Ideally, a good local cartoon can cover several themes at once. In this case, I thought I had come up with a good way to cover something both topical and fun to draw (the upcoming annual Asheville “Zombiewalk” and the ongoing complaints of downtown panhandlers.
The Zombiewalk, which reached its zenith locally on 10/10/10, had now been relegated to an ordered pub crawl rather than the former large-scale (and apparently unwelcome) city-wide parade through the streets that said city leaders put an end to by way of imposing an unreasonably expensive permit fee upon the walk organizers, forcing them to downscale to a walk the previous year held at a “dead” mall on the outskirts of town, and this particular year within the confines of various downtown drinking establishments.
Combining this sight with the often-complainted-about gauntlet of downtown panhandlers (of which I had just read several gripes in the comments at the bottom of many online newspaper stories regarding downtown) that many have to pass by, seemed to me to be a pretty good joke. Especially since “braiiiiins” sounds so much like “chaaaaange” amongst the other similarities of hapless pedestrians being the recipients of the unwanted attention of large groups wanting something from them.
About nine days later, the following article shows up on the Mountain Xpress site:
“Dignity and respect” parade for homeless planned for Oct. 26
Members of the Asheville Homeless Network plan a parade to “promote dignity and respect for the homeless,” tomorrow, Oct. 26 at 2 p.m.
By Bill Rhodes on 10/25/2012 11:47 AM
The event starts with a rally at Pritchard Park and a walk to City Hall, says organizer Raven Al’Rashid. She notes the hope of making “a more public voice for the issues of the homeless and homelessness here in Asheville.”
Al-Rashid explains that a recent cartoon in Xpress by Brent Brown was a particular concern to the group. “It is hard enough out on the street without people thinking you are monsters,” she says.In the cartoon, Brown compared homeless people to the Zombie pub crawl held downtown. “We are not monsters, and we invite Mr. Brown to join the parade and educate himself on the real issues,” said Al’Rashid.”Another of the parades’ organizers, Noah Harbin points out “Yes, homelessness is a problem. Homeless people are not the problem, only the symptom.”
click to enlarge
So here we go with the homeless advocates complaining about a cartoon again. Even though I have done many cartoons in the past that are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless and even though this cartoon is specifically addressing panhandlers, not homeless people (not every panhandler is homeless and not all homeless are panhandlers, maybe some people should look at the type of broad generalizations they themselves employ). Also, the “monsters” in the comic are people pretending to be zombies, no one in the comic or real life thinks they are actual monsters.
As a reflection of how different groups can see the same cartoon, the folks over at Ashtoberfest, who sponsor the Zombiewalk, were apparently unaware of the cartoon’s role as a malevolent attack on human dignity and saw it as (gasp!) a funny cartoon!
In my experience, most complaints about cartoons seem to be due to a misunderstanding of the premise or punchline of the joke. Or sometimes an understanding of, but objection to the joke, its intent or execution (or even subject) or, in the event of political or social commentary, just a disagreement of opposing ideology.
However, the “outraged” party du jour of this particular comic from 2011 had a complaint that was a new one on me altogether! The cartoon in question was a series of jokes featuring a recurring character, “Ironey The Iron” who was a de facto narrator for Asheville happenings, as he was an anthropomorphic version of the well-known urban art piece (sculpture) on Wall St. and Battery Park Ave. appropriately facing the Flat Iron Building outside the Mountain Xpress offices.
As I had done in previous incarnations of the Ironey strips (here and here), I addressed a number of recent local issues that seemed ironic in some way. One of them, was that a local photographer, though coming off a recent win as Best Local Photographer in the paper, had nevertheless made public his concern about being able to make a living here, or indeed, to even continue to pay to live anywhere. This was stated on his Facebook page and repeated on an Ashvegas blog post about the photog in question, Micah MacKenzie. I thought it nicely pointed out the irony of being “successful” in the arts here and still not actually making enough money to even pay your (inflated) local rent. The cartoon ran as follows:
The next week, I hear from an editor that they had received this letter to the Editor by a Patty Cooper which, bizarrely recounted how “offended” she was about the cartoon because… well, just read it yourself:
“I am highly offended by your cartoon that shows someone in a green hat, and brown pants, and who is a photographer [“Brent Brown: Ironey the Iron,” Nov. 16 Xpress]. I walk these streets all day wearing about the same outfit, taking pictures. I would hate to assume that this is supposed to be a caricature of me.
