So Zyglis, like numerous artists during the coronavirus crisis, summoned imagery of the Grim Reaper to get across his blade-sharp point. His popular Buffalo News cartoon was published Friday — the same day that an activist attorney in Florida protested the reopening by dressing as the scythe-bearing sower of souls. Though that stunt went viral when the lawyer took the microphone during a local newscast, cartoonists have been using the character for weeks to satirize aspects of the pandemic.
Zyglis generally doesn’t deploy the Grim Reaper in his cartoons — “it can often be overused,” he says — but in this case, he came up with a deft visual twist. “The scythe nicely mimicked the dorsal fin of a shark,” he says, “so I ran with it.”
Images of Death crop up in differing cultures across millennia, but the Grim Reaper as a skeletal figure wielding an agrarian scythe especially harks back to the Black Death, when millions died during the original plague outbreak of the 14th century and subsequent recurrences.
In art, the hooded Grim Reaper continued to cull the diseased in the 20th century, as in the 1912 personification of cholera that appeared in France’s Le Petit Journal. Yet the Reaper also increasingly became a stock gag character, as in many New Yorker cartoons — a comfortable way for readers to literally laugh in the face of Death.
“I think in times of tragedy and death, the image of the Grim Reaper is conveniently abstracted enough so any attempt at humor doesn’t come off as insensitive to victims,” Zyglis says. “And as a cartoonist, skeletons are just fun to draw.”
Clay Bennett, the political cartoonist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, recently rendered the Grim Reaper hitchhiking its way to a reopening Georgia. He says the intent of his Reaper was not as a humorous figure, but rather as a symbol that stokes fear.
“I was simply trying to depict the ominous fate that would follow such misguided public health policy,” Bennett says. “Editorial cartoons are not always meant to be funny, which is fortunate for me, because I’m finding humor hard to come by in this day and time, and with this commander in chief.”
Kevin Siers, the political cartoonist for the Charlotte Observer, has satirized North Carolina’s attempt to reopen during the pandemic, depicting the Reaper as a gravedigger who trades his scythe for a shovel.
Despite the character’s common use, Siers, like Zyglis, relishes rendering it in his own style. “Those dark flowing robes lend themselves to a loose, impressionistic treatment,” Siers says, “and I’m always looking for an excuse to indulge in a looser style.”
Dave Whamond, a cartoonist for the Cagle Cartoons syndicate, likes to deploy the Grim Reaper partly because the figure is so adaptable to an artist’s editorial needs. “He can work in a more lighthearted cartoon or a much more serious idea,” Whamond notes.
“I do think twice when doing a cartoon about the pandemic, as every life gone represents a loved one with an entire family and friends affected,” Whamond continues. “But I also think it’s important to call out the incompetence and corruption that is making this disaster worse and will cause more deaths.”
To that point, Whamond drew the Grim Reaper praising President Trump’s response to the pandemic, with the White House under fire over the U.S. death toll, which on Tuesday topped 70,000 lives.
Beyond the United States, the Grim Reaper travels well overseas as a malleable visual metaphor, says Whamond’s syndicate editor, Daryl Cagle. The Reaper “can work with props, interact with other characters and use expressive body language to convey complex concepts in images that would take a writer take many words to express,” Cagle says.
In contrast to many political cartoonists, Mark Tatulli, creator of the popular comic strip “Lio,” likes to employ his Death character purely for comic effect.
“I always kind of see the Ingmar Bergman-inspired figure of Death as this regular guy who is just doing his job,” says Tatulli, referencing the character’s appearance in Bergman’s movie “The Seventh Seal,” later spoofed in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” “He likes to play games and do normal stuff — he just has the worst possible occupation. And his unfortunate, dark look goes with the job.
“I think that’s funny and sad about the Death in ‘Lio,’ ” continues Tatulli about his strip, in which a horror-loving boy provides dialogue-free laughs. “Of course, Lio befriends him, because he sees past all that.”
Death’s appearance in “Lio” preceded the pandemic, but Tatulli had a deliberate choice to make this spring: whether to do coronavirus-related humor or leave it alone.
“Originally my thought was, ‘Well, this is a bad thing happening. So it’s my job to create a distraction.’ And I tried. But it was everywhere — and it was all I could think about,” Tatulli says.
So in one strip last month, Tatulli drew Death holding floating and spiky coronavirus spheres the way a child holds balloons.
“Readers are much more sensitive to the symbol of Death right now, for obvious reasons,” he says. “Generally, people are fearful and on edge and want their daily dose of comfort food in the comics. And when they see something there that reflects the scary part of current times, they get agitated.”
Tatulli gets scolding emails telling him that “covid-19 is not a laughing matter” and that “people are dying.” But “my instinct is to mock Death and fear — it’s how I deal with it — and some people have a real problem with that,” says Tatulli, before adding, “I should point out I get just as many letters of support.”
It’s clear that the hooded image of Death will continue to populate topical cartoons, as it seems to lose no potency despite its frequency.
“I don’t know why the symbol of the Grim Reaper has remained so relevant over the years,” Bennett says. “But I’d like to think that it’s partly due to cartoonists who will stubbornly hang onto an image like the Grim Reaper until he knocks on our studio doors himself.”