Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Deep in the Heart of Texas!

Well, that time has rolled around again! I'm with our little crew of miscreants (which includes my husband Rob this year, yeeehaw!) at the State Fair of Texas. The largest state fair in the world! Because that's how they roll in Texas. 

Oh shit. Oh shitty mcFucking shit. BREAKING NEWS has just wiped away all other little silly tidbits I was going to share with you, gentle readers. 

Of all the things I worried about that could put a damper on a State Fair, this wasn't even close to being on my radar. 

Fucking ebola. 

The first diagnosed case in the US and it's here. We got back to the camper tonight and watched the news, finding out (with increasing uneasiness) that ebola had been confirmed IN TEXAS. Then as the story unfolded, the newscaster mentioned it was North Texas... Then... DALLAS. Oh crap. 

Now, understand that my unease here actually has nothing to do with my fear of catching this virus. I have read enough to know that as long as I don't go exchanging bodily fluids with infected folks, I'll moooost likely be fine. Rather, my worry (and the worry of my campermates) is for our bottom line. 

At the risk of stereotyping an entire state, um... Texas has not been known for the level-headedness or scientific acumen of its general populace. (Curse you, shitty school boards and alternative science textbooks!) Pretty much all of America is wrapped up in ebola hysterics right now--and now Dallas is the flashpoint. We sat in our little camper, eating candy by the handful and watching as the news went on and on and on and on about the disease. It was literally the entire half-hour of news tonight. (Er, yesterday night--as I write this, we are nearing midnight and it will be Wednesday.)

Rain on a Saturday is a bummer. Rain over an entire weekend really sucks. But this? This is unprecedanted. Who knows what it will do to fair attendance? My coworker Vlad said his numbers were down by 30% the year thay swine flu was dominating the news. 

I'll bet the Fair management is really wringing hands right now. Maybe they will be showing up on local news or blasting commercials to assure people it's safe to come out to the fairgrounds. 

Me? I think I'll go to sleep and wake up tomorrow then see what happens. Sigh. At least we had a really stellar opening weekend. And if the rest of the fair is less than fair--well, that gives me more time to write haikus. 

Caricature haiku #5

Supressing your smile
makes you look like a muppet
with a fist inside.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Caricaturing for Uncle Sam

That time between starting a drawing job and "the big reveal" can seem excruciatingly long--and with most live drawings it's only a matter of minutes. In this case, it's six years. 

It all started in early 2008, when I got an email from a potential client who wanted to know if I could work from photos. Well, yeah, of course. He further explained that he would like to commission a few dozen black and white caricatures, suitable for reproduction, for a project. Well, that set off my reproduction rights radar and I asked about what sort of project, how many copies, etc. etc. 

Some clients get vague when I ask details like this--they are either trying to get a bargain basement price, or they really don't have much of an idea themselves. This fellow, to my surprise, bypassed vague and simply answered in the negative. No, he could not tell me anything about the project. And I would not be at liberty to publicize it. He said he worked with the government and then he asked if I would be all right working from very bad photos, some of them of corpses. 

Well, this was turning into an interesting little email exchange. I learned that the people I would be drawing were warlords in Afghanistan. Maybe "warlords" isn't the right word. "Power players" might be more apt, definitely more politically correct. My initial (overblown) fears that this job might get a Fatwa put out on me were assuaged as he explained that the drawings would not be anything that would ever endanger my life in any way. This was, remember, around the time that Danish cartoonist was in fear for his life after drawing a controversial image of Mohammed. 

We struck a deal, and he began sending me photos of the subjects--often along with color commentary about their personalities, the regional clothing or hats they were wearing, and whether I should emphasize the mean look in their eye or instead focus on the playful expression they had in another photo. And yes, a couple of them were really awful, fuzzy photos and a few were post-mortem. I did my best. My contact was very supportive, telling me when I was going in the right direction and, overall, he was happy with the results. 

Then, much more recently, he emailed to tell me that the work he had done in Afghanistan was amping down as the situation there got less tense, and so he was able to talk openly about what the caricatures were used for. And, likewise, I am now allowed to post a few on this blog. He also kindly answered a few questions, which I am publishing below . . . 

1. Can you describe what the caricatures were used for?

Certainly! The caricatures that I engaged you to do were personalities that were already controversial public figures. Their affiliations were well socialized in the media. The caricatures you provided were chosen and designed to aid in illuminating the Afghanistan problem for folks tasked with bringing stability to the region.  Specifically, the caricatures continue to serve a three-fold purpose. Firstly,  they have been used to develop a baseline knowledge of the major power-brokers in the Afghanistan region. Secondly, they have been incorporated into a board game as a training tool (not commercially marketed at this time) that incorporated aspects of intent and agendas of these figures. Lastly, they will serve as a legacy to those who dedicated much time and energy into Afghanistan and especially those whose sacrifice was great.

When 911 enveloped our nation and the world in a dark and angry fervor, our best military minds and the brightest in the Intelligence Community were stymied by the concept of the War on Terror that was about to be waged. Thrust into a scenario that modern warfare had left behind by half a century in the remote country of Afghanistan, all the sophistication that the western civilized world could bring to bear proved to be an utter mismatch for the challenges that lay ahead.

