To the untrained eye, political cartoons appear so clean, simple and perfect they seem to have been dropped into the world that way, fully formed and ready to go. But of course, plenty of time, anxiety and nixed rough drafts go into each carefully crafted lampoon.
Tom Toro, who formerly served as The New Yorker’s political cartoonist in residence, recently released a book of comics called Tiny Hands. (You can likely guess its target.) The book contains images of many of Toro’s cartoons-in-progress, offering a rare glimpse into the intermediary steps involved in creating a scathing yet silly visual jab.
“The process always begins with a blank page and infinite possibilities,” Toro told HuffPost.
We were eager to learn more about this drawing process, and how the blank page becomes a searing gag. Toro obliged and set the scene. “I’m alone,” he explained. “Recumbent. Pen in hand, pad on knee. I’m not a doodler, normally. The page stays pristine until an idea pops into mind. Which happens when ... Who knows!”
To get the juices flowing, Toro sometimes provides himself prompts that are apropos of nothing. “Draw a cartoon about: summer reading, beach balls, air travel, pumpkins, et cetera,” he said. “Inspiration might also come from something as simple as wanting to paint a dark cave, and finding a gag to justify that. But I don’t doodle. I find that it limits the idea. It pens in the prospects prematurely, so to speak. Plus I’m just not very good at sketching.”
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Most cartoons featured in Tiny Hands were originally created for The New Yorker’s online Daily Cartoon ― meaning, they had to be created fast. “My ritual consisted of a few hours spent brainstorming, after which I’d choose the best idea, refine the composition and the caption, mock it up, transfer the sketch onto Bristol paper, ink it, paint it, scan the finished artwork, do touch-ups in Photoshop, edit the caption several more times, stare at the image for much too long, make unnoticeable tweaks, eat dinner, undo the tweaks, and finally hit send,” Toro shared. “Then I’d wake up at dawn the next day to fix something insignificant. Repeat. It was intense.”
Most Tiny Hands material revolves around a single subject: Donald Trump. It can be difficult to churn out new jokes based on such a polarizing figure each and every day, without making the viewer too angry, too hopeless or too sick of Trump’s face.
The latter reason is why some comic artists, like Emily Flake, who had The New Yorker’s daily cartoon gig prior to Toro, opt to allude to the president without visualizing him directly. “I tried to be circumspect about when I mentioned DT by name or drew him in an attempt to keep the audience from being exhausted and the work from being too one-note,” she wrote in an email to HuffPost.
“And I think that when people’s brains have just that extra nanosecond to put the idea together, it can help a joke land harder. That said,” she continued, “Trump has a look that just begs to be drawn ― for better or worse, he’s a gift to cartoonists, visually speaking.”
Another obstacle Toro faced was the incessant and absurd news cycle, which broke stories of increasingly inconceivable scandals and crises, making yesterday’s comic feel like old news. “Luckily, certain strains of evil and incompetence are consistent in political animals, like genetic traits,” Toro said.
“A cartoon likening Trump to Nixon, for example, only gains deeper resonance over time. Aside from the Daily Cartoon, my regular process of drawing for the print magazine is far more leisurely. Though I try to get everything accomplished in less than 24 working hours.”
Not every comic idea ends up making the cut ― Toro recalled a series of sarcastic Trump 2020 campaign posters that editors deemed “way out of bounds.” One depicted the zeroes in 2020 as eye holes in a Klansman’s hood.
The artist does receive the occasional hate mail from conservative and alt-right critics. Yet Toro said he’d be insulted not to. “I find it sort of poignant,” he said. “Much like Trump, conservative trolls actually crave validation from liberals, but lacking wit and talent they resort to bullying. If only all that energy could be channeled toward creating something worthwhile. But a comments section is like farts in a jar ― why even open it?”
Spending your work day mulling over Trump’s latest misdeeds and gaffes surely sounds both stressful and exhausting. To unwind, Toro takes a minute to draw a different breed entirely.
“Cats,” he said. “I’ll always come back to cats when I need to clear my head. Because they’re such elegant, tranquil, self-contained creatures who just do not give a fuck.”
Welcome to Battleground, where art and activism meet.