Keeping Busy- Part 9 Good News and Bad News
Apologies to Ingmar Bergman.
The iconic image from Bergman’s masterpiece, “The Seventh Seal”, of Death playing chess against Max von Sydow’s knight has been the inspiration for countless parodies, and I am one of those who has taken occasional advantage of that visual. When I first got the email from Rolling Stone’s art director, Mark Maltais, alerting me to a piece from buddy, Matt Taibbi, regarding Trump post Indiana primary which was a make or break showdown for Ted Cruz and to a lesser effect John Kasich, I had no thoughts as to imagery. The primary proved even more embarrassing to Trump’s opponents than imaginable. Cruz and Kasich folded fast and Trump was left triumphant. Matt was only able to forward an outline of his theme, which was to be an obit of sorts for the GOP as we’ve known it since the days of Nixon. My first thoughts were to play up a funeral service scenario and I offered some options. The size specs for the image changed some and it was to get more squarish than the usual horizontal or vertical. Suddenly wrapping the gag around a casket became a problem from a compositional standpoint and compromised the impact of the ideas. Still there was something funny about Trump as a minister at the funeral violating and upstaging the corpse of the elephant. The thought then turned to Trump not as someone delivering the eulogy- a very, very, very, big, the biggest, great, eulogy, just ask anyone- but as the Grim Reaper himself. The Bergman image came to mind almost immediately. I’ve used it in the past, not just for publication pieces but once even for my 40th birthday party invite. The iconic image isn’t replicated faithfully; I tend to add some more of the outer apparatus normally associated with Death not seen in the movie, like the scythe, and favor a skeleton head instead of actor, Bengt Ekerot’s face. It also looks funnier that way, more like the set up for a gag. The chess game was enthusiastically approved and the finish eventually became a pleasure to do, but not before chalking up several failed versions that wasted valuable time attempting to replicate the looseness and fun that existed in the sketch. It’s a very familiar issue that brings up the impracticality of forcing a drawing to look fresh when the approach is one of duplication. The solution almost always ends with putting reference and accumulated failed drawings out of sight and approaching the clean sheet of paper like it’s the first time. Only, it’s really not, because you’ve been learning from the fails and editing internally what you want to do. The drawing that then finally works is the one that is liberated from the expectations of the ‘finish’ and instead focuses on the searching, the discoveries, the pleasant accidents, and ultimately the sense of play. Replication is not play. Replication is rendering.
The Spring of Our Discontent
Always a pleasure to hear from Mary Parsons from The American Prospect, and her assignment for a cover piece addressing the increasing hostility, sometimes physical, in the primary campaign allowed me to play not just with caricatures but creating a convulsion of angry combative candidate supporters swirling around the candidates. Remarkable how quickly the GOP primaries flamed out leaving Trump the survivor of the carnage, even as Hillary still can't shake Sanders off her back. Illustrated commentary in the 24/7 cyber news world has a major challenge keeping up with, let alone staying ahead of, the lightning fast change in events and our images almost feel outdated before they even seen publication. The 12th hour spot of Trump as Major Kong riding the GOP elephant like an A-bomb seems to be the one constant right now. Stay tuned.
It Takes A Village (Voice)
In all my decades as an illustrator and someone residing in the New York metropolitan area for much of that time, I’ve never done work for The Village Voice. The paper was a mainstay for anyone trying to keep up with what was happening in the Big Apple, socially, culturally, politically, not to mention the very eyebrow raising personal ads in the back pages. A number of my favorite illustrators and cartoonists were featured regularly and that alone made it required reading. Then the paper went through some very difficult times and a kind of limbo. Now it has received a new lease on life from a new owner willing to invest a lot of treasure to make it once again an invaluable point of reference in the city. I wish him and the paper luck and hope it pays off in multiples. That said, it was a very pleasant surprise to receive an email from art directors Andrew Horton and Jesus Diaz for an assignment addressing the slim and somewhat repugnant options for voters looking to replace the once powerful but currently incarcerated Democratic leader of the state assembly in Albany, Sheldon Silver, in a special election. Suggestions were tossed around with zombies and Game of Thrones as possible themes. My intuition said that zombies require decaying features and as these politicians were not household names and therefore not easily recognizable, decomposing their features would lead to unintended problems. I’ve never watched an episode of Game of Thrones but I was very aware of the posters advertising the new season and that visual seemed ripe for a parody. In this case in order to parody the original, especially something so current, successfully, it would be best to stay as true to the original as possible. The faces obviously would need to be different, but the mood, colors, and composition were to remain as true as possible. Replace some medieval architecture for some allusion to apartment facades and we’d be in good shape. The image worked and everyone, including myself, was pleased.
That piece was soon followed with a request to come up with an image for a feature on New York City mayor, Bill DeBlasio, and his current troubles regarding scandals and negative press. Apparently the VOICE feels like he can’t get a break and has comported himself like a babe in the woods. The first ideas were to portray DeBlasio as a kid in a dangerous city setting with shadowy figures lurking behind every corner (an irony of sorts because the mayor is quite tall in reality). Finding the right photos of DeBlasio presents a challenge as he doesn’t seem to vary expression much; the trick therefore is finding the reference that most applies and then using the 10,000 hours of practice to draw the desired expression. There was also a side thought of him as Red Riding Hood. In Red Riding Bill’s situation he’s lost in a forest of tall buildings surrounded by wolves (who with each successive re-sketching wound up looking more like creations from the world of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Friz Freleng, than from some horror flick) ready to take advantage. Andrew went unequivocally with the Red Riding Hood. With the idea approved the illustration’s main challenge became technical- slowly, methodical, layering watercolor over the finished drawing to build up the darkness of the dense forest of buildings against a bilious yellowish sky. My preference for drawing finishes with pencils, pen and ink or those terrific Uniball pens is on bond paper that is then dry mounted to firmer paper or board before color application. But bond can behave inconsistently when watercolor is applied sometimes sucking up the richness of the colors, hence the repetitious layering. Patience is the key and hurrying the applications only winds up turning the colors to mud. I was on schedule so there was no sense of urgency to finish. All in all, a nice piece, with a good mood. Brahms’ Hungarian Dances played off and on especially while working on the wolves. Many thanks to Andrew and Jesus for bringing me into the VOICE fold.
Trapped In the Swamp and a Bomb Thrower
Prior to the Trump as Grim Reaper illustration, there were two other illustrations done in quick succession for Rolling Stone. First, they had sent me an outline for a piece reporting on the War on Drugs as it stands today. A trillion and a half taxpayer dollars wasted, a massive increase in incarceration that’s benefited only the prison industrial complex, at the expense of whatever family structures are left in the lower income levels of society. A vast subset of individuals, excluding the truly dangerous, incarcerated, many for long sentences, for trivial drug possession offenses, now classified as felons their right to voted now denied even after repaying their debt to Society (how convenient) and forever stigmatized with a criminal record that must forever be listed on job applications. And we know how good a prison sentence looks on a job application. Anyway, it’s been a long slog for Uncle Sam through the dark swamp and he’s looking beaten and just wants a way out. Googling images of mudder events and ‘stuck in mud’ helped during the sketch/idea process. Art director- Mark Maltais.
The following assignment was for an interview with a former Trump advisor, currently his close but unofficial consultant, the apparently well loathed Roger Stone, one of the legendary dirty tricksters and political operatives who possesses what seems to be a serious Nixon obsession, a very interesting view on ethics and morals and an overwhelming desire to beat opponents by any means necessary. A bomb thrower. This time his bomb is Trump and his targets, besides the obvious Hillary, turn out to be many of the same people he’s worked for in the past. Can we say mercenaries have no loyalty to anyone but whom they work for at the moment? The ever shifting moment. AD: Mark Maltais