President Trump says he has a “running war with the media,” and that might as well include the funny pages. Comic strip artists have authored some of the sharpest political commentary directed against the President and his policies.
“Never normalize him,” says cartoonist Darrin Bell, the creator of Candorville, a daily strip that has frequently mocked the President as well as his predecessors, and often explores race and gender issues. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt, until he launched his campaign by calling Mexican illegal immigrants ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers,’ and it only got worse from there.”
Bell launched Candorville in 2003, and it now appears in more than 100 newspapers around the country, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. The Los Angeles resident and University of California Berkeley grad recently won the 2016 Clifford K. and James T. Berryman Award for the editorial cartoons he also draws for the Washington Post.
Bell is both African American and Jewish, an identity that he says makes him one of the first people in the room to recognize Trump's bigotry. “Or maybe it's more accurate to say I'm the last one in the room who has the luxury of ignoring it," Bell says. "And Donald Trump's actions have been screaming bigotry long before he insisted the first black president produce not only his birth certificate, but his college transcripts and his college application. Trump's actions have been screaming bigotry ever since his company denied housing to minorities in the 1970s.”
Multi-racial cast of characters
Candorville features a multi-racial cast, headed by Bell’s alter-ego, Lemont Brown, an African American single dad and deeply committed Trekkie and science nerd. Brown is also a freelance reporter, giving Bell the chance to comment on Trump’s antipathy for journalists.
“Lemont felt that being insulted by Trump was a rite of passage,” Bell says. “He wasn't actually a real journalist until he made it happen. But after he was forcibly ejected by his underwear from a press conference, Trump hasn't so much as called him a ‘loser’ once."
Brown spends a lot of time hanging out with his friends from childhood, Susan Garcia, an ad executive, and Clyde, a street hustler. In one of the most memorable strips, Clyde talks about getting back at a Trump supporter who calls him the “N” word.
“I had my most cynical character live out exactly how I thought I would deal with that kind of harassment if it were to happen to me,” Bell says. “And as I often do with Clyde, I used it as an opportunity to challenge readers' preconceptions about people who look like Clyde."
Comics not always a place for politics
The comics pages were once off-limits for political commentary. But in the 1950s, Walt Kelly’s Pogo took on red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy and then-Congressman Richard Nixon. (Kelly later caricatured Nixon, by then president, as a spider, spinning webs of deceit, and Vice President Spiro Agnew as a hyena).
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts tackled race in its characteristically gentle way; and Gary Trudeau has been lampooning political figures (starting with Nixon) in Doonesbury since it was first syndicated in 1970, often earning the strip banishment to the editorial pages. Bell's contemporary Keith Knight, another African American cartoonist, also writes about politics in his daily strip The Knight Life.
But Bell says he doesn’t owe a debt to these pioneers only. He cites as inspiration the neglected work of Jay Jackson, who created the strip Bungleton Green for the Chicago Defender, America's top black newspaper in the 1930s, as well as artists outside the world of cartooning.
“I feel like we all owe a debt to Honoré Daumier, to Mark Twain, to the court jester, to Aristophanes," Bell says. "We actually all owe a debt to the very first hairy person who drew a funny picture on a cave wall about a mammoth-hunt gone wrong.”
As well as seeing cartooning as one of the oldest art forms, he also considers it to have a long future. "32,000 years from now, long after all of us are completely forgotten, political satire will still be there," Bell says. "Because humanity will always, always produce smart-asses.”