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 large numbers of people don't recognize the thing as a parody. By that standard, Ward Sutton's "Kelly" cartoons for The Onion are 24-carat fool's gold. Their wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels layers of lampoon and self-reference make it nearly impossible to tell the dancer from the dance.

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

The archness of the details in that one may tip off readers that there's something more going on here than simple Mallard Fillmore-esque right-wing cartooning. But it's not always so easy to tell. This takedown of Gitmo hunger-strike hysteria could easily be conveying a straightforward message by a politically engaged cartoonist. This swipe at the Iraq Study Group contains eerie similarities to a Henry Payne cartoon on the same topic, except that the Payne panel is meant to be taken at face value. A two-frame satire of Al Gore's Oscar nomination is just too weird to be explained as a simple satire of cartoon hackwork. But then there's this searing indictment of the infotainment culture, with its lazy list of recent terrible news items ("e. coli deaths, school shootings, violent riots over Danish cartoons, Russian slayings")? It's more of a description than a critique, an exact catalog of ed-cartoon banalities.

The deadpan discipline of the Kelly cartoons is so tight that even in The Onion, which has spent more than a decade lampooning the banalities of the American newspaper, the parody isn't instantly recognizable. I had to read these cartoons for several weeks before I figured out the joke. (The Post panel described above was my tip-off.) Other readers have experienced similar confusion. "People have written in with really thoughtful critiques about why The Onion needs to fire this guy," says Sutton, who also draws the popular Sutton Impact editorial cartoons and neither promotes nor conceals his identity as the creator of "Kelly" and his unhinged panels. "People ask why a paper as good as The Onion would bother to print some rabid right-wing cartoonist."

A more apt question might be whether it's possible to parody editorial cartoons at all. Parody is interesting because it's both an encyclopedia of and a comment on whatever genre it treats. With the movie Galaxy Quest you get everything you'd want out of a 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's description; but it was immediately accepted by audiences as just a newer and better mafia show. Don Quixote, the most famous satire of all, outlived the genre of chivalrous romances it was making fun of and now appears to modern readers as a specimen of the very books it parodied.

But with editorial cartoons, the rules of the medium long ago passed the point of unintentional burlesque. If some famous person dies in the morning, the cartoonists will have him or her characteristically entering into heaven by noon. If there's war or pestilence in the news section, skulls and grim reapers will be found in the Opinion pages. At times of national shame, you can bet Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty or George Washington will be shedding a tear. And just as a reminder that the limits of the human imagination can be pretty limited indeed, don't forget the call-outs explaining that this or that element of the panel is supposed to represent "higher taxes" or "Senate investigation" or "predatory lenders" done in by "subprime mortgages."

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

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

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

Sutton has a more famous counterpart in cable television. Watching Stephen Colbert's flexible and durable travesty of The O'Reilly Factor, it's hard to imagine that he could be doing this routine night after night if he didn't have some Bill O'Reilly homunculus deep inside, who really does believe all that stuff. Sutton reports a similar feeling. "Sometimes I have to do a little self-reflection," he says, "and ask myself why I'm getting such joy out of expressing views that I find abhorrent."

There's no nice way to say it: People who take politics really seriously are creepy. Working out this essential truth is the genius of Sutton's genre- and ideology-bending creation. Party politics is as vapid and content-free a genre as our culture has ever invented; but parody contains multitudes. When the two forms meet, strongly held beliefs are revealed to be empty husks. Only the joke remains.

Tim Cavanaugh is the web editor of The Times' editorial page.

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