On Thursday night, Columbia Libraries hosted four cartoonists for America: WTF?: Comics in a Time of Crisis, a discussion of the Trump administration, identity, and the role of comics. 

Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons, opened the evening with thanks, to Kevin Schlottman and Emily Saso of the Rare Book Library for organizing this event, and to the Columbia libraries for allowing her to create the initiative for comics in the Columbia libraries. Green told the origin story of comics at Columbia, a circulation collection which had three titles at its creation in 2005, and which now has more than 17,000 titles in two dozen languages. 

The structure of the event consisted of individual presentations by each of the four panelists: R. Sikoryak, Ezra Claytan Daniels, Breena Nuñez, and Derf Backderf. Each read excerpts directly from their work or more generally discussed their inspirations, and where they would like to go next. 

R. Sikoryak’s body of work consists of adaptations of literary classics into a comic format, including his book Terms and Conditions, which presented the iTunes Terms and Conditions in the format of a graphic novel. During the Trump administration, he produced the zine The Unquotable Trump, as well as books like Nasty Woman and Adversary Time, which featured Trump as the villain in a number of comic book scenarios. He wrote these as a way to demonstrate how the “terrible plague” of Trump’s politics could “infect something he loves”: comics. With these high personal stakes, he set out to create work that would last beyond the current political moment, and his book Constitution Illustrated was born –– a pocket-sized book containing the full text of the U.S. Constitution. The illustrations feature beloved American comic characters from over a century and help explain the meaning of the Constitution. In selecting which comic characters to include, Sikoryak wanted a diversity of gender, race, age, and political viewpoint, and hoped that readers of all ages would be able to recognize the characters and learn more about the Constitution.

Ezra Claytan Daniels is a cartoonist, writer, and illustrator who creates science fiction and horror comics with a strong political ideology. During his presentation, he read from his most recent book BTTM FDRS (pronounced “Bottom Feeders”), created in conjunction with Ben Passmore. In the excerpt he read, two designers are pitching their line of recycled vintage clothing to a white-owned boutique. The boutique owner is shocked to learn that the two designers live in the Bottomyards, a neighborhood the boutique owner describes as a “warzone”. For Daniels, this book addresses gentrification and cultural appropriation in the context of a sci-fi horror graphic novel, which allowed him to candy-coat these issues.

Daniels also discussed his book Are You At Risk for Empathy Myopia?. This is a longer nonfiction piece that Daniels created to educate his white relatives on how empathy, power, and privilege intersect to breed injustice. The book discusses how liberal and conservative people direct empathy differently, depending on who they consider to be in their ingroup. Every person in a position of power has struggled with empathy myopia, the inability to feel empathy as privilege increases.

Breena Nuñez is an educator, cartoonist, and writer from the Bay Area. They are a first-generation American from Central American parents. During the Trump administration, they have been pushed to create in the face of the anti-Central American rhetoric from President Trump. Their memoir, I Exist, is about their reclamation of their Afro-Salvadoran identity, following their younger self’s anti-Blackness. They shared excerpts from this memoir, regarding the legacy of laws passed by Salvadoran president Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, which banned African, Haitian, and Arab migrants in the 1940s, as well as Nuñez’s bittersweet feeling about the modern-day community celebration of the “Day of Afrodescendants”. They also shared their comic From There to Here, which uses El Salvador’s volcanoes as a metaphor for the “stewingness” of a nation that has faced civil war and conflict since declaring independence. Crocodile Girl, explains Nuñez’s connection to crocodiles, which in Salvadoran culture are viewed as artistic, intuitive, and romantic, which they find to be representative of their spirit. Wiser Self features an eponymous character (Nuñez as a drag king with a beard, wearing a graduation cap) who guides Nuñez through their struggles with the church in which they were raised. Wiser Self tells Nuñez that this struggle is because she has been colonized and that she still deserves love and care as she learns and works through this struggle.

