The Daily Heller: The Profusely Incomparable Edward Sorel at 93

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Edward Sorel turns 93 years old tomorrow. He also recently published the memoir Edward Sorel: Profusely Illustrated (Knopf), which you must read (and I repeat, MUST). What you’ll learn when you do so is that he is unstoppable, indefatigable and incapable of missing his target, whoever and whatever that may be. His career as subversive humorist, caricaturist, satirist, social commentator, biographer and children’s book author gets better and better with time, if such a thing is possible. He is a great storyteller, too. And while I admire all of his achievements, his political cartoons are as hilariously savage as they ever were, and never fail to spark the neurons and anything else that electrifies the senses.

Photo by Leo Sorel

Sorel’s incomparable art has spanned more American presidents than he can throw a crow-quill pen at. Since John F. Kennedy, he’s skewered presidents, vice presidents, senators, congressmen, governors, mayors and all manner of famous and ignominious public persons, without fear or favor—well, just a smidge of favor. Sorel is perpetually skeptical and fanatically exasperated with the world’s maddening boobs. His talent is to make us angry while simultaneously making us laugh. He’s created comic bestiaries of narcissistic nabobs and aviaries of foul figures.

The heir to Thomas Nast, Honore Daumier, James Gillray, Thomas Rolandson, Andre Gill and other past masters of graphic critique, Sorel is a crusading avenger attacking folly and mendacity with a mixture of wry wit, self-deprecating humor and a searing expressive pen line that flows with uncanny fluidity.

To celebrate Sorel’s birthday, I will not recite a hyperbolic, adjectival valedictory to simply review/rehash his memoir since in this space I cannot do justice to his engagingly and honestly finely tuned personal voice. Instead, I found a lost interview I did with Sorel in 2006 on the occasion of his Masters Series Exhibition at the School of Visual Arts. He is as profound as ever, and continues to be. Sorel has incredible staying power and exercises tremendous influence on the caricaturists, satirists and illustrators working today — and that is not hyperbole!

You’ve produced satire during some pretty eerie political periods. How does the current social, religious and political era compare to, say, the Vietnam and Nixon period?
Right-wing forces are still ignoring facts and promoting divisiveness. Liberals are still gutless. Religion is still the greatest threat to peace and self-expression. … The only big difference is that I am now old. My sense of outrage at the stupidity and cruelty of those in power remains the same, but my desire to do anything about it has atrophied.

I believe your caricatures and cartoons have made a huge difference on certain audiences, not least of which are my attitudes toward power. Do you believe that you’ve made an impact?
I never had any illusions that my cartoons would change anything. Their function was to assure others, who already thought as I did, that they were not alone. In short, I was expressing their feelings when I expressed my own. Political cartoons are hateful unless you agree with them.

Well, you’ve made me feel I was not alone. Years ago I watched as you truly suffered over the precise drawing of a hand and other details. What’s most important to you: the craft, the gesture, the idea?
Being a self-centered, shallow, ego-driven son of a bitch, I suspect what is most important to me is fame. If drawing well will get me recognition as an artist, I’m willing to take an enormous amount of time with every drawing. But here is a nobler aspect to it as well. It’s a desire for excellence. Ideas have always come easy to me, so I value my good drawings more than I do my concepts.

You used to appear in the major magazines—Esquire, New York, Time—and who can forget your “Beastiary” in Ramparts. There are many fewer outlets for acerbic visual commentary today, and the web is not the same as print. Is it harder for you to get your ideas out into the public? 
Yes, there are very few outlets now for comment, but that is a concern for younger satirists. I now want to do books or murals. They have longer staying power than anything that appears in magazines. 

Does that really matter to you?
It matters to me that The Nation now has an editor who is oblivious to the opportunity that the magazine has to be the repository for daring political art, as the old The Masses was. But personally it is of no consequence.

Hmm. You’re not convincing me that it is of no consequence. Nonetheless, where do your children’s books fit into your oeuvre? I see them as flights of nostalgia and wish fulfillment for you. Am I right?
After I did The Saturday Kid, which was somewhat autobiographical, I lost all interest in children’s books. The children’s books that I created were always a way for me to try out new approaches to drawing. Some were successful, some were not, but I learned from all of them. 

You’ve certainly had exhibitions before. What does this SVA Masters Series exhibit mean to you?
More than I can articulate. It is both an affirmation of my place among the leading comic artists of my time, and an invitation to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with old friends who are past recipients: Jules Feiffer, Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast.