“Trump’s ABC” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist’s picture book for adults
By Bliss Bowen
What better way to satirize our president’s notoriously limited attention span and juvenile temper tantrums than with an itty bitty-hand-sized board book of cartoons for adults?
That is the cleverly executed conceit behind Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Ann Telnaes’ “Trump’s ABC.” Just published by Fantagraphics, the book will be the subject of a conversation between Telnaes and acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist (and former “Seinfeld” and “Six Feet Under” writer) Bruce Eric Kaplan at Diesel Bookstore on Tuesday night.
Captioned with nursery-style rhymes, each colorful page represents a letter in the alphabet and headlines that have made this an administration like no other: “B is for brand and access they’ll buy” captions an on-point drawing of Trump opening the Oval Office door to grinning sheiks and businessmen bearing bags of money. “Fake news” (“created for cash”) is represented, along with pussy grabbing, multiple marriages, nepotism, separation of powers abuse and Vladimir Putin. Oh, and Xanax (for us, not him).
“Even though it’s in the guise of a children’s book, I wanted it to have issues in it,” says Telnaes, who studied character animation at Cal Arts and worked at Walt Disney Imagineering for a few years before she started paying attention to the news. A political awakening guided her to editorial cartooning.
“I wanted to point out the things that maybe not everyone is focusing on because it’s more fun to talk about a tweet that has ‘covfefe’ in it,” she says. “I actually am most concerned with conflict of interest, with his family and the business. … That concerns me with the separation of powers, obviously. So I really tried to get those into the pages of this.”
Trump’s an easy target for cartoonists because he’s so flamboyantly odious, and Telnaes’ witty drawings cleanly pin down physical characteristics like his elaborate comb-over, the red tie, the orange tan and the way he holds up his (“itty bitty”) fingers during speeches. More vitally, they capture intangible behavior. She says her caricatures feel true because she studies who her subjects are as people.
“I always approach caricatures as who the person is inside. I really need to get to know who the person is, and then the caricature comes out of that,” Telnaes explains.
This isn’t the first time she’s sharpened her pens on presidents or weighty issues. In 2001 she won a Pulitzer Prize for cartoons that mostly covered the 2000 election. The Iraq War provided more grim inspiration. One of her most powerful statements was expressed in a cartoon depicting then President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney roped in chairs before reporters peppering them with questions about the invasion of Iraq, above a caption reading, “When interrogation methods do result in saving American lives.” She has been working with the Washington Post since 2008.
Telnaes does — pardon the pun — draw lines for herself around taboo subjects. For instance, an individual’s personal religious beliefs are off limits, although she considers religious organizations that insert themselves into the political process fair game.
“The problem is, especially in the last few years, religion has become politicized,” she observes. “Several years back when we had the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, I did a lot of cartoons, and of course I got a lot of criticism from people saying I was attacking their religion. No, I wasn’t. I was attacking the leaders of the institution — that’s different.”
More recently, she submitted a cartoon during the Charlottesville protests that her editor held back. She understood his reasoning. Tensions were high at that time, and the visual metaphors that are an editorial cartoonist’s stock in trade can be highly charged.
The basic cartooning language that those visual metaphors inform is shifting, as our society becomes more and more oriented toward visual storytelling. When was the last time you saw a cartoon use a phone with a telephone cord as a punchline? Younger audiences don’t necessarily know what those look like, and cartoonists as well as editors need to be mindful of timing — in terms of each generation’s cultural norms as well as current events.
Telnaes worries that people “don’t know what visual metaphors are” or the language of editorial cartooning. While discussing the 30th anniversary of the Hustler v. Falwell case, as well as Trump’s ongoing attacks on the press, she says she places the responsibility for educating readers on editors.
“If editors are not choosing good editorial cartoons, and they’re not defending them and explaining why, then you have readers still misinterpreting them, getting outraged and demanding they be pulled.”
Until recently, Telnaes served as president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. She gave up that position at the beginning of the year, although she is still involved with the organization.
“My big mission was gonna be to make sure that none of us ended up in jail,” she says with a laugh. “I guess I succeeded even though it wasn’t through my efforts — it was just because Trump doesn’t read! [Laughs] Isn’t that funny?”
Indeed. The reading level required for “Trump’s ABC” is reportedly within the abilities of the president whose “executive time” seems dominated by tweeting and television viewing, and the book is funny. But 45’s infamously thin skin is bound to get pricked.
Ann Telnaes discusses “Trump’s ABC” with Bruce Eric Kaplan at Diesel Bookstore (225 26th St, Ste. 33, Santa Monica) at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit dieselbookstore.com and anntelnaes.com.