The Great Communicator
by Jim Borgman
Cincinnati, OH: 1985
160 pp. $8.95 (pbk)
by Bill Watterson
The Great Communicator, Jim Borgman's second cartoon collection, marks a turning point in his work. Consequently, while it is not entirely a flattering assemblage, it is exciting from the standpoint of artistic growth, and it holds out promise of greater things to come. Borgman's new book deserves serious attention.
While always one of the best draftsmen in the field, Borgman has only lately begun developing a personal visual vocabulary. This book presents his first substantive steps out from under Oliphant's long shadow, butbecause the book covers the last three years, Borgman's most recent work does not take up in space what it deserves in artistic significance. Also, the book is arranged by subject as opposed to chronology, so his experiments of late are further obscured by the shuffling of them throughout each section. Outnumbered and sandwiched between the earlier, more derivative cartoons, his new work is unable to set the book's tone.
It is worth noting here that the similarity of Borgman's drawings to Oliphant's is nevertheless a superficial one. Borgman is no cynic making a cheap gambit for success without work, nor is he another of the mindless clones that litter the editorial cartoon landscape. Borgman's line does him a real disservice in that it distracts the reader from the great power and originality of his ideas. A closer look at Borgman's work will reveal a daring cartoonist who can deftly manipulate a medium he obviously understands. Borgman is one of the most incisive cartoonists in the country today, and one who has his very best work ahead of him.
Borgman has applied himself rigorously to his craft. A casual flip through his book shows a boggling display of approaches to each issue. Few artists are as versatile with all the tools at the cartoonist's disposal. Borgman wields the sledge hammer as confidently as the feather, and no one is more adept at the visual curve ball.
In addition to all the fancy camera angles and composition twists, there is a sixteen-page color section that expands his reach even farther. Borgman can really draw. As he pushes his line quality in a more personal direction, there will be no stopping him. The chapter title pages offer teasing proof. Delightfully loose, scratchy, and distorted, they show most tangibly the original, free direction Borgman is taking his work. These, and his most recent cartoons, have a whimsy and immediacy that is not only visually appealing, but is also in perfect synch with the unique personality of the cartoons. And this personality is, in my opinion, one of Borgman's greatest strengths.
Toles comes to mind, but there are not many other cartoonists like Borgman who have that weird ability to make the object of their derision simultaneously repugnant and endearing. Over the years, Borgman has developed the two-dimensional President we all see in the headlines into a rounded protagonist. In Borgman's cartoons, we see a more intimate view of Reagan. Reagan becomes a "character" with a personality, as opposed to being a mere symbol of his administration.
In one drawing, we see Reagan "balancing his checkbook," pen poised in a pensive mouth. Neatly lettered zeroes extend out from the checkbook, halfway across the table, and Reagan utters the wonderfully incongruous "Fudge!". It's a simple image, but it's somehow revealing of this Presidential cartoon character's personality. The intensity of Reagan's determined stare, and his grossly understated exclamation suggest that this character is an imbecile. Yet the event depicted is very human, and Reagan's expression shows his human side. This is not the President of the United States reacting to an unconscionable deficit so much as it is a Charlie Brown careening into space as the football is yanked away. We can all identify.
Another cartoon has Reagan lamenting his poor standing with women. In five boldly cropped panels, Reagan says, "Well, the ladies are at it again. What do these gals want, anyway? Didn't I appoint Sandy O'Connor? And how about Mrs. Dole? You try to do something a little nice for their cause, and this is the thanks you get!...Women! I'll never understand 'em!" Here we see Reagan utterly patronizing half of America, but there's no drawing of a pig with a pompadour. Reagan looks genuinely bewildered at his predicament. He doesn't understand why his token efforts haven't ingratiated him to the women's movement, and, in the different panels, Reagan's face betrays anger, wounded pride, puzzlement, and frustration. Reagan here is a dolt, but he's a dolt we can't bring ourselves to hate.
Borgman's cartoons have a wonderful warmth to them that is unusual in political commentary. He puts heart into his work. The result is a richer appreciation of the fact that politics is an imperfect way of handling the problems of an imperfect species. It's a subtler view than we often hear these days.
This is not to say that Borgman is a political softy. One of his most surprising cartoons was drawn a week before the '84 election. Titled, "The Cartoonist Sits the President Down," the cartoon is a bizarre fantasy where Reagan, obviously about to be reelected by a landslide, is forced to sit silent while Borgman catalogues the President's deficiencies. Every time Reagan starts to argue, Borgman interrupts, or erases Reagan's word-balloon. It's a hilarious scenario in which the cartoonist gets to say his piece point-blank, in prose, without subtlety or visual contrivance. It's different, it's hard-hitting, and it's funny. Borgman is willing to go out on a conceptual limb, and the risks make for exciting work.
It is this kind of energy that sets Borgman far ahead of the gag-a-day headline illustrators of the profession. Very few cartoonists are apporaching their work with so much creativity. and this is what makes the more Oliphantian drawings so hard to accept. Borgman's ideas have obviously outgrown their need for outside help in the drawing department. What were once presumably crutches now impede Borgman's movement and are a source of distraction and irritation. Borgman will have to nurture his unique sensibility and allow it to exert itself more forcibly if he is to establish his greatness. I think the diligent reader of Great Communicator will find indications that Borgman is beginning to do that. Conceptually, Borgman's cartoons have a character all their own. It's now a matter of letting his linework reflect it.
The Great Communicator is the work of a cartoonist at the fork in the road. We are seeing an artist struggling to push his work in a new and more personal direction. Many could benefit from Borgman's example. It is, after all, a process that every artist must continually go through if he is to grow. Borgman has done his homework and is well prepared for the venture. If you want to see some finely-crafted, intelligent, and risky cartoons, this is a fine book to get. If you want to see some of the best political cartoons likely to be produced, set aside some money now for Borgman's next book.