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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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