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Laugh because it hurts: Brodner’s The 51st State.

The Arsonist’s Craft

By Meisha Rosenberg

Raw Nerve: The Political Art of Steve Brodner

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass., through Oct. 26


Looking forward to (and dreading) November? These days we’re all a bit politically overloaded, addicts of a 24-hour news cycle. However your political moods swing, political illustrator Steve Brodner will take your worst fears and make them visible and absolutely horrible. His deliciously wicked caricatures are guaranteed to make you feel much, much worse—but then you’ll feel better.

If you have read any major newsmagazines since the 1980s, you will recognize Brodner’s style: he’s published work in The Atlantic, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The Nation, and The New York Times among others, and he has a contract with The New Yorker to draw the current presidential campaign. Brodner has made unforgettable images of George W. Bush as Alfred E. Neuman (Bush Goes to School, 2000) and as a monkey (here you’ll see his George W. Bush, A Puppetmaster Monkey, 2007). While these are standard caricature fare, there are hysterical, original works such as Democrat Feng Shui (2003): “Place John Kerry in water fountain.”

In this exhibit, more than 100 original drawings narrate our states of madness over the past few decades. It’s a history lesson in thematically arranged pictures, and the curators have done a fantastic job providing contextual information. A film directed by Gail Levin shows Brodner at work. The exhibit is a great way to visit the Rockwell Museum for those of us who might otherwise hesitate; Brodner is an antidote to all that unadulterated Rockwell. He twits Rockwell in Norman Rockwell Puts Up with Steve Brodner (2008). Freedom From Want (1988) parodies the Rockwell painting of the same title, which hangs in a neighboring room and portrays an idealized white family having a turkey dinner. Brodner’s family eats McDonald’s takeout. Raw Nerve shows that the two artists are the yin and yang of American ideology, each in his own way thoroughly patriotic.

If he didn’t care so much, Brodner wouldn’t bother to demonstrate how bad it is. His greedy pols are some of the most fleshy and gluttonous in the world of caricature. Pinkish orange is Brodner’s favorite, carnal color. Orders Please depicts Republicans feeding after the 2001 inauguration. In Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an award-winning illustration from 2005 based on Dürer’s famous woodcut, Cheney is the Grim Reaper galloping alongside Bush, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. In Hollywood Politicos (2004), wrinkly necked Washington power brokers cozy up to the Hollywood elite.

His insight into our favorite metaphors led him to create The Battle for Iowa (2008), a religious allegory showing McCain as an Old Testament prophet and Barack Obama as the baby Jesus in the lap of Oprah, the Madonna. He is adept at connecting events in Washington to popular movies and trends. Hence a whole slew of TV and movie parodies, such as Bill and Hillary on the prow of their own Titanic in Lost at Sea (2008); Newt Gingrich raves in The Madness of King Newt (1998).

As uncompromising as his visions are, there is salvation—of a sort. In works he calls art journalism (in contrast to political illustration), Brodner portrays Americans caught on the wrong side of the political divide. Using subtle shades, he draws a farmer at risk of bankruptcy (in Plowed Under, Wayne Brattrude, 1987, done for The Progressive) and, searingly, a mother grieving an 11-year-old daughter killed by a gunshot (Bearing Arms, Gloria Brown, 2000, for Philadelphia magazine). After 9/11, he walked the city and drew the missing. Some of his illustrations treat figures such as Bob Dole with sympathetic depth.

Brodner has a quieter side that produces admirable portraits, but he comes into his own when he’s out for blood. Nightmares come alive when Godzilla (Ronald Reagan) dukes it out with King Kong (Bill Clinton, clutching Hillary in his gorilla paw) in Clash of the Titans (2008). Each illustration is like a mini-thesis, and Clash of the Titans argues that the legacies of these former presidents were on trial during the primaries. Speaking of legacies, remember when George H. W. Bush dismissed global warming as a “way-out-left wing” issue (George Bush Reveals Himself, 1992)? Brodner’s political illustrations don’t forget. And thanks to him, neither do we.

Caricature and satire look simple—with just a few lines, a familiar face is conjured—but successful visual funning requires laser-like focus. In the tradition of his craft, following the merciless likes of Thomas Nast (who went after Tammany Hall) and Honoré Daumier, Brodner exaggerates features such as huge ears, tiny eyes, and gnashing teeth. We see the powerful for what they are: parodies of themselves, goons and simps, gang bangers and gas bags whose noses are red with rage.

Mark Twain called illustrated satire “painted fire,” and Lewis Lapham, in his introduction to Freedom Fries: The Political Art of Steve Brodner (Fantagraphics, 2004), calls Brodner “a born arsonist.” If it is the fire next time come November, as long as Brodner’s around, we’ll at least have fun watching it burn.

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