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How cartoonists drew the Harris-Pence debate on the fly

Liza Donnelly's live drawing of Vice President Pence from Wednesday's debate. (Liza Donnelly)
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As the fly landed on Vice President Pence’s pate, artist Liza Donnelly knew she had the viral visual she could seize upon.

“I kind of shrieked,” says Donnelly, who was illustrating in real time Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate between Pence and Democratic challenger Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). “I knew this was the moment everyone would be talking about — I had to draw it. It stayed so long in one place on his white hair, I thought it might be stuck in hair spray.”

Donnelly works quickly, having live-drawn debates for such outlets as the New Yorker, the New York Times and CBS News. She rendered a whimsical cartoon of the fly saying to Pence, “Tell the truth, man,” and posted it to her social media accounts, soon getting hundreds of likes on Instagram and Twitter.

Signe Wilkinson, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for Philadelphia’s, was also live-drawing the debate held in Salt Lake City, but she chose to spotlight Pence’s interruptions of Harris and the moderator, USA Today’s Susan Page.

“The damned fly got all the attention, while underneath the hair, Pence kept ‘splaining’ things to Susan and wouldn’t respect her repeated efforts to keep him to time,” says Wilkinson, who used terra-cotta tints from her watercolor set to render the two politicians.

In the cartoon caption penned by Wilkinson, Pence keeps repeating Page’s first name in order to reflect a patronizing tone.

The Washington Post’s Ann Telnaes made preliminary sketches during the debate to prepare for her multi-panel Pence cartoon that published Thursday.

“Of course the fly was a big topic of discussion on social media, but the gaslighting by the vice president about Trump’s coronavirus response got my attention first,” Telnaes says. “I’m also betting Pence mimicking Trump by continually talking over and bulldozing the moderator didn’t gain them any suburban women voters.”

Donnelly often quotes politicians directly in her debate art, and another popular cartoon of hers cited Harris’s direct response to Pence’s interruption: “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”

“My live drawings are not overtly opinionated,” says Donnelly, who also draws gag cartoons for the New Yorker. “I try to reflect what I see and hear — my opinion might be in what I choose to draw.”

She didn’t find the debate to be too visually interesting, given that both politicians were seated and wore darker colors.

“The variety of facial expressions from Sen. Harris vs. the stone face of Pence was notable,” she says, “although at times, both broadcast opinion without saying anything.”

Donnelly notes one other aspect she encountered for the first time: “It’s hard to draw plexiglass barriers.”

Read more:

The 10 comedy minds that have gotten into Trump’s head

Susan Page responds to debate critics: ‘The refusal to answer a question, I thought, could be telling’

Here are the cartoons Mike Pence drew while in law school