It quickly became apparent that planning to "win" in Afghanistan was a far more complex proposition than one could imagine. There was no overarching doctrine to embrace or exploit. The local rules of engagement were varied, archaic, and involved concepts beyond what most westerners could grasp.

It became evident that--as with meeting with success in any conflict--that an eventual hearts and minds campaign would be essential. To do so, the world had to understand Afghan motivation and thinking. Only then could a lasting peace be created after two decades of constant war. To do so meant becoming knowledgeable on tribal dynamics, local interpretations of Islam and fundamentals of Afghan politics, custom, and culture.

Kept for many years among limited numbers who have been working behind the scenes to make Afghanistan a better place, these caricatures which greatly aided as avenues to insight into the Gordian Knot that is Afghanistan can now be shared as part of this blog portfolio.

2. Why did you consider caricatures for this project?

Each of these power brokers in Southwest Asia--ally, enemy and in-between--had huge personalities. They were political as well as militant. Some went on to take positions in the current Afghan government. Some are still waging war or jockeying for power. Some have since been killed in combat or assassinated. Their personal histories were each audacious, outrageous, arguably larger than life. In the truest sense of political satire cartoons universal to publications around the world, each were prime to be immortalized in caricature!

As the Taliban leadership had chosen to side with Usama Bin Laden, the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance instantly became allies to the west. They were intimately familiar with Afghanistan's rugged terrain. They knew when horses were preferable to tanks, and when donkeys were preferable to horses. 

But, each of these Northern Alliance leaders (soon to be re-dubbed warlords) had individual agendas. Each were power brokers in their own right. Each were accustomed to employing brutal means to an end. To keep these individuals from reverting to infighting, they had to be understood. 

3. Was there any worry (from you or others) that caricatured likenesses might be seen as offensive by the culture or individuals at hand?

There is always concern when cross-cultural references are made--especially in cartoons. Knowing how sharable and popular caricatures tend to be, I did seek consultation. No one thought that any mayhem would ensue. I have been prepared to address any issues. Likewise, if your role as a caricature artist comes under fire, you can honestly say that I never told you the identities of the persons you were sketching at the time. Or since, you now know (years later) who they are/were, you are empowered to field any inquiries yourself.  

Culturally speaking, only one caricature was remotely religious in nature.  The purely fictitious Mullah Nasruddin serves as the foundation of much of Southwest Asian humor.  No believable chance of crossing any redlines there.  As far as the Northern Alliance personalities, outside of complaints based on vanity, risk is/was low.  As for the adversarial opposition figures, of the many "western" acts that they would deem offensive, we assessed caricatures to be quite far down on the list.

4. How did the target audience respond to the game, and the images? Did caricatures work better than photographs for your purposes?

Reactions have been unanimously positive. Many, if not most, have been gamers to some degree or another, so it was not a difficult sell. After all, the term "The Great Game" was coined in the 1800's by Authur Conolly, an intelligence officer in the British East India Company's Sixth Bengal Light Calvary and popularized in Rudyard Kipling's novel, Kim (1901) to describe the conflict between the British and Russian empires for supremacy of Central and South Asia. It was only natural to capture many of the same dynamics in the same region in an actual game depicted in recent times. Caricatures tend to add much more dimension to persons of interest than photos.  Captured in a genre akin to political cartoons, caricatures tend to emphasize the interactive social aspects of these characters. My aim was to impart a better understanding of the nature of the power networks in Afghanistan, how influence works, and to provoke thought about how actions taken in Afghanistan would have secondary and tertiary effects on these networks and influence. With this in mind, caricatures were preferable.

I thank him for kindly taking the time to shed so much light on what the drawings were used for, and painting a picture of the challenges he and his colleagues faced in understanding and communicating such a complicated array of forces and intents. 
Some of the inked originals, including "Mullah Nasruddin," a character who
(along with his donkey) is the source of many jokes in the region. I also learned
about different hats worn in Afghanistan, not just turbans but pakols and kufis.

Sometimes, at the booth, when I draw soldiers, I thank them for their service and jokingly say "Thank you for serving--because I would be terrible at it. What could I do, draw funny pictures and throw them at the enemy?" It always gets a chuckle. But it does also take my mind to this particular assignment, which is probably the only time I'll get to feel patriotic because of having drawn funny pictures. It's a good feeling. A danger in this business is feeling like none of your work matters, like it's all fluff, and you're not really contributing to humanity in any meaningful way (this is an overwhelming feeling when you've just worked a party full of toddlers or drawn a very drunk party girl who can barely remember how to open her purse to pay you). But this one, I'll hold onto this one for a good while. 

While I'm at it, I should also point out the tremendous work that the National Cartoonists Society does with the overseas troops year after year. I have gotten to read all about the USO trips Tom Richmond, Ed Steckley, and many others have taken in order to spread some good humor to the men and women serving abroad. The pen may not actually be mightier than the sword, but it can be put to good use! Have fun drawing, and remember, you never know how important your next project will be.