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Drawing Conclusions: Cartoonists and September 11th

Wednesday, October 31, 2001 at 12:09 PM

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Some of the strongest commentaries on the events of September 11th have come from the pens of editorial cartoonists. From effusive patriotism to savage rage, these artists have been creating images that react to a tragedy which words have failed to fully convey. 90.3 WCPN's David C. Barnett spoke with three of them.

David C. Barnett- Dan Perkins was standing on the roof of his Brooklyn, New York apartment as the first World Trade tower collapsed in front of his eyes.

Dan Perkins- It… it ... was the skyline. It was this place where we sat up on the deck and stared at the skyline for so much time. And to suddenly see this thing happen… this… I obviously don’t even have the words now to describe it, but it was just terrible… and so we went inside and spent the rest of the time watching it on TV like everyone else.

DCB- Dan Perkins makes his living through words and pictures. Under the pseudonym of “Tom Tomorrow,” he is the creator of the comic strip called “This Modern World,” which is syndicated to alternative papers across the country, including Cleveland’s Free Times. “This Modern World” offers a biting satire of American politics and culture. But as he watched events unfold on his television, all of that fell by the wayside.

DP- I just couldn’t. My immediate reaction wasn’t… what the world needs now is a Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

DCB- Five hundred miles away, in Cleveland Heights, John Backderf was watching the same images on his TV set. Like Dan Perkins, Backderf syndicates a cartoon strip - called “The City” - to the alternative press, including Cleveland’s Scene Magazine. Like Perkins, he also delights in poking fun at mindless American culture. “The City” skewers everything from trendy kids who have every conceivable part of their anatomy pierced, to middle-class homeowners who thrive on urban sprawl. But suddenly, like his contemporary in New York, John Backderf didn’t feel very funny anymore.

John Backderf- Obviously, that’s kind of gone out the door now, ‘cause it’s hard to come up with chuckles at this point. I really mulled it over after the thing happened, you know, what do I do? Do I keep doing goofy stuff on nipple rings or do I try to be serious? Finally, I just decided to sit down and draw.

DCB- John Backderf’s studio is crammed into an attic space, filled with stacks of past strips and lined with books that speak to influences ranging from Picasso to Mad Magazine. And he brought them all to bear on a creative output that even he’s found surprising. One of his most powerful strips of recent weeks was four panels that starkly portrayed a pair of ragged girders at “Ground Zero,” shaped like a cross, that were interpreted by some as a sign from God.

JB- In columns and editorials and other cartoons it was portrayed as “God is with us.” I’m just not buying it. Where was God when these nuts flew planes into buildings in His name? You can pretty much trace every grand episode of human misery over the last 2000 years to somebody doing something in the name of God. So, I’d just rather, quite frankly, keep him out of it.

DCB- John Backkderf - better known to his readers as “Derf” - got his start at the old Cleveland Edition, the alternative weekly precursor to the Free Times. One of Derf’s contemporaries at the Edition was the present-day editorial cartoonist for the Plain Dealer - Jeff Darcy.

Jeff Darcy- He probably thinks I’m a really mainstream cartoonist, because I have a very mainstream style. But, I think that makes my stuff accessible to a wider range of readers.

DCB- Jeff Darcy saw the startling early images of the first smoking World Trade Center tower just as he was about to head off for work on September 11th, and he immediately felt the tension of having to draw something that would match the emotion of an event destined to go down in history.

JD- It’s like cartoons that were done during World War II, any major event. When Kennedy was assassinated, there’s a famous cartoon of the Lincoln Memorial weeping. That day, instead of five ideas, I came up with well over ten. Trying to get THE idea - never being satisfied. At some point in the day you have to stop, because you have to get the cartoon drawn for the deadline.

DCB- What he finally decided on was to use simple patriotic imagery in the form of Uncle Sam’s hat.

JD- On the top of the hat are the stripes going vertical. I made two of the stripes into the twin towers, and they were inflamed. And so it was just a picture, no words. Some people used the Statue of Liberty, an eagle crying… they are really obvious stuff, and people say it’s kind of cliched, but it really works with the readers.

DCB- One unspoken taboo that the Plain Dealer‘s Jeff Darcy has found himself up against is in attempting to criticize the President.

JD- It would be difficult to do a cartoon on George W. Bush and I think a lot of cartoonists would be hesitant to do it - even if they thought it was legitimate, because they know the backlash they would get. You don’t want to be spending your whole day answering angry calls.

DCB- Still, Darcy gives George W. Bush high marks for his performance, so far. This Modern World creator Dan Perkins has less confidence in the President, but has found indirect ways of expressing it. For instance, his cartoon this week takes place on a planet he calls “Parallel Earth” where, due to a quirk in their election laws, they’ve accidentally elected a small cute dog as president.

DP- And the people are a little concerned about the small cute dog’s leadership abilities until a crisis erupts and then everyone rallies around the small cute dog and they all agree he’s the greatest leader Parallel Earth has seen. He just barks and there’s some uncertainty as to what he’s saying, but everyone’s sure that he’ll get them through this time of crisis.

DCB- Dan Perkins thinks that his work will be informed by September 11th for a long time.

DP- I think it’s going to inform all of our lives, probably for the next decade. I had the unenviable distinction of witnessing from my rooftop the turning point of this decade, if not the first half of this century.

DCB- And through the eyes of television, many Americans have shared that experience. The cartoonists have now given us yet another way of understanding September 11th. They’ve shared their visions of patriotic symbols, religious icons - and small cute dogs. Images that make us think, and maybe finally laugh, when words fail. In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN News.

Additional Information

* "The City" by Derf (John Backderf)
* "This Modern World" by Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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