Yes, I sit with homeless, and many others as I spend my days here. I can assure you though, as a land and homeowner in Vermont, and having an apartment to stay in while here, that I am not homeless. I also have viewers of my work all over the world. I do not see any homeless persons walking these streets with photography equipment or handing out cards about the video and photo work I do. Yes, I was offended.
I could not figure out why persons were walking up to me today telling me all about services that the homeless have here. When I told them I do not need those services they seemed shocked. Now I know why. I am sure that you would not have posted a caricature of some better-known local artist like that. I consider this defamation of character.”
— Patty Cooper
So, I was tasked with penning a response to this person’s, shall we say, colorful view of the world, before I was told who even wrote the letter. I first wrote Micah to make sure he didn’t write it, as it was about him, but he had not even seen the cartoon, or got the connection that it was about him, until I pointed it out. Assured the letter writer was indeed not the subject of this comic, I replied:
“No, the cartoon was not about you, whoever you are, (the Xpress edited that part out) The cartoon of the photographer who’s forced into homelessness despite, ironically, being the best in his profession, was not based on you. Rather, the cartoon alludes to a Nov. 2 entry on the Ashvegas blog about local photographer Micah Mackenzie, who posted on Facebook of his struggle to survive in Asheville (ironically after just having won the title of Best Photographer in the annual Mountain Xpress Best of WNC issue). Even then, it was not a literal representation of him and other actual artists actually living in boxes on the street, but rather a premise taken to an extreme to achieve what people with senses of humor call a ‘joke.’
The clothes’ colors were chosen at random and not based on any person living or dead. To further set your mind at ease, the iron depicted in the cartoon, while based on an existing sculpture on Wall Street, does not in real life have human limbs or a face and does not narrate local events.”
— Brent Brown
That, hopefully satisfied the offended party, but probably not. Additionally, the woman who was pictured being led away by police for distributing fliers was not very happy with the way she was drawn, but in fairness, I never went out of my way to find a photo when I did it and I just drew a generic woman, so no offense was meant.
Sometimes you do a cartoon with what you think are pretty clear intentions, but then you hear back that those intentions were misread or misinterpreted or misconstrued or just missed completely.
Getting complaints about your cartooning efforts, especially when the complaints are based on the reader seeing the opposite of what you meant (or in some cases, just seeing something that is not there at all) is kind of annoying, but some would say it beats having your work completely ignored and receiving no feedback at all. (Hey, they may hate it, but at least you know someone is actually seeing it!)
Therefore, I would like to go back and address some of these “missed conceptions” that have happened and since there are more than a few, I will tackle each independently.
The first is this cartoon focusing on the plight of the growing local homeless population (always a touchy subject with well-meaning, but humor-impaired social advocates) and specifically a series of downtown bench removals by the city and private business/apartment buildings in order to deter the use of them by tourist-deterring and unmarketable homeless people, criminals, smokers, and/or other undesirable users.
This led to a reduction of available places to sit. So I did a cartoon with tourist-resident types complaining about the lack of places to sit (made ironic because the places to sit were taken away due to complaints about all the homeless sitting on them). Combining this with the usual stories of homeless being both complained about in letters to the editor and attempts to dissuade their presence by enforcement of loitering laws and I have the complainers actually sitting ON the homeless guy (who complains about not only not having a place to sit, but also not being allowed to stand around either).
So the cartoon was about the absurdity of having the indignity of the homeless guy being even further de-humanized by being made furniture—just so he can legally exist in a place where he can neither sit nor stand around. I thought it was pretty clearly on the side of the hapless gent’s circumstances, and that giving him that last line (which was, I thought, a clever pun on the repeated use of “can’t stand” turned around for his own use) was a clear indication that this was sympathetic to his position!
