Drawing on Politics
Illustrator Steve Brodner discusses political satire and his new book, Freedom Fries.
Satirical illustrator Steve Brodner has covered politics for decades, from the Nixon administration to the current Bush and his entire cabinet, portrayed as the “Bushanos.” Freedom Fries, a collection of pieces from throughout Brodner’s career, was published by Fantagraphics Books this past September. Here Brodner discusses the art of political satire, the timid media, and the upcoming election.
texasmonthly.com: What first piqued your interest in satirical illustration?
Steve Brodner: I guess I was always a fan of the political cartoonists I saw in newspapers. When I was very young I was intrigued by nineteenth-century cartoons in history books, although I didn’t understand what they were about.
texasmonthly.com: What’s your process in choosing a subject to draw?
SB: I will draw the thing that makes me afraid and/or angry—sort of like the cavemen who drew the beast to gain the feeling of power over it.
texasmonthly.com: Which politician do you enjoy drawing the most?
SB: Always the most dangerous one. Right now, Bush, who else?
texasmonthly.com: Have you received any backlash from your subjects for your portrayals? Any compliments?
SB: Quite often politicians want to hang your work in their office, regardless of how nasty the art. They want, I suppose, to show how “big” they are. Martha Stewart did call to holler at me once. But we all know how unstrung she can get.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve done freelance work for various publications over the years, and in Texas Monthly’s October 2004 issue your illustration of Laura Miller and Jerry Jones accompanied an article concerning the battle over a new Dallas Cowboys stadium. How do you come up with illustration ideas when they serve as artwork for a story?
SB: First comes the word . . . always. Illustration is about using pictures to tell a story. In my humble opinion the illustration might be more important than the story itself because a really good image will lead many more people to actually read the piece. I read an article to find the essence, the crux. What is this really saying? How do I express it in the most eloquent way possible? If I can do that, understanding that the average reader spends very little time looking at any images, I’ve done my job.
texasmonthly.com: How did you go about choosing which of your illustrations to include in Freedom Fries?
SB: I knew this was going to be a political book. Once I had decided on the four chapters—Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush—I knew the way to go. I took my best work and lined it up in sequence. I was very surprised that it reads as a sort of document of our times.
texasmonthly.com: How is this book different from your previous books and other projects?
SB: This is the ultimate compendium of everything that I’m about as a political artist. If I drew something and liked it, then the image is probably in Freedom Fries. I’ll have to work just as hard for another thirty years to do one of these again!
texasmonthly.com: Do you mean to send a particular message by having the book published around election time?
SB: Absolutely! These are times that constantly challenge the courage of publications to tell the truth on politics. Quite often they fail the test, sometimes spectacularly. This book says to publications and media of all kinds, “Look, you can do this. Getting someone upset won’t be the end of the world. Newspapers and magazines are here to inform. Here’s another very effective way to do it. And it can be very gratifying.”
texasmonthly.com: Which of the current presidential candidates lends himself more readily to becoming one of your subjects? Do you see one as being an easier target for your satire than the other?
SB: First see who the biggest hypocrite is, the one doing the greatest short-term and long-term harm to the greatest number of people, and there’s your man. George W. Bush is probably the biggest liar we’ve ever had in the White House, and nobody really wants to nail him on it. What a mission for satire! As Pat Buchanan said, “Ride to the sound of the guns!”
texasmonthly.com: Do you have any current projects underway?
SB: Aside from the usual magazines (The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Nation), I’m making an independent film about a man who was exonerated while on death row in Illinois.