NOTE: As the comics industry enters the heart of its book-awards season, Comic Riffs spotlights some of its favorite eligible books with its “Shelfies” column.
POLITICAL CARTOONING sometimes gets knocked for over-relying on century-old tropes that can feel spun from spider webs. And perhaps no working cartoonist today feels more dusty than Stan Kelly, the intentionally stodgy wag for the Onion who pontificates with an old-school visual style and a mothballed mind.
Which is why “Kelly” — per his shortened nom-de-toon — is sometimes the funniest “cartoonist” working today.
Kelly’s artistic screeds are devoid of irony, but as the invention of Colorado-based cartoonist Ward Sutton, Kelly the character — much like Stephen Colbert’s former Comedy Central bloviator — is composed almost entirely of irony. And that joke-within-a-joke makes all the difference.
One of my favorite cartoon books from last year — one that deserves awards consideration this fall — is “Kelly: The Cartoonist America Turns to” (IDW), as “edited by Ward Sutton.” The book is billed as a “50th anniversary platinum collection,” a faux anniversary that would predate the Onion itself but that serves to cement the perception of Kelly as a throwback to midcentury America, when even ham-handed Herblock imitators could sometimes find a perch in a regional paper.
In truth, Sutton first dreamed up Kelly about a dozen years ago, when Sutton asked Scott Dikkers, the Onion’s founding editor, why the satirical institution didn’t have an editorial cartoon. Dikkers, who would later help develop Kelly’s “Behind the Pen” videos, said he’d considered a parody political cartoon, so Sutton — a veteran cartoonist whose non-Kelly clients have included the Village Voice and the New Yorker — rose to the challenge.
Sutton is a true student of old newspaper comic strips and cartoons, so what emerged was a character whose persona embodied this “man out of time” approach — a cartoonist who is himself a caricature of a blind-to-his-own-buffoonery pundit, producing old-timey cartoons that ripple with parody.
A visual stroll through the Kelly collection is like a meta-history lesson in editorial cartooning before sardonic subtlety became fashionable. Kelly’s illustrations, reflecting wading-pool deep takes on the news, are larded with labels (“today’s no-good teens,” “today’s troop haters,” “benevolent America”) that skewer the worst practitioners of the art form. Kelly sees himself as a political “king of comedy,” but in truth, he is as deluded as Robert De Niro’s bad stand-up Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” He would have been painfully mediocre at best in his own era; in our era, he is laughably hackneyed.
“I find many editorial cartoons really transparent — they often unintentionally reveal aspects of the cartoonist him- or herself,” Sutton told Comic Riffs earlier this year. “In my view, it’s sort of tragically hilarious when the reader can see this, but clearly the cartoonist lacks that self-awareness about their own work. This is something I really love playing with in Kelly cartoons.”
(That spoofing of Kelly as a character is heightened by the fourth-wall-breaking “Kelly’s Komment” in the lower-righthand corner of each cartoon — a kicker that Sutton fine-tunes with Onion editor Cole Bolton.)
“Kelly has given me a way to play with the single-panel editorial cartoon genre that allows me to do something new and experimental at the same time,” Sutton says. “It’s fun to be in that world, even if I’m creating a fake cartoon for a fake newspaper.”
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