Have you visited Troubletown recently? Perhaps you are a resident?
Lloyd Dangle is the artist and writer behind the brilliant and perceptive comic. He has a new, self-published book called "Troubletown Told You So - Comics that Could've Saved Us from this Mess," a small square volume that should be on your desk or bedside table for easy access.
Access to what? Hundreds of vignettes produced by Dangle that capture moments and themes of our times. This book covers the Bush years, so many of his weekly comics covered elections, torture, fear, power, disaster, and selling out. He also hits on outsourcing, deregulation, finance, oil, big pharma, and the media.
Many political comics are often a single panel. Troubletown is more often six to nine panels. Dangle picks up on something in the news - usually some sign of trouble to most sensible people - and explores what it could mean. He is reported to get up Tuesday mornings and finish them off. I'll walk you through one:
Dick Cheney introduces a meeting with "War is like a Christmas pony, gentlemen..." His yes-men eagerly await his reasoning. "At first there is shock and awe. Love if you will." They then discuss the downsides about having to care for it and conclude they can barely stand the sight of it anymore. Cheney admits it is like that with Iraq, so they all talk about how much fun and easy it will be to have a new war, with Iran! "It can't fail!" says Cheney. One military general points out that it could fail, requiring millions of troops and a ground war. Cheney says "I thought I already fired that guy." and he and his yes-men all have a good laugh.
Remember that week? This book walks you through it and many others one more time. It's worth the look back, and to see that some people, ahem..., like political cartoonists... ahem, were indeed pointing to often horrific abuses of power that other journalists (and some plants - recall Judy Miller and Jeff Gannon?) were failing to cover with any passion. The title of the book is reference to this.
One thing I like about Dangle's style is that it looks like something "ordinary" artists like you and me could attempt. Lines made by Ann Telnaes and others are gorgeous to look at, but intimidating in their perfection. The Troubletown lines are also perfect, but in imperfection, like the imperfection of tea bowls with slight indentations used in a tea ceremony. The blog at Troubletown will show you sketches and practice work from time to time.
I also really like the way Dangle is efficient with dialogue. Each word is obviously important. I recently asked him about this and his work in general:
CG: You seem to have a great ability to reduce complex matters to simple statements. "Air Tight Case" says a judge hearing a tape of a confession brought about by torture - it sums up so much in so little. How do you write Troubletown? Does this all come from an inner source of extreme sarcasm? How do you keep it so tight?
LD: Cartooning is all about editing! I write pages of dialogue and narration in my sketchbook all week long in preparation for my weekly installment, but then it's really a matter of winnowing it down to fit inside those tiny boxes. All writers should have such limitations, forces you to be direct when it has to go inside a two-inch word balloon.
I think I do have a reservoir of sarcasm, and the Bush administration has refilled it for me time and time again. Usually there will be four or five issues in the news at a given time that strike me as good material for a comic, and one that really gets under my skin. As the deadline approaches I'll grab the best idea and run with it.
CG: Do you really get up on Tuesdays and finish off a whole panel? What size do you draw Troubletown? Got any favorite pens?
LD: Yes I do. Tuesday mornings are my time to finish the cartoon. I find that if I start any earlier I will just keep noodling with it, rewriting things, redrawing panels, until I drive myself crazy. And the cartoon will still get completed right before the deadline. Only by then it will have taken ten hours to draw instead of five. I draw Troubletown at 56 picas square with the title added to the top. About nine inches square. I use old funky technical pens, sable watercolor brushes, and india ink. An art supply store went out of business a few years back and I bought out the mother lode of the pen nibs that I like in just the right size, and I'm pretty sure I'll never have to buy another one. I like to sketch with Pitt Artist Brush pens and Copic Multiliner SP's. They're freaking awesome!
CG: What's the syndication and cartooning business like these days? Is this something kids should consider as a future career? If so, what sorts of things should they be doing to prepare? (I see your sketch work on your site...)
LD: It sucks. The economy has all of us syndicated cartoonists shaking in our boots like everybody else. I recently spent a weekend at a event and saw some of my fellow cartoonists. At one point the conversation turned to the topic of what kind of guns they were each going to buy for the dark and terrifying times ahead. Daily newspapers have been firing their staff cartoonists, and papers are going out of business. Syndication editors are always depressed. The internet isn't turning out to be a gold mine for cartoonists either, but hey, you just have to laugh it off. I didn't name my comic strip Troubletown because I expected it to be easy.
The secret these days that young cartoonists must know is this: no matter what format or subject matter you work in, you must call your work a "graphic novel." If you don't have a enough material for a whole graphic novel, say that it's an serialized excerpt of a soon-to-be graphic novel. That's how you get the doors to publishing houses fly open and the movie moguls to send you checks.
CG: Do you see yourself as a historian in any way? Would it be wise to give, say, high school history students copies of your book?
LD: It's funny you should ask that. 2008 was Troubletown's twenty year anniversary, and I did a lot of events, and met adults who actually say they grew up learning about politics from Troubletown, which really makes you feel old. Looking back at the earlier Troubletown books, I think they could provide some historical insights, but there would also be lots of details that would puzzle the reader entirely. A guy sidled up next to me at a show of cartoons and pointed out his Troubletown favorite panel. It was about hurricane Katrina and featured Bush's former FEMA head "Brownie" moving the Arabian horses to higher ground. Nobody is going to know what the hell that's about in two years, but so what? It's still funny.
CG: Have you ever defaced or disfigured a Ziggy or Family Circus cartoon strip? How did your style evolve?
LD: I have lifted them off of the newspaper with Silly Putty and stretched them many times.
My style has evolved from primitive and badly drawn to more consciously primitive and badly drawn. That's sad, isn't it? Actually, for a few years I did a cleaner style of art for editorial illustration and considered that I had two styles. As time went by the two merged into one and I didn't have to worry about the separation any more.
CG: Did Obama toss cartoonists a bone by keeping Hillary Clinton front and center?
LD: Oh sure, and it also means that Bill Clinton's escapades are a matter of national security. Jim Jones will deliver some precious moments. We've still got Lieberman. The Supreme Court. Mitt Romney's not going to be silent. Obama has the ears. I think cartoonists will be okay.
CG: Got any really funny Troubletowns you really can't show anyone?
LD: Not really, if it's okay for Troubletown it's okay for print.
Lloyd Dangle is one of the cartoonists that helped me laugh in rather dark times. Give yourself a treat and visit Troubletown on a regular basis, and pick up a copy of the Troubletown book for the humor or history section of your bookshelf.
If you own a newspaper, consider picking him up for syndication. We'll do our best by pointing you in his direction (you can always find the link in the Comics list in the Entertainment section here.)
I should also add that this book has a feature that more should adopt - animated flipbook pages. I won't ruin the small surprise, but readers get a nifty bonus animation by flipping through the pages.