But noooooooooooo. The next week, there appeared this excoriating letter to the editor, as well as more of the same thing in a post on the very-ironically titled blog Community of the Beloved, decrying what the two people needed to compose this misconstrued missive attack as “appalling” and “blatant prejudice” as well as implying it could lead to “awful violence” against people who are homeless. Here is the full letter, as well as screen shots of the blog post:
“Prejudice is destructive to the fabric of our community
It is appalling that, on the one hand, Mountain Xpress can write such a powerful piece exposing the past prejudice of deeply rooted racism in “Back to Summerlane” [July 28 Xpress] and, in the same issue, promote such blatant prejudice against people who are homeless [in the cartoon] “Land of This Guy.” This kind of prejudice ripples out, changing the landscape of our city as revealed in “Benched” [July 28 Xpress] and can lead to the awful violence seen at Camp Summerlane.
We welcome citizens without homes, seniors, tourists and Asheville residents to find comfortable seating, rest and the opportunity to build real relationships that have the power to overcome our prejudices at Be Loved, a community house located at 39 Grove Street in downtown Asheville.
— L. White and A. Cantrell Be Loved”
Seeing they had obviously missed the whole point of the cartoon, I tried to reply to both their online letter and their blog post, explaining the actual concept, but got no reply to either.
I wrote back:
You have completely misinterpreted my cartoon. The entire premise of the comic strip is that while the complaining couple are worried about having a place to sit and having to (oh no!) see homeless people while they are downtown; the actual homeless man is forced to behave as their furniture in order to be legally allowed to exist downtown in lieu of the anti-loitering laws displayed on the sign.
This cartoon was (I thought, anyway) obviously taking a sympathetic view of the homeless person’s plight by showing how he is not only ignored, but further degraded by taking such anti-homeless laws and sentiments to an absurd degree, such as requiring them to be furniture. It is not encouraging such behavior at all, merely using the absurdity of it to make a larger point against treating them that way! It was also combined with the recent story of benches being removed.
It’s probably not a good sign when a cartoon has to be explained with three paragraphs. That could mean that the cartoonist did not get his point across well enough. It could, however, also reflect on the inability of the person reading it to recognize parody, satire or sarcasm. In any case, I hope the intended meaning is now clear to you.
For a place that likes to “spread the love” they sure don’t mind going off half-cocked and accusing cartoons, that they are too one-dimensional and literal-minded to apparently understand, of “treating our friends on the street with disdain and disrespect”.
So, that wraps up part one in this attempt to explain myself to the (hopefully) few who do not get my cartoons but are nevertheless so demonstrably and publicly vocal about their “outrage” that I feel I have to be equally public in defending myself, as well as pointing out what they got wrong.
I realize I should take the advice of other cartoonists and just ignore the few cranks (“fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” my colleague at the Asheville Citizen-Times instructs) and be assured most people either did get it or (more likely) don’t even care about, or notice cartoons in the first place. Also remembering that said majority is rarely heard from the way the very vocal, terminally-outraged are, but hey, I have blog posts to make, and this seemed like a good recurring blog subject since these types of things require a long-form, multimedia approach.
The real tragedy is that this cartoon was also done in a style that evokes Tom Wison, the famous creator of Ziggy and even though I drew the homeless guy as Ziggy himself, no one seemed to notice that, either!
In it, I spoke about my late uncle’s produce business and how he would dress up as the stereotypical “hillbilly” that potential tourists/newcomer customers would expect to see. Here is a collage of some of the label/ad designs I tried to come up with for him, as well as a photo from a newspaper clipping of him and my late aunt:
Bob and Katherine McCombs at Mountain Man Produce stand in Hendersonville, NC
An interesting aside, is that I used him as the inspiration for a cartoon (featured in the same Carolina Public Press article) where I take up the issue of cultural stereotypes that was partially in response to another cartoon by fellow cartoonist, Randy Molton that was featured in the Asheville alt-weekly, Mountain Xpress. Randy’s “pigdemic” cartoon (suggesting certain bestiality inclinations inherent in certain people in certain geographical regions) caused not a small bit of controversy at the time (May 6, 2009 issue).
