I think I can say without exaggeration that the new editorial cartoon collection “Stan Kelly: The Cartoonist America Turns To” is the finest collection of editorial cartoons about editorial cartoons ever printed (or ever will be printed) in this universe or any other universe that may pop up between now and the end of time.
As the book’s back cover notes, Kelly is “the most powerful name in cartooning.” That’s something that you can’t print if it’s not true.
Kelly is the staff editorial cartoonist for the Onion, the hilarious parody newspaper that has published straight-faced satirical nonsense since 1988.
At first glance, Kelly appears to be a typical newspaper cartoonist, deftly juggling a generous assortment of the genre’s most overused clichés and tired conventions. Uncle Sam, a skulking Grim Reaper and an invariably weeping Statue of Liberty regularly drive home Kelly’s messages, often all in the same cartoon. He may even throw in a Hitler or a Satan for good measure.
Kelly himself makes an appearance in each cartoon, a small selfie in the lower right corner, always ready with an extra quip or aside to underscore the cartoon’s message.
And what messages they are! Kelly treads where few cartoonists dare, taking on subjects neglected by most in the profession — America’s No-Good Teens, the intrinsic unfairness of a two-drink minimum in gentlemen’s clubs, the misplaced priority given to cancer research when we still haven’t found a cure for hangovers.
Yes, some of his targets tend to be a little Kelly-centric, such as his repeated harangues against nagging ex-wives or neglectful offspring. But his ultimate target is editorial cartooning itself. Hyper-over-labeling, grotesquely forced metaphors and heavy-handed puns all come together in a delirious mishmash to advance his ridiculously petty worldview. They’re so bad that they’re good.
There’s been some murmuring in the editorial cartoonist community that Stan Kelly does not really exist, that he is the creation of cartoonist Ward Sutton. This may simply reflect petty jealousy over Kelly’s immense talent. Sutton is a talented cartoonist in his own right whose work regularly appears in the Boston Globe, GQ and the New Yorker.
Personally, I’m a skeptic. Sutton is an incredibly inventive cartoonist, but he’s no Stan Kelly.
Are Kelly’s cartoons a subversive mockery of the profession to which I’ve dedicated my life? Perhaps. OK, not perhaps; they most definitely are. But they make me laugh, a lot. There are worse places to throw 20 bucks.
Steve Sack is the Star Tribune’s editorial cartoonist.
Kelly: The Cartoonist America Turns To
Edited by: Ward Sutton.
Publisher: IDW Publishing, 200 pages, $19.99.