Keeping Busy- Part 4 Matt Taibbi

FEBRUARY 27, 2014
Little did I know when emailing the finished illustration for ROLLING STONE’s National Affair section on the Squidopoly of raw materials by investment banks that it would be the last image I’d be creating for a Matt Taibbi article.  It was announced on February 20th that Matt was leaving RS for another assignment at a new organization called First Look Media.  I’m grateful at least that he didn’t announce on the 19th because I’d forever have to associate my birthday with that bummer news.  It’s a bummer for me because in illustrating his investigative pieces since at least 2007 I’ve had the consistent pleasure of reading the raw copy with his own version of gonzo metaphors for the crooks, fakes, and liars in politics and business, and then deal with the challenge of matching the quality of his writing with images. The bar set by his writing was always high and the possibility of falling short in the illustration department was a reliably underlying concern. RS has a solid batting line-up of great journalists, but Matt brought a special sense of Henckel knife sharp humor to his pieces, not afraid to drop an F-bomb for the appropriate effect or trash talk and call out a repugnant member of the ruling class. 
That trash talking reminded me of solid jock locker room humor and there was a reason for that.  Carrying our association over from the politics in RS, I  was assigned to illustrate his column for MEN’S JOURNAL, also published by Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner.   It was there that I realized his passionate sports creds- as a basketball star for the Mongolian team in his mid-20’s, as well as his fanatical devotion to the Boston Red Sox among many other obsessions.  Apparently, sports is his way of winding down from the politics/finance beat.  I’ve worked for only three writers who could be positively gut busting hilarious when writing about sports- Rick Reilly in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED days, a long and happy association with the one and only David Feherty who could actually make golf, and anything else, funny, and Matt when he was writing for MEN’S JOURNAL.  My wife, Terri, can attest how often I would attempt and fail miserably reading to her at night rough copy I’d receive from the art director for a Matt column, unable to catch my breath, laughing like an idiot.  In a weird way he is even more brutally funny when writing about sports.  If he is an expert at deflating the egos of pols and bankers, he’s even more merciless with his sallies on athlete celebs. 
It’s been a matter of no small satisfaction the frequency it has occurred in conversations that when people ask me what I do and, after the blank response when I mention illustration, they immediately have an a-ha moment when I mention the National Affairs columns for RS- “Oh, the pigs in suits!” "Of course, I know your work- you draw for the Taibbi columns."  Seated one time at a lunch next to a perfectly amiable gentleman, I spent a little time explaining my work and who my clients were as he listened with apparent great interest.  When I asked him what he did he responded, eyes half squinting, “I work for the Vampire Squid.”  I stammered, “Oh, you must hate my guts then.”  He responded no.  He actually enjoyed the columns and didn’t dispute the accuracy of Matt’s disclosures, just that the writing was 'spiced' for the target audience.  Now that I think of it, for what it’s worth, I’ve never met a Wall Street representative who took issue with the facts as presented in Matt’s investigations. The critiques have always been about the ‘tone’ of Matt’s writing.  The pairing of Matt’s writing and my images has received quite a few thumbs ups from colleagues and readers in general.  I like to think that this combination has added to RS’s great tradition of mixing illustration with great writing.  Nothing matches Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman, nothing ever will, but it’s still nice to be linked, in a small way, to the spirit of that incomparable combo.  I do regret never having had the chance to accompany Matt on the campaign trail a la Fear and Loathing, but it’s a small regret when compared to having been given the opportunity to illustrate his investigative articles.  
I have only met Matt face to face once, maybe twice, and on both occasions when one of us was entering 1290 Avenue of the Americas, where Wenner Media is located, and the other leaving.  Considering the combativeness of his journalistic prose, one could assume he’d be an angry guy ready to throw a punch, either verbal or physical, at a moment's notice.  Quite the contrary, Matt has been utterly personable, low keyed, generous in his compliments and…..happy. Every once in a while I would get an email from him slapping me on the back for an image that had him rolling.  That sort of acknowledgemnt makes for a very good feeling.  
Tonight I'll be going over to a gathering place for farewell drinks from the RS staff for Matt.  I was honored when Joe Hutchinson, Mark Maltais, and Will Dana asked me to create an illustration for a mock RS cover which he will be presented with.
Putting this post together has also inspired me to return to some of Hunter Thompson's writing.  I picked up a reissue of "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" the other night with Matt's introduction as well as "Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone" a fantastic compilation of Hunter's work for the mag.  Matt is very clear and honest when analysing the connection made between him and HST, describing Hunter's reports as more novelistic and his as more hard core investigative journalism.  No matter- he's been an extraordinary writer of great style all his own and it's been a pleasure to have been so connected to his work for Rolling Stone.
Best wishes to Mr. Taibbi.
The Vampire Squid Strikes Again. The last Taibbi feature just recently on the magazine stands.
To my memory, the earliest employment of the pig morphing into banker. Owes more to Georg Grosz than anything else.
Our Counterfeit Economy. "What really happened to Bear and Lehman is that an economic drought temporarily left the hyenas without any more middle-class victims — and so they started eating each other, using the exact same schemes they had been using for years to fleece the rest of the country. And in the forensic footprint left by those kills, we can see for the first time exactly how the scam worked — and how completely even the government regulators who are supposed to protect us have given up trying to stop it."
Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sacks.
Bank of America- Too Crooked to Fail.
One of my drawings that brought a real howl of laughter from Matt. Hugh McColl Jr. and Ed Crutchfield, respective leaders of Bank of America and Wachovia. "Obsessed with each other, these two men transformed their personal competition into one of the most ridiculous and elaborate penis-measuring contests in the history of American business – even engaging in the garish Freudian spectacle of vying to see who would have the tallest skyscraper in Charlotte."
Hank Paulson. Secretary of the U.S. Treasury overseeing the great collapse of 2008, protecting his own.
"Is Obama for Real?" I put Matt in this piece because more than anything it was his rumination on whether Obama was the real thing or just another disappointment in the making.
Taibbi's observations on the Hillary-Obama debates.
Never known for his religious beliefs John McCain's attempt to court the religious right and his conversion seemed forced as the campaign got desperate in 2008.
Without comment.
Michele Bachmann. Without comment, part 2.
Karl Rove was once seen as the puppet master. An evil Gepetto of sorts.
Profiles in Cowardice. It became known to me that Pelosi was not a fan of my work.
The Athlete's Arrest Manual- Men's Journal. What a romp trying to match the writing.
Barry Bonds. Men's Journal.
The NFL draft. Men's Journal.
Crybabies. Men's Journal.
This piece was about making leveling the money pool in acquiring players for most other teams other than the few richest.
The Second Coming of Larry Bird will not happen.
Don't Hate. Another opportunity to use Matt in a piece about his own sports partisanship.
A portrait that ran in RS for one of the banking collapse features.
Yet another for another feature in RS.
Finally, as it should end, Matt wrestling with the vampire squid. Don't Google images for the vampire squid. It looks nothing like my illustration and nothing like we imagine squids. But this incarnation fit perfectly with the iconic Greek image of Laocoon, replacing the snakes for tentacles.
With Will Dana, RS editor in chief.
When I saw the faux cover presented to Matt I couldn't help but think how great it would be to see more illustration on the covers of RS. Mix the format up a bit more; bring back a great tradition.