My cartoon was a little better-received, but still had its critics. As local writer and Appalachian historian, Betty Cloer Wallace remarked:
“Well, Brent Brown’s “Stereotypes” cartoon is quite humorous and a great improvement over Molton’s “Pigdemic,” even though Brown’s “hillbilly” character is the only person of the five types in his entire cartoon who is portrayed as being ignorant for real, ignorant beneath his stereotype. (It’s hard to get away from it, isn’t it?)
Even the double-negative frame, although borderline, is humorous.
I think the cartoon would have been even funnier, though, if Brown had left out the stereotypical language “whatchoo you in fer” and instead had the real person behind the ignorant stereotype saying something unexpectedly erudite.
It clearly is possible to poke fun at stereotypes in ways that are not insensitive or insulting toward a person, group, or culture, and except for “whatchoo you in fer,” this cartoon does that quite humorously.
By Betty Cloer Wallace 05/20/2009″
What she did not know, was that it was based on an actual person, my uncle, who—though he was playing the part of the cartoon hillbilly as a marketing gimmick—was nevertheless a rough-around-the-edges, rural, country type who was still prone to speaking in a NC mountain dialect with syntax and grammar not considered proper or correct and filled with regionalisms. To have him sound like Rex Harrison would, I agree, have been a funny idea, but in this case, I was being true to the comic strip avatar of my uncle Bobby. It was also a way to say that even though the people here may have an accent and non-standard way of speaking, that they are still nothing like the cartoon stereotype portrayals that may or may not even be based on reality, but became so prevalent that even the people they mock eventually used them for their own purposes.
Updated July 3, 2019 to reflect the sad news that MAD Magazine will stop publishing after nearly 70 years.
Like a lot of 70s kids, I grew up with MAD Magazine and it had a big influence on me. I still own all my tattered, and sometimes coverless, issues from that period, up to whenever it was there stopped being newsstands to impulse buy one from. Not only was my sense of humor and irreverence affected by the “usual gang of idiots” but as a cartoonist, the way I approach the medium has the DNA of MAD all up in that.
A few cartoons I’ve done for Mountain Xpress have been tributes to various MAD artists, from Don Martin, Antonio Prohias, Sergio Aragones, and Paul Coker Jr., to the first MAD man himself, Harvey Kurtzman. Even when I wasn’t attempting a blatant ripoff, I mean “homage” to the artist’s style, I can’t help but find myself being influenced by years of enjoying work from people like George Woodbridge or Wally Wood or Bill Elder.
Brent Brown local TEDX cartoon using classic MAD man, Don Martin style. Click for larger version.
Brent Brown parody cartoon of Antonio Prohias MAD Spy vs. Spy strip for local paper. Clicken to Enlargen.
Paul Coker Jr. style of MAD feature appropriated by Brent Brown for local version. Click for larger version.
Sergio Aragones style for local evidence room scandal. Click for larger.
Woodbridge-esque influences in my work.
John Tenniel-type Alice illustrations with “Bill Elder/Wally Wood” influences comic on local Tweedle-Dum candidates by Brent Brown.
Harvey Kurtzman-esque comic by Brent Brown about local Duke-Progress merger.
In the early 90s, when I went from doing boring commercial art in ad agencies to full-time starving doing interesting freelance, I submitted some cartoons and ideas to my beloved MAD, sure I would get the same nice rejection letters I got from cartoon syndicates I sent my attempt at a comic strip to earlier.
To my delighted surprise, they actually were interested in my submission and subsequently bought it! When issue #321 came out, there I was: Writer: Brent Brown. Oh, they had another artist re-draw my cartoons. So I am still not a MAD cartoonist, just a writer. Oh well, I would still forever be linked to my MAD muse in the history of contributors!
