The people you meet in Phil Hands heaven
The Wisconsin State Journal editorial cartoonist opens a new art show on August 4 at Union South.
The Wisconsin State Journal's Phil Hands practices a form of daily-paper editorial cartooning that must strike a growing number of media consumers as charmingly archaic. By tradition and perhaps by necessity, American editorial cartoonists deal in caricature, the collapsing of nuance, and ribbing all political sides to an extent that can feel too lukewarm for a fiercely divided political moment. Hands brings to that tradition an affinity for Madison's quirks and a generally playful approach. He's not a polemicist, he's not as outlandish as cartoonists like Trump fanatic Ben Garrison, and he clearly prefers playfulness and a light chuckle at the week's news to grandstanding.
Sometimes Hands can be quite funny or at least amiably silly, sometimes scathing and sometimes... just... why? You can likely experience all of the above during an upcoming exhibition of his work, The Political Art Of Phil Hands, running August 4 through Sept. 22 at Union South's Gallery 1308. Hands will also mark the Aug. 4th opening of the show with an introductory talk.
What makes Phil Hands' universe worth returning to—whether it's amusing you or driving you nuts, whether you find it incisive or milquetoast—is his cast of oddball recurring characters. And I don't mean who the usual political suspects and caricature red meat like Scott Walker, Donald Trump, and Paul Ryan. The contours of his work are defined by characters more or less of his own invention (or at least his own observation and comic exaggeration). Ahead of the art show and talk, here's a look at some of the characters who play repeat roles in Hands' cartoons.
Old Madison hippie guy
With the exception of Scott Walker, the most frequently used character in Hands' cartoons just has to be a be-turtlenecked, sixty-something man with a bald head and a silvery ponytail. I'm not sure this is really a caricature, as you can easily meet this exact person at any local blues concert, roots-music event, or just waiting in front of you in line for beer at any East Side neighborhood festival. Old Madison hippie guy is usually screaming in a fit of political apoplexy or acting all pretentious. His conservative foil is frequently a fat slob with lots of missing teeth.
One year, the State Journal put out a Phil Hands wall calendar that depicted old Madison hippie guy traipsing about town with his friend the hipster. They're together on Hands' proposed design for a new Madison flag, taking the place of the Wisconsin flag's miner and sailor. Their most vivid use in an actual political cartoon, though, came shortly after word of Wisconsin's proposed Foxconn plant started getting out: A couple of overdressed, elaborately facial-haired guys are hanging out at a "Hipster Café" that's clearly supposed to be a Colectivo, doing pretentiously old-fashioned things. What redeems the cartoon is that one of the "hipsters" is reading a Wisconsin State Journal—revealing a self-aware side of Hands, poking fun at his own role as a print-newspaper contributor.
When Bucky Badger appears in Hands' cartoons, it's usually to garishly taunt UW's assorted rivals before a big game. But Hands also has a thing about Bucky's fragile side. Sometimes he experiences pure terror at the hands of Republican state legislators, or begs for some help in the football department. And Bucky also isn't too tough to cry in front of Bo Ryan and Frank Kaminsky. This latter I consider a separate character called Haggard Crying Bucky, but anyway. Speaking of sports, I'm probably just hallucinating this one.
People yelling at each other
People are yelling a whole lot and the yelling parties tend to look equally bad. But far more often than yelling, people are pointing. In fact, you will notice that most of the yelling ones also involve pointing.
Ghost Ben Franklin
I don't really buy the narrative that young people are turning against freedom of speech, but in any case Ghost Ben Franklin is here to save the day.