Matt Bors’ ‘Life Begins At Incorporation’ Is A Hammer Of Satire [Review]
There's a certain stereotype that springs to mind when I think about political cartoons and the cartoonists that draw them. In his book, Life Begins at Incorporation (out digitally via ComiXology submit now and available in print on his site, also coming from Top Shelf in November) cartoonist Matt Bors acknowledges it, and even points to The Onion's spot-on parody of that crotchety old goof. I worked at a daily newspaper for almost four years, during which I knew two different editorial cartoonists, neither of which fit the bill of the guy who always draws the Statue of Liberty crying. And yet I can't shake the stereotype. It persists.
In his book, Bors almost singlehandedly attempts to shatter it. And if he doesn't fully accomplish it, he comes close.
Here's a passage from one of Bors' essays near the end, in which he's talking specifically about cartoons that memorialize dead celebrities or other public figures:
Editorial cartoons should strive for more than popularity--they need to address the issues of the day, not just mark the passing of time with illustrations of news events. They must confront the public with the thing that isn't being said. They must prove they are still relevant.
I could feel Bors striving for that relevance throughout the book, which collects cartoons from the past three years or so. He covers many, many issues of significance ranging from economic inequality to gay rights to conspiracy theories to war to women's issues to, yes, editorial cartoons. And I like what he has to say about a lot of it.
There's a fake blurb at the front of the book where a reviewer credited as "Person on the Internet" (that's me!) dismisses Bors' work as "a bunch of c**ty liberal garbage," but I actually think Bors mostly avoids classification as an ideologue, which I tend to think is one of the worst traps editorial cartoonists and political commentators in general tend to fall into. So many either look for ways to blame President Obama for everything or willfully turn blind eyes to things the Democrats are doing and ought to be under a microscope -- drone programs, for one -- that you don't even have to read their cartoons. You can predict them.
Again, Bors doesn't fall into that trap. Sure, he argues pretty strongly in favor of abortion rights, but he goes after Obama's drone strikes just as hard as he goes after conspiracy theorists who believe the president was trained by the CIA on Mars. His stance on guns is more about using them wisely and not being crazy rather than putting a lot of gun-control laws on the books. He's not reading out of the standard-issue progressive-pundit playbook. He's clearly coming at every issue from his own perspective, and that's refreshing, even if I don't full-throatedly agree with him about everything.
I think it helps that Bors is young, too. (He's 29.) For better or worse, the perception of editorial cartoonists being out-of-touch often stems from the fact that they are of an advanced age, and tend to look at things from a viewpoint of complacency. Bors isn't complacent. (Except maybe when it comes to social media. That section of the book is the only one where he comes off like, well, an editorial cartoonist.) He's got things to say, and he's got to say them now.
That's a bit of an asset and a liability, I think. I like it when satire has a sort of light touch, those sorts of messages where a reader is given a little room to recognize the absurdity of a situation and put a few things together in his or her head. Bors doesn't really traffic in that. His satire is more like a hammer than a feather, spotlighting, for example, an anthropomorphic uterus that beats up congressmen who want to limit reproductive rights, or a Pope who tells people to just shut up whenever they question him. It's funny, but it lacks that sort of nudge to the clever reader who can feel like they're in on the joke, too.
That may be why some of my favorite cartoons in the book are right at the beginning, in the section on Afghanistan. Bors spent some time there in August 2010, and while he was there he did some reportage, asking Afghans what they thought about the situation in their country. The cartoons in which he offers up what they said, unadulterated and without comment, offer up some of the book's most powerful and thoughtful moments, even if they aren't funny.
You'll notice in the image up there at the top that the book is "cartoons and essays by Matt Bors," and I have mostly talked about the cartoons. I'll just say: I tended to like them more than the essays. Not that the essays were badly written or inarticulately argued; they're quite well stated. And I appreciate Bors offering up his perspective on things, especially when he gets into specific, personal stories about visiting Occupy Portland and so on. But I couldn't get past the idea that the essays detracted from, rather than added to, the cartoons, like explaining a joke.
Near the end of the book, Bors dispenses with the essays and simply lets the cartoons speak for themselves. I like that format. I'd almost feel better reading a book of just his essays, where they could be the star of the show on their own.
That said, I keep coming back to that section where Bors writes about celebrity tribute cartoons and expounding on the nature of cartooning and "confronting the public." So clearly at least one of the essays really grabbed me.
I wonder if Bors' approach, that hammer I was talking about, isn't a very intentional way of pushing back against the centuries of political cartoon tradition, where a boot labeled "The PEOPLE" kicking Boss Tweed out of City Hall or whatever was supposed to be a laugh riot. That's a light touch, but it's so light, and so mired in a language specific to political cartoons, that over the years, the form has become something of an incomprehensible mess.
Bors makes cartoons you can understand, digest and either agree or disagree with. In a time when so many issues are so cloudy because of partisanship or spin or simple craziness, maybe what we need is a hammer after all.