Ward Sutton, whose comic strip “Sutton Impact” has been lampooning the stupidly powerful for years, turned himself, in a fit of transformative art-fenestration, Jekyll and Hyde–like, into Stan Kelly: The Cartoonist America Turns To. An anchor for The Onion, Kelly—known for “Sticking it to the sickos and giving props to the patriotic”—appears daily and influences everyone from world leaders to the baskets of, well, you know. I asked Sutton to ask Kelly to tell Sutton to tell me how the cartoons continue to make waves.
How did Stan Kelly enter the cartoon race?
In 2004, Onion founder Scott Dikkers wrote me what he described as a “fan letter.” He said the only other fan letter he had ever written was to the author of the “Cathy” comic strip. We then met and became friends. At some point, I asked why The Onion never had an editorial cartoon and he said because he could never figure out how to parody a cartoon.
By 2006, after years of satirizing the sins of the Bush administration in my strip “Sutton Impact,” I was burnt out and wanted to find a new, fresh way of working. So I saw Scott’s dilemma as an opportunity and worked to create a cartoon that made fun of cartoons.
Would it be safe to say he is The Colbert Repor(t) of editorial cartoons?
There are definitely similarities, and in fact, Stephen Colbert (whom I know from working on the Comedy Central show “Strangers With Candy”) is a fan of Kelly. I recently stopped by “The Late Show” and gave him a copy of the book.
A funny coincidence is that in the summer of 2005, my brother and I created a satirical radio segment for the Mother Jones show on Air America Radio. The segment was called “Morey’s Minute,” and it featured an inept, reactionary, blustery host named Morey. Just months after Morey was born, “The Colbert Report” debuted. Morey lasted about a year, and “The Colbert Report” became legendary. But I think doing the Morey segment gave me a taste of filtering commentary through the prism of a character. Kelly cartoons are so liberating to me because they are not “my voice”—they are Kelly’s voice, Kelly’s views. My name is not on the cartoons.
And although there are similarities between Kelly and “The Colbert Report” character, they are different characters. A big reason that I wanted there to be a book of Kelly cartoons is that it allows the reader to see the whole body of work as one big character study of Kelly himself. If someone reads a single cartoon at The Onion, it has a certain impact as a parody of a political cartoon. But if one reads the collection, they get a much richer sense of the persona of Kelly.
Is there anything too touchy for him to cover?
Kelly is fearless in tackling any issue he deems worthy in order to enlighten us all with his unique perspective. But the subjects he chooses are half the joke right there. With all the serious problems in the world, Kelly might choose to comment on waitresses at Denny’s or Croc shoes.
Has he every been threatened by Radical [fill-in-the-blank] Terrorists?
I wasn’t sure about this so I asked Kelly himself. His response:
“Although I have not been threatened by the likes of those who attacked the foreigner cartoonists of Charly Heado (sic), I face down a good many terrors daily right here in the U. S. of A. Sickos threaten our precious way of life at every turn: No-good teens waiting around darkened corners with their rap music and video games; maniacal store managers refusing to take coupons from honest customers; and, of course, Michelle Obama pushing her ‘healthy lifestyle’ initiatives on innocent citizens.”
What accounts for your gutsy attacks on the rights of the right and wrongs of the left?
One note of direction I received from Scott Dikkers as I was creating Kelly was to try and avoid making the cartoons all about right vs. left. The main focus of the humor is that Kelly’s twisted logic is always wrongheaded. The right wing perspective often gets lampooned, but the left gets lampooned at times, too. The crux of the cartoons is in how Kelly approaches the issues. For example, Kelly is strongly pro-choice, but he feels that way because having children ruined his life.
Just curious: How do you live with yourself as Kelly in these scary times?
There is a risk, with the kind of satire I am doing with the Kelly cartoons, that they could be taken at face value; that Kelly’s intentionally wrong views could be interpreted in earnest by some readers. Once I did a google search for a certain Kelly cartoon and found that it had appeared, unauthorized, on a bunch of sites (both left wing and right wing) that were all presenting the cartoon as either proof of their wrongheaded view or as evidence of the wrongheaded view existing in society. I began writing to each of them, explaining how satire works and asking them to take down the cartoon. Eventually I realized that the internet is too vast for me to play policeman. The way I see it now, is that Kelly’s cartoons appear IN THE ONION, a fake newspaper that is 100% satire, and if readers don’t understand all that implies, it’s just out of my hands.
On occasion, some people figure out I am the guy behind Kelly and write to me. One cartoon I did was about drunk driving on New Year’s Eve—and Kelly’s viewpoint was that police were unfair for giving out DUI tickets (and the guy in the cartoon getting the ticket looks an awful lot like Kelly himself). I got one angry letter from a reader who took the cartoon at face value and was very upset because her brother was killed by a drunk driver. (I took the time to write to this woman and explain the true intention behind the cartoon.) But I got another profanity-laced letter from a guy who understood the Kelly meta-humor, but he was angry at me because he agreed with Kelly’s viewpoint (that DUI cops are power-hungry and unfair) and realized I was making fun of that view!
There is definitely a risk that comes with creating Kelly cartoons: Many people simply don’t get the humor. But I think that fact makes those who “get” Kelly like the cartoons even more. Taking risks in comedic ventures is what it’s all about.
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