The 45th president of the United States has proven to be fodder for political cartoonists looking to express their anger with his actions and administration through their art. Kieron Dwyer is the latest to release a collection of comic strips lampooning Trump and the people propping him up. I interviewed Dwyer about his experience making Unpresidented, his artistic process, and having three different graphic novels published by Image Comics this Summer.
What prompted you to begin making political cartoons?
I’ve been a fan of political cartoons and cartoonists since I was a kid. I always loved the condensing of multiple ideas into one single image, drawing interesting or clever comparisons between current events and other things, be they pop-culture references, literary ones, or what have you. I liked the illustration style of many of the artists, which I felt shared a kinship with the great cartoonists of MAD Magazine, especially Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, and Al Jaffee.
Although I have been largely known for and associated with mainstream superhero comic books for most of my career, I took a detour in the late ’90s and early 2000s with my adult humor comic series, LCD: Lowest Comic Denominator (incidentally, also being collected this summer and published by Image Comics). That was a way for me to get my ya-ya’s out in a number of ways: first, having a venue for my own sense of humor, which runs darker and perhaps edgier than some; second, giving me a chance to draw in a lot of different styles, which has been a passion of mine for a long time, but prior to LCD, didn’t have much of a place at DC or Marvel.
After publishing 4 full-sized issues of LCD, I moved on to other creator-owned comics, many with Rick Remender, and then I dropped out of comics altogether as my career in advertising storyboards grew. So, for years I had no regular avenue for personal expression, and frankly wasn’t all that eager to find one. However, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy, I guess that avenue found me. I don’t know how to explain it, but I just felt compelled to respond to what was happening with cartoons, and they just kind of poured out of me.
Having an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil made the whole thing so easy to do, and I really liked the immediacy of the process: going from concept to sketch to finished cartoon being posted on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook within such a short time was really liberating to me. I could be sitting at my local Peet’s coffee (never Starbucks, for obvious reasons), or on a plane, or sitting in my front yard and still make these cartoons. Very fulfilling, creatively.
What interested you in drawing them as individual images rather than in strip format?
Occasionally some of the ideas I have in this vein will be two or even three panels, but generally, I try to distill things into one single image, harkening back to the admiration I feel for the best editorial cartoonists. It’s a fun tightwire to walk, trying to tell a lot of things in one image without it becoming burdened by too much. Also, trying to decide on an art style that helps sell the idea. Unlike a lot of political cartoonists I see, I don’t quite have a single style set in stone. I’m afraid that may actually be a strike against me in some ways, because I think having a strong and definite singular style is helpful to a cartoonist, as far as people responding to the work, and seeking it out. I should probably settle on one style for my trump cartoons, but I enjoy the process of discovering what he’s going to look like each time I start one of these. It’s an exploration for me, which is something I enjoy about the process.
Do you think the Trump presidency has led to a revival for political cartooning?
Perhaps. A lot of the things I value — irony, comedy, political commentary, in-depth news — have really taken big hits during this troubled time in our country’s (and world’s) history. The sad fact is that I think many people are driven to comment on this president and the political turmoil that surrounds him, yet due to the shrinking of the print news outlets, there are fewer venues for political cartoons in particular. Like me, I think a lot of them are just posting stuff on social media and hoping to get some traction there, but it’s pretty challenging. I will say I am very glad that my living isn’t dependent on doing these cartoons, because the social media response is paltry and could not sustain me financially in any way whatsoever.
What’s your process for creating the cartoons? How quickly does it go from concept to finished piece?
Very quickly, as I mentioned. One of the notable things about this last 3-4 years, however, is that many of the same themes and ideas come back around regularly. So, for instance, there may be a number of ideas I sketch out when I first have them, but I don’t always find the time or have the drive to finish them right away. Most of the time, I just jump on them and finish them right when I get the ideas, but occasionally, I just put them aside. I’ll look back at them from time to time and think, “Oh, that’s a good one, I really should finish that one” but it may feel like it’s past its due date or just not as relevant as it might have been when I first thought of it. But, eventually, everything with this guy comes back around. He’s so utterly predictable, his foibles and flaws so set in stone that one way or another, I know I will always be able to come back to any idea at some point and it will be relevant all over again. It cuts both ways, of course: as a cartoonist, it is a relief because none of the ideas truly die, but as a person, a concerned citizen, it is appalling.
The cartoons don’t feel dated, even when they reference events from a few years prior. Are you thinking about how to make them stay timely as you work on them?
I do hope that the ideas have a timeless quality but I’m not consciously trying to make that the case. One of the concerns I had all along about collecting the cartoons was, would anybody want to relive all this terrible stuff that’s gone on for these last 4 years? It’s easy to forget that this has been a shitshow all along, even before he took office. It’s understandable to want to forget that, and the constant stream of new horrors has the effect of kind of erasing the previous ones, like waves on the beach washing away footprints in the sand. I think that is a function of the chaos of Trump and his allies, but also I think it is part of their strategy. Humans adapt to very bad stuff, as this whole coronavirus situation points out because our minds want to find order in the most chaotic situations. We find ways to distance ourselves from seeing or believing the worst things we see, as a survival method. But as hard as it is, we have to keep being confronted with the harm that is being done, and so I feel like it is my duty to keep producing images that remind me and others of why we have to keep fighting to restore some kind of sanity to the world.
