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Hackwork hacked

If good pornography is a you-know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing,good parody is exactly the opposite: A parody succeeds when largenumbers of people don't recognize the thing as a parody. Bythat standard, Ward Sutton's "Kelly" cartoons for The Onionare 24-carat fool's gold. Their wheels-within-wheels-within-wheelslayers of lampoon and self-reference make it nearly impossible totell the dancer from the dance.

If you're even slightly familiar with the conventions of editorialcartoons, the Kelly one-panels will present few challenges. In onerecentdrawing, an editor at the Washington Post exults overhis front-page headline: "Walter Reed army hospital is a'disgrace.'" Giving a thumbs-up with one hand and setting a matchto the American flag with the other, the editor announces, "Goodwork! That oughta do wonders for troop morale!" Beside hisdesk, a filing cabinet bears the labels "lies," "lies," and "morelies;" and from the window the Statue of Liberty looks in, aghast,a tear rolling down her cheek. In the bottom right corner, in oneof those post-punchline kickers familiar from the work of TomToles, Pat Oliphant and about a zillion other cartoonists, we see"Kelly" himself, a cranky, world-weary artist at his draftingtable, bitterly noting, "Now they hate our doctors, too."

The archness of the details in that one may tip off readers thatthere's something more going on here than simple MallardFillmore-esque right-wing cartooning. But it's not always soeasy to tell. This takedown ofGitmo hunger-strike hysteria could easily be conveying astraightforward message by a politically engaged cartoonist. Thisswipe at theIraq Study Group contains eerie similarities to a HenryPayne cartoon on the same topic, except that the Payne panel ismeant to be taken at face value. A two-framesatire of Al Gore's Oscar nomination is just too weird to beexplained as a simple satire of cartoon hackwork. But then there'sthissearing indictment of the infotainment culture, with its lazylist of recent terrible news items ("e. coli deaths, schoolshootings, violent riots over Danish cartoons, Russian slayings")?It's more of a description than a critique, an exact catalog ofed-cartoon banalities.

The deadpan discipline of the Kelly cartoons is so tight that evenin The Onion, which has spent more than a decade lampooningthe banalities of the American newspaper, the parody isn'tinstantly recognizable. I had to read these cartoons for severalweeks before I figured out the joke. (The Post paneldescribed above was my tip-off.) Other readers have experiencedsimilar confusion. "People have written in with really thoughtfulcritiques about why The Onion needs to fire this guy," saysSutton,who also draws the popular Sutton Impact editorialcartoons and neither promotes nor conceals his identity as thecreator of "Kelly" and his unhinged panels. "People ask why a paperas good as The Onion would bother to print some rabidright-wing cartoonist."

A more apt question might be whether it's possible to parodyeditorial cartoons at all. Parody is interesting because it's bothan encyclopedia of and a comment on whatever genre it treats. Withthe movie Galaxy Quest you get everything you'd want out ofa Star Trek episode plus a critique of Star Trek.The Sopranos was conceived as a goof on mafia pictures, a"live-action version of The Simpsons," in its creator'sdescription; but it was immediately accepted by audiences as just anewer and better mafia show. Don Quixote, the most famoussatire of all, outlived the genre of chivalrous romances it wasmaking fun of and now appears to modern readers as a specimen ofthe very books it parodied.

But with editorial cartoons, the rules of the medium long agopassed the point of unintentional burlesque. If some famous persondies in the morning, the cartoonists will have him or her characteristicallyentering into heaven by noon. If there's war or pestilence inthe news section, skulls and grimreapers will be found in the Opinion pages. At times ofnational shame, you can bet Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty or GeorgeWashington will be shedding a tear. And just as a reminder thatthe limits of the human imagination can be pretty limited indeed,don't forget the call-outs explaining that this or that element ofthe panel is supposed to represent "higher taxes" or "Senateinvestigation" or "predatorylenders" done in by "subprime mortgages."

"I've always been a fan of good cartoons," says Sutton, "but I'vealso been a fan of bad cartoons. When we were thinking of doing acartoon for The Onion, we didn't just want it to be a simpleparody of right-wing cartoonists. I knew lots of ways to make a badpolitical cartoon, but I decided the linchpin would be the personaof the cartoonist, that it would jump off from his point ofview."

Which is another way of saying that the fictional cartoonist Kellyis not only a political extremist full of receivedideas but a maniac whose ideas frequently make no sense at all.Why is Kelly, an apparent cultural conservative, cheering on the OJbook or drawing the most bizarre possible conclusion from thepope's visitto Turkey? Why does he reverse genre conventions by puttingdeceased Republican James Brown in hell?Sutton isn't explaining, so apparently only Kelly himself knows thetruth.

But here's the catch: Sutton also does straightforward,traditionally liberal political cartoons, under his own name, forthe Village Voice. They're very good, but if you look at one ofthem after looking at a batch of Kellys, you'll have the samefeeling you get reading a real paper after reading TheOnion: You need a period of re-orientation in order to acceptthat this or that comment is meant to be serious, or at least thatit's meant to be literally true, whatever that means.

Sutton has a more famous counterpart in cable television. WatchingStephenColbert's flexible and durable travesty of The O'ReillyFactor, it's hard to imagine that he could be doing thisroutine night after night if he didn't have some Bill O'Reillyhomunculus deep inside, who really does believe all thatstuff. Sutton reports a similar feeling. "Sometimes I have to do alittle self-reflection," he says, "and ask myself why I'm gettingsuch joy out of expressing views that I find abhorrent."

There's no nice way to say it: People who take politics reallyseriously are creepy. Working out this essential truth is thegenius of Sutton's genre- and ideology-bending creation. Partypolitics is as vapid and content-free a genre as our culture hasever invented; but parody contains multitudes. When the two formsmeet, strongly held beliefs are revealed to be empty husks. Onlythe joke remains.

Tim Cavanaugh isthe web editor of The Times' editorial page.

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