Derf Backderf’s work is observational and narrative-based and has become increasingly political over time. He started in 1990 with a comic strip called The City which ran in a number of weekly alternative papers and focused on current Gen X culture. True Story is a series of observational comics derived from his wanderings around Cleveland, and have more of a narrative intent than a humorous intent. (Backderf noted that True Story  became very popular in France, as an explanation of sorts on how Trump came to be elected.) His most known work, My Friend Dahmer, is a memoir of Backderf’s friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, as both attended the same high school. This work is dark in nature, and Backderf explained that it was political in the sense that it was about Dahmer as a troubled young person who “fell through the cracks of authority”. Trashed is based on his experience as a garbage man, and features both “gross-out humor”, but also a deeper, more serious look at the waste problem. His most recent work was published only a few months ago: Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio is a dramatic recreation of the four days of unrest at Kent State, and the four students who were killed during it. Backderf thought this story would be relevant for 2020 but said that he had no idea how relevant it would be, saying that he watched the events of this summer unfold, “with a terror that we were hurtling toward another Kent State”.

With the conclusion of the individual presentations from each of the cartoonists, Green proceeded to facilitate a Q&A. 

Green commented on the upsurge in nonfiction books about President Trump and her concern that this upsurge has “sucked up the air” for nonfiction or more creative works. She asked the panelists if the seemingly endless coverage of Trump has edged out other forms of creation. Daniels noted that Trump “is a non-entity”, and that as an individual, he is not interesting, compelling, or intelligent. What is more interesting to him is “how he got the reins”, and how many people were blindsided by his election in 2016. Nuñez stated that they avoid making comics that literally depict Trump, which gives him too much attention. In this way, they are able to continue creating and protect their mental health. 

Green asked Backderf about Kent State, and whether he planned for it to be a political commentary on the current moment. She noted the “horrifying synchronicity” of federal troops descending upon Seattle just weeks before the release of the book, which was scheduled around the 50th anniversary of the shooting. Backderf responded that he began this project four years ago, and had been wanting to tell this story for years. He is not a political cartoonist with an agenda, he says, he just wants to tell meaningful stories. Green underlined the political nature of all of Backderf’s work, calling Trashed a “hardcore fact dump” about the pressing issue of garbage, interspersed with more lighthearted humor. 

Green then asked Nuñez about identity politics, particularly in the context of their book Half and Half, about their experience as a half-Salvadoran and half-Guatemalan person. Green questioned if it is possible for any non-white, non-heterosexual, non-male person to write and memoir and have this work not be disparagingly referred to as identity politics. Nuñez addressed the muddled meaning of identity politics, saying that it was originally created “with the utmost respect” as a way to build solidarity, but this meaning has become corrupted. For Nuñez, comics are the language in which they can best communicate, and reach out to the Afro-Latinx and queer and trans folks that aren’t allowed a seat at the table. Nuñez also noted how exhausting it can be for BIPOC to create memoirs, but said that if they are able to gather the strength to create, there are many people who want to hear those stories. 

Next, Green brought up Daniels’ work in genre fiction (specifically sci-fi and horror) to “sneak” social issues into his readers’ consciousness, as well as his more didactic work about social and political issues. Green asked about this shift in his work: the former representing books like BTM FDRS, and the latter representing books like Are You At Risk for Empathy Myopia?. Daniels said that this shift was absolutely intentional. He referenced the decades of portrayals of Trump as a buffoon or a punchline, and how we failed to take the lesson from this. In his own work, Daniels became disenfranchised with the obfuscation of his message and wanted to become more clear in his communication of his message. He cited his past experience designing courtroom presentations, where he took complex legal and chemical engineering concepts and distilled them so that a layperson juror sitting 30 feet away could understand them. With this, he endeavored to write Are You At Risk for Empathy Myopia? as clearly as possible, and with a full bibliography.
Green commented on Sikoryak’s comic Constitution Illustrated, and particularly the wide variety of comic characters featured in it. She asked Sikoryak if he had a specific audience for this book, a specific person who likes a lot of pictures and clear, brief, bullet-point text, making an oblique reference to President Trump. Sikoryak responded that as far as he knew, Trump hadn’t read any of Sikoryak’s past work featuring Trump as a villain and that he doubts that Trump will read Constitution Illustrated. As for Sikoryak’s audience, he wanted to make a version of the Constitution that people would want to pick up and easily understand: even by leafing through the book, they could see characters in robes and understand a section about the Supreme Court, for example.

This event was incredibly enlightening, and offered a look at how a handful of cartoonists have addressed the current US political climate, and the personal issues that this climate has brought up for them.

America: WTF? via Columbia University Events