The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was fired for cartoons skewering Trump. But this artist’s drawings retain their power.

by Michael Cavna (after Rob Rogers) / The Washington Post 2018 (by Michael Cavna (after Rob Rogers) / The Washington Post 2018)

LAST MONTH, in the auditorium semicircle of the Corcoran, Rob Rogers — a man still employed the last time there was a national American election — spoke of the dwindling numbers of his fellow political pundits at the drawing board. Standing onstage, across the street from the White House, he reminded why his visceral craft is crucial for helping to stoke the national conversation, and why such voices must now be amplified instead of extinguished.

Rogers was fired in June from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his editorial home for a quarter-century. The paper leaned left for many generations, yet once Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy in the summer of 2015, the paper began to tack toward the political right — leaving the liberal cartoonist aware that his orientation toward the Post-Gazette’s editorial shore was dramatically shifting.

Before Rogers was laid off, 19 of his cartoons and sketched ideas were killed by his editors within a matter of months, drawing national attention. The month after his firing, 18 of his works were put on pop-up display at the Corcoran, with curator Sanjit Sethi wisely leaping at the opportunity to spotlight editorial courage for the educational institution’s students. Silence is “not an option for our community,” Sethi, the director of the Corcoran School, wrote as an opening to the exhibit, titled “Spiked.”

Two days ahead of the midterm elections — which are widely being characterized as a referendum on Trump’s presidency — the “Spiked” cartoons are brightly tinted, heavily crosshatched reminders of the cost of controversy.

On Monday, a new, right-leaning cartoonist will officially inherit Rogers’s longtime perch at the Post-Gazette. Meanwhile, Rogers remains out of a job (though his work is still distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication) but buoyed by a significantly increased social-media following as a result of the high-profile, partisan nature of his firing.

Almost all the work in “Spiked” skewered either Trump or issues closely associated with his administration. So in a time when the press is painted by Trump as the “enemy of the people,” Rogers’s cartoons and sketches — the latter of which especially illuminate his mental process of creative iteration — gain power as minimalist symbols of distilled dissent.

Any artwork, of course, takes on a greater importance when it stirs opposition. Who doesn’t want to see an image that someone doesn’t want you to see?

This very secrecy piques our curiosity: What viewpoint — what potential truth — lies in those lines that they threaten some powerful person’s agenda or ideology or attempted spell of persuasion?

Kingdom after kingdom has tried to quiet its cartoon critics. And how did that work out?

In some cases, we’re still talking about — and gazing at — those works today. Those on the throne in the short term often end up empowering those artworks in the long run.

In the 1830s, the great French illustrator Honoré Daumier was imprisoned a half-year for satirizing King Louis-Philippe. Today, his work — including his society-lampooning lithographs for La Caricature — is mounted in museums and galleries the globe over.

Current visual satirists around the world, from Iran to Syria to India to Malaysia, have been harassed, arrested and sometimes brutalized for voicing their opinions through art — many after the 2015 massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris.

In the United States, political cartoonists still expect freedom of expression, even as most have received death threats and some — like the syndicated Chris Britt, who recently drew controversial Brett Kavanaugh cartoons — having to contact federal authorities.

Rob Rogers’s case is quite different. His situation was one wholly about the levers of top-down editorial control.

One by one last spring, subject by subject, Rogers’s cartoons started to be killed.

Immigration? Spike!

Racism? Spike!

Trump on Memorial Day? A definite spike!

The events surrounding the firing could have ended then and there — except Rogers and the Corcoran knew there was inherent power in politically rejected works.

So, hard past Pennsylvania Avenue, his killed cartoons found their way into the sunlight.

The deceivingly upbeat fields of pastel tints. The heavy ink hatching that begins light and builds into black gravitas. The loose-lined structures blending with the rounded lines of soft, bubble-lipped humans that, shining bright, almost loom like balloon animals. These cartoons are as original as they are authentic.

Rogers’s real trick is that his often candy-colored visuals are so warmly inviting, yet the point of his sharp pen turns the ink to acid. He is painting with poison darts, and the satiric sting comes quick and strong.

Does any newspaper have a home for such an accomplished staff cartoonist? The last national election set events in motion for Rogers’s departure. Perhaps Tuesday’s election will help set the political stage for his return to a perch that values his strong, unapologetic voice.