Undaunted, I sent in more submissions and they were considered, but ultimately rejected for one reason or another. I did enjoy the snarky repartee we had in those pre-email days with making fun of each others locations in Noo Yawk and Naw Kerlina:
A few years later, I applied for, and was summarily rejected from, membership in the National Cartoonist Society (when I found out they existed and contained so many great cartoonists that I would have loved to have met during their yearly conventions, held in various parts of the country). One of these annual meetings in particular was going to be quite close to home. RIght here in Asheville, NC at the Grove Park Inn! Since I was not a member, I couldn’t go to the convention or the main event, the Reuben awards, not as an attendee anyway, but having such luminaries so close was too tempting. I had to figure out some kind of plan to worm my way in amongst my heroes that were going to be practically in my back yard.
Now, I had been hired by the Grove Park Inn on many previous occasions to draw caricatures for various gatherings at the grand hotel and so my plan was to put on a tux (or as close to one as I could approximate for the black tie dinner being held in one of their ballrooms that night) and just set up my easel and to put up a sign that said “free caricatures” in front of the ballroom where the awards ceremony was being held, pretending that the hotel had hired me to be there! This is what I did.
Of course, I had no right to be there, but no one questioned it. Even when the entrance (where I had borrowed two chairs to set up to draw) had become so packed with participants in penguin suits that I—and the few I was able to draw before the ceremony started—could barely move or be seen any longer.
I wasn’t able to talk to Sergio Aragones, who was being honored that night, but I did meet several cartoonists (one who did a caricature of me at the same time I was doing one of him, he declared me “the winner, hahah” but I can’t remember his name, although I have the drawing here, somewhere, still) and I even met Mad artist Bob Clarke, who recently passed away, who was happy to autograph my “Complete MAD” compendium that I “happened” to bring along with me. I still treasure that, even though he inscribed it “To Brandt.” (see below) as he was not able to hear me very well over the din.
MAD artist Bob Clarke signed one of his works on the pages of my “Completely MAD” paperback I brought to the Reuben awards at Grove Park Inn. (He didn’t get the spelling right, but I still treasure it, especially now that he is gone.)
It was a pretty crazy idea, but I was glad I went through with it. I never tried to reapply for membership though.
Years later, I did join the International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA) in 2011 and was able to meet a lot of very talented fellow caricaturists from all fields from all across the globe. One, Tom Richmond, was even nice enough to lead an impromptu sketch session by the hotel pool during a convention in Tampa, FL that year. Tom happens to be the main caricature genius at the current MAD magazine. He is the goto guy for movie and TV parodies and other parts of the issue that require spot-on caricature work. He even wrote a book on the subject and I was able to get a nice inscription on my copy from him as well as a free caricature (it would be priceless at any price!). Another MAD alumni I met at the 2011 convention was the great-in-his-own-right-but-also-a-sometime-contributor-to-MAD artist, Drew Friedman. Here are a few photos from those epic encounters:
As far as MAD goes. The last correspondence I got from the MAD editors was in 1994, asking for more submissions for their “potpourri page” but I never got around to coming up with any ideas to send in and I never did.
Just this week, however, I’ve received in the mail, my first issue of MAD in years (from a subscription deal I found online and decided to see what’s been going on) and I see I can now download the whole issue on my iPad as well (with interactive all kinds of stuff). Seeing the many new contributors that make up this modern MAD makes me wonder why I had not sent in any more submissions in after their last request, and at this point, I can’t remember, but time must just have gotten away from me, and other projects came up and I probably also just ran dry regarding new and different ideas that they had not done similar things about before.
However, as I see the modern day MAD, where they are apparently still looking for and accepting such stuff (even more than they used to, it would seem) I’m thinking it’s not too late to try again. I wonder if they accept digital submissions though, as I haven’t had any letterhead since the Clinton administration.
The news that the corporate suits that took over MAD have finally decided that, after many years of cutting costs one way or another, they are finally closing the doors on this institution has made this old post relevant again. Rather than write a new obituary, I’m just going to add on to this still-relevant love letter. Having lost two best friends this week, I find this news particularly devastating. At least I now know why my great work submitted to them was routinely ignored: they had no plans to continue this legendary publication into the unknown future of free online content and fractured fan bases that doesn’t seem able to make a dinosaur like a monthly print satire publication a fiscally feasible possibility.
Rest in Peace MAD, I still have my subscription pre-paid up to February 2022, so I will see you until then.