Drawing ire

Jun 6, 2007 at 12:00 am

A quick browse through the regular roundups of political cartoons on Slate.com shows why America needs Mikhaela Reid. Let's be generous and blame format restrictions, deadline pressures and ossified traditions for the general lack of substance and originality, never mind humor, on the daily editorial pages. In any case, in a batch of 200-some cartoons on a given topic, you'll probably find 200-some slight variations on the same five gags. One or two cartoons will be truly inspired — insightful, cutting and painfully funny (and likely drawn by one of a small number of consistently good usual suspects). The rest will be larded up with the usual hoary visual shorthands, covered in labels to hammer their points home, and sweetened with the latest pop culture references to make them easy to swallow.

If easy jokes or pop catchphrases show up in Reid's strip "The Boiling Point" — which is featured weekly on MT's letters page — it's only because she means to subvert them on her way to striking at the heart of an issue. Doublespeak and spin are among her favorite targets, and she often counters them by mashing them up against images of the ugly truths they seek to obscure. Her cartoons are never glib — they're wordy, meaty; there's a lot going on in them. Even her inky, thick-lined drawings suggest the gravity of her subjects. She's topical but not slavishly so, prefering to address the latest wrinkles in the issues she's passionate about rather than jump on whatever media bandwagon happens to be rolling by. And she's not afraid to make issues personal, even appearing in her own strips from time to time to address the reader directly. In a field of sound-alikes, she's a fiercely singular voice.

Reid is on tour promoting her first collection of cartoons, Attack of the 50-Foot Mikhaela, and showing a cartoon slide show with fiance and fellow cartoonist Masheka Wood.

Metro Times: You're at least the third generation of progressive political activists in your family. Shouldn't you have rebelled against your parents and become a total neo-con?

Mikhaela Reid: Yes, I'm embarrassingly traditional that way. A real family values girl! Every time I thought I was being really radical and doing something new, my parents would one-up me. In high school I'd be off to the Gay/Straight Youth Pride March in my torn-up safety-pinned-together punk rock clothes, and they'd be reminiscing about the time they got tear-gassed marching on Washington. I'm ashamed to say I've never been tear-gassed. So embarrassing.

MT: In your book, you say that, thanks to your family, you were weaned on cartoons as well as politics.

Reid: My mother's mother, Melba, was a disabled Korean War veteran and a huge fan of political cartoons, particularly Bill Mauldin. But the person who really got me into political cartoons was my father's father, Leon. He bought me subscriptions to In These Times and Liberal Opinion and told me to study the cartoons.

As a punk rock girl, I read the cartoons in Maximum-RocknRoll and various zines. I'd get a scissors and clip out my favorite ones each week, which usually meant the work of people like Tom Toles and Ted Rall — angry, brilliant satirical stuff, usually in multi-panel format. My favorite cartoonist of all time is Alison Bechdel. I think I first found her Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip in an anthology.

MT: Why are there so many lousy political cartoons in the world?

Reid: Instead of realizing that good cartoons are going to piss some people off, most mainstream editors just buy jokes about the news — Paris Hilton in jail cartoons, Martha Stewart baking cookies in jail cartoons, blah-de-blah-blah yawn, yawn, yawn. Easy laughs, and no one gets angry.

For decades mainstream political cartooning has been stuck in a heavily labeled donkeys-and-elephants single-panel style. So you get some ridiculous cartoon, Uncle Sam in a boat with a crying Statue of Liberty, and the boat is labeled "The U.S. Economy," and it's floating in a lake labeled "Fear of Terrorism" and there's a bald eagle flying overhead representing "Patriotism" and then there's some rats drowning. You get the idea. A lot of the guys who draw this stuff think we alternative cartoonists are just idiots who use too many word balloons and can't draw hands.

There needs to be more diversity on the comics page in both creators and the people they draw. Most mainstream cartoonists only draw black people if the cartoon itself is about race, and they only draw gay people in cartoons about gay marriage. Why not draw a gay couple in a cartoon about the economy or housing that has nothing to do with sexuality otherwise?

MT: What's this presentation you're doing with Masheka Wood at Green Brain all about?

Reid: Masheka is a fantastic cartoonist with a sick and twisted style reminiscent of Mad magazine and maybe a bit of Peter Bagge. We're going to do a free satirical cartoon slide show and read from some of our work, sign and sell books, and just generally have a great time.


Mikhaela Reid and Masheka Wood will be at Green Brain Comics, 13210 Michigan Ave., Dearborn, on Saturday, June 9, starting at 4 p.m. Go to www.greenbrain.biz or call 313-582-9444 for more information.

Sean Bieri is Metro Times design director. Send comments to [email protected]