like Mandrake the Magician with Vulcan bangs. I think the makeover was meant to make him look badass, because this particular parallel universe is a very badass (albeit more stylish) place. He, like everyone else in his world, is so ambitious that torture and murder are seen as savvy career choices. What better way to get ahead than to kill your rival? No effort is made to assess the effect of such cutthroat competition on Starfleet morale, but hey, this is Star Trek.

It is in this dangerous culture of ruthlessness that our Captain Kirk suddenly finds himself. Fortunately for him, his twin possesses the perfect weapon for these circumstances: the Tantalus Field. Let’s not worry about how it works (Gene Roddenberry didn’t); it looks like a small TV with an array of knobs and buttons. Somehow, the user can summon a live video feed of a potential victim; then, by simply pressing one of the buttons, make that person disappear — forever.

This is what I find provocative. Here is a machine that allows you to get rid of people instantly and without fear of ever being held responsible. No muss, no fuss, no collateral damage, and no one to answer to other than your own conscience. What if such a device really existed? What if I had one? Would I use it?

I can certainly imagine using it. There are some cruel and murderous people in the world whom we would all be better off without. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is on my list, as are Than Shwe of Burma and Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan. Kim Jong Il also comes to mind, but he kakked before I could get my Tantalus up and running.

But could I push the button? And if I did, could I set the Tantalus Field aside and never use it again? If killing evildoers were that easy, wouldn’t I be tempted to keep using it? And why stop with evildoers? What would prevent me from disappearing people just because I didn’t like the cuts of their jibs?

I do not have satisfactory answers for these questions. I’d like to think I would do the right thing if such an absolute power were placed in my hands, but that is by no means certain.

Kirk himself never used it, even though doing so might have made his situation easier. But he didn’t destroy it, either. In the end, he decides to give it to the parallel Spock. He trusts that Spock will find the wisdom to use the Tantalus Field in a way that will serve the greater good.

I wouldn’t be so sure, Jimbo.

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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee