Victor Juhasz
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October 2009
Obama's Afghanistan Dilemma

In the current ROLLING STONE,  an article written for the ‘National Affairs’ section, highlighting the problems Obama faces in coming to a decision on how to deal with Afghanistan became an interesting challenge for an illustration. 


Here’s where an editorial illustrator who normally is on the same or very similar page with the publication he’s working for tries to work out a solution that expresses the editorial point of view but also manages to throw in nuances that express his own ambivalence.  The article pretty clearly paints a picture of military higher ups trying to force Obama’s hand to expand the fight there and is very critical of that move.  I find myself very torn over this matter as I can’t see any good solution and am struck by very strong arguments being made, pro and con, regarding expanding the fight.  All very plausible, all probably wrong in some fundamental way, as we are dealing with a terribly irrational part of the world, a world I doubt any of us can grasp.  


I was particularly taken off guard by the great Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid and his very vocal support for continued military action in Afghanistan and his dire warnings of how these Islamic fanatics will view any backing away by the US as a show of weakness and further embolden them to expand their objectives.   Rashid, the author of TALIBAN, JIHAD, and DESCENT INTO CHAOS, argued strongly against the military adventure in Iraq but not so regarding possible US expansion in the Afghan theater.  His recent commentary further reinforced the reality that this is not a black/white foreign policy decision.   Lots of grey area here.


So, I approached this image not with a desire to show the military as some gang cornering or pushing Obama into a fight, but focusing on Obama being squeezed between two equally dangerous possibilities.  Under no circumstances was I going to give the Taliban any light glove treatment in an image like this as I have no illusions as to the nihilistic gangsterism they represent under the guise of religion.


My initial sketches were an attempt to show this precarious tightrope act that Obama is currently in the middle of.  Editorial was looking for something emphasizing the military pressure.  I came back with an idea showing that, but also showing the pressure being exerted by the Taliban/AlQaeda from the other end.  Like a long necked bird waiting for the chopping block Obama’s neck was stretched to a fragile point.

I would not want to be in his shoes.  He must know that whatever he decides will have negative consequences not currently foreseen. 

A subtle point here I forgot to mention. While showing the military leaning on Obama, I didn't want this to be interpreted as a SEVEN DAYS IN MAY scenario so I kept the finger off the trigger.
Same idea- two different views. One looking down on a mountainous Afghan landscape, the other looking up at storm clouds.
It was a very positive okay on this sketch with just one question from Steve Charny "...why are his ears square?" I explained it was just quick scribbling.
Our Counterfeit Economy

It’s great to know that Matt Taibbi’s investigative features on our current economic state for ROLLING STONE have drawn such apoplectic hostility from the presumed icons of business, such as Goldman Sachs, and their lapdogs, i.e. CNBC.  Obviously something makes them very uncomfortable- maybe it’s the fact that these articles are great examples of successful paper chasing and, despite the necessity to use business/market/finance lingo, extremely understandable. At this stage of the game, Wall Street can’t even pretend that it does anything for the benefit of the nation.  The sole recipient of its world of excess wealth is itself, a miniscule percentage of the American population.  You may counter by saying, “Well, they took a beating this past year, all that money lost.” To which I would point out it was you that took the beating, they’re doing just fine, thank you.   These features that have been appearing in ROLLING STONE only make it clearer to those of us who didn’t graduate with MBA’s in business speak how rigged the game is, and how, if you think you can outsmart this corrupt system, you are so dreaming.


The latest issue, with U-2 on the cover, addresses the jaw dropping criminality behind naked short selling and other ways to make a staggering amount of insider profit from just manipulating shares of stocks, or better yet, ghost shares, shares that don’t even exist but are traded.  Cool.  Taibbi is quick to point out that short selling serves a vital function in the market, but not as it has been practiced of late.   Investment banking no longer makes wealth financing real business and creating jobs.  It has gutted the middle class and without those victims to amass wealth anymore now starts eating each other.  In the first draft I read he used the analogy of hyenas.  That seemed like a great starting off point for visuals, especially if they could be tied together in a theme since this article was going to require, at least initially, an opener, a couple spots and about 4 caricatures. 


The hyenas made for a great sketch for a possible opener, and it seemed a logical step to incorporate the theme to caricatures of the esteemed CEO’s as hyenas in suits.   The folks in charge wanted to push the counterfeit theme and go the route of business types at a counterfeit/printing machine spewing shares.  I initially wasn’t enthused about this because the article was very clear that many of the “shares” never existed to begin with.  Ghost shares.  That to me promised a real problem to visualize without getting all cerebral, or worse, creating a dense image with layers of symbolic meanings.   Ugh.  Besides, and probably most importantly, I hate drawing Rube Goldberg type machines.  Don’t mind looking at them, but hate drawing them.


There was a lot of back and forth, at one point it even looked like the counterfeit machine was being dropped as the opener.  Then it was on again.  The caricatures were dropped because, frankly, while certain CEO’s were named they themselves did not factor as significantly fleshed out characters in the story.  The focus was on the massive short selling.  I was breathing a little easier because it was Monday and I had till Friday to come up with 4 illustrations instead of eight.

While the back and forth was happening, a certain sketch I scribbled wound up containing the key for the solution if the printing machine was the final choice.  One of the points made in the article, as I, a layman, understand it, is that with all these ghost shares being traded and shorted, it’s conceivable that any number of investment funds are claiming the same shares, believing them to be theirs.  What happens if everyone cashes out at the same time?  The chaos will be incredible.  I came up with an image at a poker table with everyone, save one, claiming the pot, all holding a winning hand of 4 Aces of Spades.  Replications.  Everyone, in a sense, holding dirty hands.  This was approved as one of the spots but made me think of a way to get around a complicated high-tech Rube Goldberg machine image for the opener.  Googled some old fashioned printing machines for reference, created something that looks logical, and just flooded the opener with paper shares of the same stock perpetually subdivided.  Worked in a mini idea of the main share dividing into three by the next roller and finally spewing out in reams on the final roller. Added some classic representations of bankers/businessmen, and the opener turned out quite nice with everyone satisfied with the final images.   A great job- worth the stress of coming up with a strong solution.   Finally, it’s a great read for anyone with a retirement account and dreams of living off it at some point down the line.

I only worked up Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman as a sketch to demonstrate what I was looking to do with the caricatures. Substituted green for blood red.
Hedging my bets I approached Blankfein from another vantage point. My readings of Goldman have morphed from smartest guys on the block to a death wielding operation.
No one quite knew what to make of the dead guy in the back, even after I explained that he was the one who lost all being left out of the winning hand scheme. So we took him out.
The idea here is of towering institutions that borrow and trade with each other standing on vapor like pillars of paper.
Johnny Mack of Morgan Stanley- one of the proposed subjects of the caricatures that never happened.
A sketch that went nowhere, playing off a more conventional idea of a share being pulled out from under a company under a short selling attack and the beneficiaries collecting.
Ignore this article at your own peril.
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