Does drawing the cartoons process your anger at the Trump administration in a healthy or unhealthy way?
It’s a mixture. It is definitely sort of therapeutic, but also stressful to be honest. Overall, I think it’s a healthy venture and I am obviously compelled to do it. But there have definitely been some points where I’ve had to step back and take a rest. In fact, there was a long time when I just didn’t produce any new drawings. It was a little weird, especially after being so prolific for such a long stretch, but I think I just needed to step back from the constant exposure to the news and Twitter, etc. It was really making me feel crazy.
When I approached Image about putting out the book, I think I was in the middle of that dry period. And I wondered if I should even put myself into that zone again to get the book together, also wondering if anybody would want to even look at it. Then once I had the thing underway, I started getting inspired to do more cartoons, more relevant to current goings-on. So, suddenly I had to start culling older cartoons from the lineup because new ones felt more important to include.
That’s one challenging aspect of a book like this, which isn’t telling a linear story per se. I had to spend a lot of time trying to organize the book thematically and then deciding which cartoons deserved to be in the book. New cartoons kept popping into my head, and I’d think, “Oh, that one definitely has to go into the book!” but then I had to ditch something else to fit it in. I was so relieved to finally finish the book and send it off to Image to be printed because it was finally out of my hands and I couldn’t change it anymore. Then, this coronavirus thing happened and all the books went into limbo and I’ve had this nonstop burst of cartoon inspiration around Trump’s bungling of the virus and I’ve been thinking, “I wonder if I can still change the book?” It’s maddening!
The first year of Trump was almost tame compared to what followed and especially where we are now. Has that made you put your work in a new perspective?
I don’t know if I agree with the assessment, it feels to me like it’s been a garbage dump from day 1. But I think he’s gotten meaner, more spiteful, more power-mad as time has gone on, especially as all of the things we used to consider checks and balances on the worst instinct or behaviors of our leaders have sort of disintegrated. The spineless nature of so many republicans inside the government has been unbearable to watch, and truly disheartening. The complicity and enabling of Trump’s worst drives is a shameful stain on the country’s institutions that will take a long time to repair, if that’s even possible. It is appalling to know that so many have opted for short term personal benefits that are going to have very real long-term effects on so many other people. It’s very difficult for me to square all of this in my head.
Has your work on Unpresidented left you any time to work on other projects?
When I’m not working on advertising stuff for pay, I usually spend most of my time playing guitar, which has been my creative outlet for a good while now. The virus has put a damper on playing out with my friends as I used to do every week, though we’ve been playing some outdoors jams in my neighborhood, with appropriate social distancing.
As far as comics are concerned, I have been putting together the trade paperback collection of LCD as I mentioned, as well as a hardcover edition of Last of the Independents (written by Matt Fraction), both for Image Comics. All three books were supposed to come out a bit sooner, but now all three are coming out in early to mid-July. The original idea was to have one book every month for three months, but the virus situation took its toll on that plan as well. Frankly, I’m just wanting the Unpresidented book to be out as soon as possible so there’s some time for it to get some traction before the election. If the election doesn’t go the way I’m hoping it does, I suppose there will be a longer shelf life for the book, but honestly, I’d be happy to sacrifice my book for the greater good!
Over the course of making Unpresidented, did you see yourself evolve as not just a political cartoonist but storyteller in general?
It has always been my desire and intent as a storyteller to find ways to condense and distill things as much as possible. When doing comic books, I always ask myself, “Can someone look at this page without the benefit of word balloons or captions, and tell exactly what is happening and what these characters are feeling?” If the answer is no, I don’t feel I’ve done my part of the job.
This is true for the storyboard work I do as well as the comic books and the political cartoons. A lot of the storyboard work I’ve done over the last decade or so has been for campaigns like Old Spice and KFC at Wieden+Kennedy here in Portland, both of which are generally humorous ad campaigns. The agency folks seem to appreciate my ability to tell their stories quickly and efficiently while emphasizing the humorous aspects of the frames. I like the speed that is required in storyboarding, and the shorthand I can use to tell their stories suits my sensibilities. Coming from the world of comics definitely serves me well in that work.
As for being a better political cartoonist, I certainly hope that is the case. And I am hoping to find a specific style I can call my own and use as more of a signature calling card than I currently have. I think that may serve me in the long run. We’ll see.
Unpresidented: Cartoons of Chaos is scheduled to release on July 1st. Order the collection from your local comic book shop, or Amazon if shopping local is still not an option. Read new Unpresidented strips by following Kieron Dwyer on Twitter and Instagram.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with creators or players in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at firstname.lastname@example.org.