Jeff Danziger’s The Conscience of a Cartoonist Dissects Post-9/11 America

Jeff Danziger

These days, collections of political cartoons—when they are collected at all—tend to take the form of modest trade paperbacks, often crowd-funded by the cartoonists’ most loyal readers. This is not the case with The Conscience of a Cartoonist, a massive new compendium from one of the profession’s stalwarts, Jeff Danziger.

The Conscience of a Cartoonist
The Conscience of a Cartoonist
By Jeff Danziger
Center for Cartoon Studies/Fantagraphics
608 pages; $85.00

Published as an instructive example of the art form by the Center for Cartoon Studies, a school for cartoonists in White River Junction, Vermont, the book is a coffee-table crusher at more than 600 pages. Indeed, its sheer heft gives new meaning to the idea of political cartoons as a kind of weaponry.

Danziger is no stranger to weapons, having served in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star and the Air Medal. After returning from the war, he began his career as a political cartoonist with staff stints at New York’s Daily News and The Christian Science Monitor. In recent years he has won the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast Award, major accolades in the field of editorial cartooning.

The book begins immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, walking readers through the bad old days of the wretched aughts in excruciating detail. Danziger’s military background sets him up perfectly as a critic of the Bush administration’s chickenhawkery. One cartoon, entitled “M.I.A.,” shows the empty cockpit of a military plane with graffiti scrawled on its side: “Sorry. Lt. Bush doesn’t feel like going to war. Somebody else please go in his place.” You can almost feel the loathing dripping from Danziger’s pen.

Accompanying the cartoons are text blurbs, written by Danziger, providing historical context and advice to aspiring cartoonists. These additions are an especially useful convention for preventing political cartoons from being seen as ephemeral, despite their often timeless messages.

Danziger seems to enjoy crafting a good sentence as much as a good drawing. He writes with droll wit and occasionally tosses out 10-dollar words like “yclept” and “callipygian.” He also unleashes blistering criticisms of wars waged recklessly and with excessive force.

For example, alongside a cartoon about U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan killing eight children, he writes: “Children cannot be considered collateral casualties under any circumstances. Military leaders who cannot win without involving their nations in unjustified slaughter should not be given the task of leading armies. This goes for political leaders as well. Nor is the excuse that the enemy hides in populated areas as a strategy worth anything.”

Other pearls of wisdom that Danziger directs at students of the craft include: “All bar scenes should have a beer sign with some sort of mock beer name like ‘Schlurg’ or ‘Blitz’”; “A little bit of snow seems colder than a lot”; “Hands are very expressive appendages, in a subtle, even sneaky way that is impossible for editors to mess with.”

Danziger is at his best drawing simple, stark images about war and economic injustice. Many of these cartoons lament the loss of American manufacturing jobs to China, the cycle of poverty perpetuated by Wal-Mart, and the plight of a working class faced with a grim choice between the unemployment line and the military recruiter’s office. These scenes are conveyed with compelling mood and technique, replete with rain puddles, blizzards and post-industrial decay.

The book’s missteps tend to occur on social-issue terrain. A fairly narrow focus on traditional “hard news” subjects means there aren’t many cartoons about, say, gender inequality or environmental devastation, though these topics do get treated a bit toward the end, and he does address the oppression of women in fundamentalist Muslim countries.

Danziger is at his best drawing simple, stark images about war and economic injustice. But while Danziger is ostensibly supportive of gay rights, he seems uncomfortable with the subject. One cartoon rightly mocks Rick Santorum for his comment comparing gay sex with “man on dog” activity. Yet a cartoon from a few months later, about the end of anti-sodomy laws in Texas, depicts a cowboy finally able to consummate his love with his horse. In another panel, about gays in the military, a cringe-inducing Uncle Sam wearing a heart-shaped earring appears on a poster with the caption “OOOH! I Want YOU for U.S. ARMY” and the subtitle “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Smile at your local recruiter!” Perhaps in his own defense, Danziger writes that “Changes in morals and standards are downright confusing and in some cases bizarre. … Homosexuality is a difficult subject to broach in a family newspaper. … It’s best to treat both hetero- and homosexuality as silly subjects.” Rather than acting as a champion of this particular social revolution, Danziger instead comes across as bemused by it. It would have been nice to see the same muscular conviction that he brings to other topics.

A few laddish remarks about women also seem dated. Referring to a cartoon about Condoleezza Rice’s workouts, he writes, “Ms. Rice was said to exist so Bush would have something to think about in meetings.” He also makes the joke that Bush has always surrounded himself with strong women… including Karl Rove. Insulting a man by calling him a woman seems more like a cheap late-night talk-show line than a conscientious jab in keeping with Danziger’s normally high standards.

But we cartoonists all have pet issues we like to draw about, and others that give us difficulty. For the most part, The Conscience of a Cartoonist is politically spot-on and beautifully rendered, offering a fascinating peek behind the drawing board. In other words, a fine review of our increasingly dumb 21st century.

Jen Sorensen is a political cartoonist based in Austin. She is the recipient of the 2014 Herblock Prize and a 2013 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

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Published at 8:00 am CST