by Mike Keefe
Denver, CO: 1984
160 pp. $7.95 (pbk)
by Bill Watterson
A lot of cartoonists today could use a healthy kick in the butt, and Keefe-Kebab, a collection of Mike Keefe's Denver Post cartoons, is a squarely-aimed hobnail boot. This book should be spine-cracked and permently positioned next to the inkwell of any cartoonist looking for proof that one's work need not look like Pat Oliphant's to be exciting. Keefe's work is worth studying.
Whereas discussion of an editorial cartoonist's work generally focuses on its politics, it is Keefe's artwork that I find most compelling, and which I would like to consider here. Only a handful of cartoonists are artistic explorers, interested in new directions. The others seem content to lazily follow the path already forged, as if it was the only trail that led anywhere worthwhile. Taking no risks, these cartoonists cheat themselves of discovery and growth. Moreover, they cheat their readers of an original voice. The reader gets only a second-hand interpretation of what another artist has already done, and usually done better. Mike Keefe is one of the few pathfinders. Rather than patly accepting the solutions of others, he creates his own solutions, and this is what makes his work exciting. We are watching an orignal mind at work.
I enjoy Keefe's line quality. Bold brush strokes contrast with fine hatching and scribbling in the tradition of Searle and Oliphant, but with a character all its own. The line is wavy and unfussed, and the hatching is more significant in terms of value than in volume. The important thing, though, is that Keefe's solution to the problem of line is unique, and honestly come by. He uses line as a form of individual expression, and it's effective. His different approach leaves us with an expanded line vocabulary -- and the challenge to add to it.
Even more than his line quality, Keefe's cartoons are characterized by wild distortion. It seems likely that Keefe wears glasses with the wrong prescription. In his drawings, space is flattened, perspective is warped, and inanimate objects are stratched and squashed with crazed abandon. Floors curve. People fit into two-foot wide beds and drive cars that obey no laws of physics. Apparently Keefe has no conception of what a modern bomber looks like (or even a telephone), for he draws them as if he had asked a drunk for a vague description. This insane view of our surroundings is a pure delight to to share. It is a personal vision that coaxes the reader into a special world. Here again we benefit from Keefe's exploration. The path he cuts is an exotic one.
What even a casual flip through the book should demonstrate is that an artist who is honest with himself is ultimately more interesting than an artist who hides behind the mask of facile imitation. Keefe, like everyone else, has his limitations: considering some of the cartoons in this book go back six years or more, there were perhaps fewer perfectly brilliant political insights than I would have liked, although just about all the cartoons were solid. Two cartoons immediately stand out because of an abrupt shift to a sketchy, quasi-realistic drawing style, presumably to reflect the serious nature of the subject matter. One shows two soldiers carrying a corpse, titled, "U.S. Marines Withdraw from Lebanon...One by One." This cartoon works, I think, but the other has problems. It depicts a father, reading about child abuse, saying, "I'm rethinking my opposition to capital punishment." Mother and child cuddle next to him. Here the drawing, with bright sunlight shining on the infant's upturned, hopeful face, seems melodramatic and contrived. I thought the image lacked the ease and grace of his more "cartoony" drawings, some of which were every bit as "heavy." I admire this experimentation though, and for the sake of a new way of approaching a subject, I'll forgive the shortcomings of a particular cartoon. Innovation has its risks.
Syndication generally leaves the local cartoon to sweep up after the week, but Keefe has come up with "Cold Facts Avenue," a hybrid comic strip/editorial that gently pokes fun at life in Denver. The strip doesn't draw from the week's headlines, but instead offers a laid-back, insider's view of local idiosyncrasies. Keefe isn't hard-hitting here, but he expands the political cartoon medium to accomodate whatever he has to say, even when he just wants to needle the bland tastelessness of a nearby sprawling mall. For local issues of greater weight, Keefe returns to the traditional format, and the book presents a nice, if small, selection of them.
Mike Keefe challenges himself, and he challenges his medium. Like Tony Auth, Ben Sargent, and only a few others, Keefe marches to his own drumbeat. His work is alive and exudes its integrity. Instead of relying on the pre-packaged solutions of the field's giants, Keefe has experimented on his own, and arrived at equally viable conclusions that have the advantage of being unique and personal to him. He has developed his own language to express his individual ideas. Consequently, Keefe gives us not just an opinion of the day's news, but an insight into his bizarre world. In his drawings he shares with us his sense of ridiculousness and craziness, all within the discipline of strong composition and beautiful line quality. This sharing of personal vision, it seems to me, is what cartooning, like all art, is really all about.