Sunday, August 11, 2013

Two by Tim Kreider: We Learn Nothing & Twilight of the Assholes

I've got another blog, Editorial Explanations, which tends to devolve into my making fun of right-wing cartoonists. Sure, I there are some left-wingers in the mix, but those are fewer -- mostly because (I like to think), lefties do wordier, more convoluted cartoons that are harder to complain about rather than because I'm just a big stinky biased cretin. (Though, if you're on the Internet at all, you'll hear the latter opinion about yourself very often. It could even be true, some of the time.)

I have never featured a Tim Kreider cartoon on Editorial Explanations. There's a simple reason for this: he quit doing political cartoons -- his alt-weekly editorial cartoon, "The Pain -- When Will It End?" did end, back in 2009, and Editorial Explanations only got started two years later in 2011. So I hope no one imputes bias to the fact that he got out of the way before I started targeting his profession.

Twilight of the Assholes was the third and final collection of "The Pain," published by Fantagraphics in 2011. I've actually been reading it since then -- maybe even slightly earlier, since I got it as a PDF from the fabled Secret Fanta Online Repository for Comics Reviewers during the brief period when it looked like I would keep writing regularly and seriously about comics -- and only just finished it. Kreider is pretty much the archetype of the liberal cartoonist, with a massive need to overexplain everything, so nearly every cartoon here comes with a full-page essay (some essays are substantially longer than that) about how much Kreider really, really hated George Bush.

I kid Kreider -- he hated many other things, too. But Bush was #1 with a bullet, and the various functionaries and policies of his government made up most of the rest of the list.

So Assholes was a PDF, which meant that I forgot about it for months at a time -- I've mentioned here before that ebooks are certainly convenient, but they don't mesh all that well with my picking-books style, which revolves around staring at shelves -- and read it in bits and snippets on trains and elsewhere when I remembered it existed.

That's not a good way to read editorial cartoons, I think -- it might work a generation or two later on, when the particular politics are safely historical, but not when they're just receding into the recent past, and still resonant with the current news. Editorial cartoons, at their best, are created in a white heat, right at the deadline, to capture a particular feeling (usually anger; let's be honest) and moment in time. So you want to experience them as close to the time of creation as possible, for maximum gestalt. But I've never been good at doing things the right way.

Kreider has a smooth, flowing line -- he draws more like Aubrey Beardsley than any other editorial cartoonist I've ever seen, and vastly more than I'd ever expect any editorial cartoonist to do. He also -- I've said this repeatedly, and I'll keep saying it -- fits lots of words into a cartoon, in the liberal manner, either to throw in all of the ideas he has surrounding a news event or to head off several potential interpretations of his politics ahead of time. (Right-wingers are vastly more likely to make simple, stark cartoons with few words -- Obama is a Muslim, liberals are all America-hating wimps, that kind of thing.) So Kreider's cartoons can be physically hard to read -- his lettering gets flowery and expressive in dialogue, and there's often big blocks of hand-lettered text as well.

And, of course, this collection covers the second administration of the second, and lesser, Bush, which was not a high point in American civilization. There was a lot for Kreider to hate and complain about, from the bungling of Hurricane Katrina to the multifarious problems with our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he took full advantage of that -- this is not a book for anyone staunchly in favor of the Iraq War (surely there are still a few such idiots, right?) or for neocons in general. Kreider knows the point of an editorial cartoonist is to have strong opinions and to express them forcefully, and he's very good at that. It all feels like old news, now, but that's what happens to all editorial cartoons: first they're timely, then they're dated, then (if they're lucky) they're history. Kreider's stuff is currently in that big ditch called "dated," we'll all have to check back in fifty years to see if they turn out to be history. For now, though, they're vastly more palatable for those of us who thought invading Iraq was a really stupid idea ten years ago.

And then "The Pain" ended -- I'm not clear on all of the details, but the continuing death-spiral of alt-weeklies (just slightly ahead of the rest of the newsprint business) certainly had something to do with it. In a not-necessarily-related move, Kreider has been doing more essays and fewer cartoons over the past few years -- though, looking at Assholes, it does have more words than pictures, so he's been moving that way for a while.

To amplify that thought: We Learn Nothingis one step on from Assholes -- the latter was a collection of editorial cartoons with explanatory essays, while Nothing is a book of essays with illustrative cartoons. (Not completely different, no -- but subtly different enough that Nothing was published by the classy NYC house Free Press, not a comics company.)

Nothing is not a political book -- there's a flavoring of politics around the edges, but it's essentially a collection of personal essays (in the tradition of either Montaigne or Sedaris, depending on how cynical you are), telling stories from Kreider's life and his take on various aspects of modern society. If newspapers weren't clearly dying, he probably would have transitioned from a newspaper cartoonist to a newspaper columnist, but they are, so he didn't.

The essays here tend to be substantial -- ten pages or more, much longer than the newspaper gig I postulated above would have allowed -- which gives Kreider room to wander around all sides of his topics. They're not heavily structured essays, but they're not baggy monsters, either -- they have a purpose and a shape, and pretty much do what they set out to do, whether that's concerning unrequited love, Kreider's near-death experience, dealing with people with radically different political views, or, most often, telling stories of Kreider's misspent last decade or so, and the people he spent it with.

Kreider has a way with words -- I've marked a couple of passages from Nothing for "Quotes of the Week" here, and there are a number of other paragraphs that equally well crystallize an interesting thought or important distinction. And Kreider is very entertaining, whether he's fulminating against some stupidity by Republicans or telling stories of his friends -- and the stories about friends are guaranteed to have a larger potential audience. We might learn nothing, but we can have a lot of fun along the way.

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