DARRIN BELL is one of the brightest talents we have on America’s editorial pages, and that is perhaps because his political cartoons don’t communicate merely with cleverness and the practicals tools of satire. They also stand up and connect with the depth of emotional content.
When Bell comments on the larger events in Ferguson or Cleveland, Staten Island or Baltimore, for instance, this art from the heart of experience not only makes a razor-sharp point. You often also feel something that cannot be rendered if the artist is drawing from “on high,” instead of from bracing street-level clarity:
You feel, and sense, the fear and the outrage and the fatigue of repeated history, from the socially pent-up to the emotionally spent. These are cartoons that don’t just be; they also breathe.
This, I’m convinced is what the RFK Award judges saw and felt when they decided to award him their 2015 prize for Cartoons, as the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights announced yesterday.
“Political cartoons are at their best when their authors actually display some human emotions,” Bell tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “If you can talk about people being treated poorly or denied equal rights and NOT be emotional or sensitive to that, then there’s something wrong with you, and you probably could use some counseling.”
Comic Riffs reached out to the California-based Bell to learn how his emotion-laced experiences with police, and as a parent, inform his editorial work. Here are his poignant thoughts:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congrats on the honor, Darrin. You not only had a powerful year, but in many ways a momentous one to comment on. Could you please talk what it means to you to win the RFK, especially given the cartoons and topics you won for?
DARRIN BELL: It’s gratifying. It’s an incredible honor, because every time I sit down to create an image, RFK and his brothers, along with Dr. King, are standing there in my subconscious, as kind of a North Star. I’m a child of Baby Boomers. My earliest conception of justice was formed listening my mom reminisce longingly about what we all lost when JFK, Dr. King and RFK were taken from us so soon. No matter who I studied years later, no matter how much I learned of Sakharov, Gandhi, Mandela, Rabin, Tutu, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and on and on… social justice, in my mind, always wore a mop of brown hair and spoke with a New England accent, when it wasn’t marching in Selma or stoically peering out between prison bars in Birmingham.
I imagine that’s the same for millions of us. Caring about the plight of others, and using whatever platform we have in this life to speak up for people who are otherwise marginalized, is a duty. When I was a kid, I *knew* it was a duty because *they* acted as if it were a duty. And because they sacrificed so much when they didn’t have to at all, in service of that duty.
So you can imagine what winning this award, for those cartoons, means to me. It means I was good at following the North Star.
MC: So what was it like to get the personal call from Ethel Kennedy [delivering news of your win]?
DB: From what I gathered during our conversation, I’m certain she would absolutely hate to hear anyone say this, but … it was like getting a phone call from Mount Rushmore itself. It was very surreal.
I keep my nose down and work, I say what I think I need to say, and I’ve taught myself not to care whether anyone even reads it. I never once dared to imagine Ethel Kennedy — the person who’s worked tirelessly for decades to realize RFK’s unrealized potential — would even *see* any of my cartoons, much less tell me it was an honor to speak with me because of them. That will probably always be the high-point of my career.
MC: You and I spoke last year about your Michael Brown and Eric Garner cartoons, and how your mom bought you a non-realistic-looking water gun because she knew the realities of being a black male child holding even a toy gun, and the lethal perils that could pose. Could you talk about how your emotions and depth of sensitivity and personal experience inform your cartoons?
DB: One of the common retorts to my cartoons is that I’m being “emotional,” or “angry.” And my reply to that is always, “You’re damn right.” There’s a time to be emotionally detached, purely objective, and entirely analytical. Like when I’m doing my taxes, or playing chess — not when I’m creating political cartoons.
Political cartoons are at their best when their authors actually display some human emotions. If you can talk about people being treated poorly or denied equal rights and not be emotional or sensitive to that, then there’s something wrong with you, and you probably could use some counseling.
That’s not to say you don’t look at all sides of an issue. The dynamic between police and the communities they serve is nuanced. They face real dangers every time they go out on the streets. They never know whether a simple traffic stop is going to get them killed. But you know what? They sign on for that uncertainty. Civilians don’t sign on to risk our lives whenever we go outside. I should feel safe when I’m alone on a sidewalk and see an officer strolling toward me. But I don’t. I feel fear. And the past 33 years of my 40 years on this Earth have given me countless reasons why that fear is rational.
In ’93, I moved to Berkeley for college. One evening I went with some friends across the Bay to explore San Francisco. After a while, I decided to head back to the dorms, but I had no idea how to get back to the subway.
I spotted three officers hanging out on a corner, talking. I approached them and politely asked for directions. I figured: “This is San Francisco, this isn’t L.A. They’re all liberal here. I’m sure they’re friendly.” They never gave me the directions. All three of them put their hands on their guns, glared at me, and said nothing. After what felt like forever, I realized that without even thinking about it, I’d backed up until I ran into the wall behind me. The three just stood there, not saying a word, ready to draw their guns. I said, “Never mind,” consciously trying to modulate my tone so I wouldn’t sound suspicious, or frightened, or hostile, or anything else that might provoke them. I remember slowly walking away, trying not to make any sudden movements and hoping — praying — that someone else would come out onto the sidewalk, so there’d be a witness if anything happened to me. I remember wondering what might have happened if I’d been a few shades darker. That block I had to walk before I could turn the corner and be safe seemed like the longest block on Earth.
You can’t truly deal with the issue of police brutality absent of emotion. These emotions are at the heart of it all.
MC: There are so very few black syndicated political cartoonists in the United States. Because of that, do you feel any different sense of responsibility, or perspective, or passion in sharing your experience [as a social commentator and satirist] — perhaps not unlike what [Comedy Central’s] Larry Wilmore now tries to do nightly from a much-needed national perch?
DB: Yes, I feel like if I don’t say it, I’m not doing what fate, or God, or random chance put me here to do. Other cartoonists do talk about these issues, and many of them do a great job of it. But what would it mean if I, of all people, were to let these issues slide? It would mean a number of things. It would mean I’m living in fear of being viewed as an “angry black man.” It would mean I’m living in fear of those who’ll dismiss what I’m contributing because “of course you think that way, you’re black.” It would mean I’m giving in to people who play what I call the “race card” card. They reflexively distrust, belittle or ignore what black people have to say about race because they think black people are hopelessly biased, agenda-driven, and whiny. Sometimes I feel as if I HAVE to comment, if only to prove that those people don’t have any power to silence anyone.
MC: What most inspires you to continue growing as a creatively committed cartoonist — and do you like having multiple outlets and formats, from comic strips to political cartoons?
DB: My 17-month-old son is what most inspires me to continue growing as a creatively committed cartoonist. We are what we do. One day I’ll be gone, but I’ll leave behind what I’ve done. No matter where he is in life, my son will always be able to open a book of my cartoons and see who his father was at 26. Who his father was at 40. Who his father was at 65. He’ll see in my political cartoons that I was passionate and unequivocal about standing up for what I thought was right. He’ll see more of the same in “Candorville,” but there he’ll also see everything I’m interested in, from science fiction, to fatherhood, to friendship. He’ll see in “Rudy Park” that I knew how to just be silly. He’ll see in my storyboards for film, TV and Broadway that I helped other people tell THEIR stories, too. And as my baby boy grows to adulthood, and someday when he realizes he’s got more days behind him than he has ahead of him, I want him to be able to look back at what his father did and say: “He just got better and better. So can I.”