Enemy of the People: A Cartoonist’s Journey
by Rob Rogers
Published by IDW Publishing
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After 25 years as a political cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rob Rogers was fired for drawing cartoons critical of President Trump. In Enemy of the People, Rogers writes, “Trump’s open embrace of the darkest, ugliest corners of human nature has emboldened racists, neo-Nazis, criminals, thugs, despots, misogynists, and liars to come out from under their rocks and display their shameful behavior publicly. That includes publishers and editors who years ago may have been too ashamed to express their hateful views on the editorial page.” From a cartoon killing spree to a social media buzz, all the way to an appearance on CNN to his final days at the paper, Rogers chronicles his unenviable journey with honesty, wit, and humor.
Nearly a decade ago, I ran into Rob Rogers a few times at events in Pittsburgh. I didn’t even realize back then that he was the President of the Toonseum, a place I frequented for exhibition launches and celebrations of local comic creators. I was told by the artist introducing me to him that this was a big deal — that I was meeting The Rob Rogers, the famous editorial cartoonist. I didn’t know what to say without sounding like an exceptionally out of touch comic books blogger used to talking about the Fantastic Four. The only editorial cartoonist’s name I knew was Nast. I was so anxious (and back then only medicated by cocktails), that I either babbled or said nothing. I can’t even remember. My brushes with celebrities are awkward and embarrassing usually.
As for Enemy of the People: A Cartoonist’s Journey, it’s not 180 pages of comic strips bashing Donald Trump, but it comes close and I would have enjoyed the perspective just as much as I did with Shannon Wheeler’s Sh*t My President Says. It is over a hundred pages of anti-Trump cartoons mixed in with other strips every bit as introspective about other politicians. In his career, Rogers has been open to doing his job which is examining the policies of the government officials while they campaign and once they’re in. Even people who never had to run for the positions or get confirmed like Steve Bannon and Michael Cohen. Hillary and Bill Clinton are subjects of several of the comics in this particular collection which ought to tell you that they’ve been under Rogers’ microscope and pen plenty of times. This is an artist who has been making his satirical doodles since his college days. He’s drawn them all from Reagan to Obama and those who have come after the 2016 Russian Apocalypse.
Each page or series comes with Rogers’ own insight about his motivation and his inner criticism. He felt he needed to work on the caricature of Trump early on and readers will be able to see the subtle progression. From his puckered lips and squinty eyes to the comb-over and inability to wear a necktie at the proper length, Rogers absorbed all that embarrassment and put it into his pages. I honestly feel sorry for him. I can turn off the news and look away from Twitter when I want to, but an editorial cartoonist can’t. It’s their job.
The book is about how that job became unbearable. The publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, John Robinson Block, was always a conservative Republican who loved Trump. He flaunted his admiration of Trump and even had a photo with him displayed. Yet, before the election, Rogers was allowed to do his job every single day working from home and only received about three rejections a year on his cartoons. That was a work life Rogers happily accepted. There were enough stories out there such as the NFL forcing players to stand for the National Anthem, that if a Trump piece was rejected, he had other pitches. He showcased the injustices of immigration and crimes against humanity while Trump was busy golfing; he showed the stacked Supreme Court; one of my favorite themes were his digs at former EPA Director Scott Pruitt. Rogers went after Roseanne when she was fired from her own show for racist remarks claiming it was the side effect of Ambien medication. Point being, everyone and every subject has potential for cartoonists. It’s when there’s an actual despot in the White House that makes it so hard to look the other way and chose something else to express.
It was after the heinous Russian-hacked election when democracy died in the country and at the Post-Gazette. This book fills in all those details about things Rogers wasn’t allowed to say at the time. Publisher Block hired an editor, Keith Burris, from one of his other newspapers to take on the additional duties of being Rogers’ new editorial director. Burris was yet another ultra-conservative Trump supporter. The writing started to appear on the wall if you held up an ultraviolet light. Still, Rogers tells the story of how he persevered. That is until, Burris starting killing the strips submitted on a daily basis. There was a string of them that were deemed unacceptable.
Rogers, being a professional, offered to speak with his management multiple times. They would only correspond through email. He offered suggestions for how they can improve their relationship and how his comics could still appear in the Post-Gazette in the Op-Ed section rather than Editorial pages and everything he tried was shot down by Burris and Block. The story gets worse and some of us have been there even if we weren’t famous cartoonists. One day you get a call from Human Resources telling you to come to a meeting.
That is never good.
Rogers was ordered to meet with the newspaper’s attorney. When he arrived, he was handed a set of “new guidelines” to follow. It was not optional. Either he signed the document or he was out. His severance package offer was sad considering his twenty-five years of dedicated service and his following from everyone in Pittsburgh and around the nation. He was a cartoonist with clout. He won a ton of awards and was a past President of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists. Seriously, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize! This is not a staffer who should be forced out of his job. Yet, as you read through the preview pages here, you’ll see that’s what happened.
Interspersed with the chapters of comics are letters by friends and contemporaries in the field of editorial cartooning. The foreward was written by CNN’s Jack Tapper who was probably the first journalist to interview Rob Rogers when he was not-yet-fired but something was afoot because everyone wanted to know where the heck his daily cartoons were. Rogers couldn’t say everything back then before the termination, but he can now and Enemy of the People is way of doing it.
I will admit, that just like with the Mueller hearings or following the news on Twitter and watching clips, there are times when I had to put Enemy of the People down for my own sanity. I was feeling the anxiety and sickness spread through me like a powerful virus. I needed to take breaks from the satire several times before I completed the book.
I salute you, Rob Rogers and I truly wish I could have said something more coherent a decade ago, but now this nobody book blogger and podcaster from New Jersey has had the opportunity to dive deep into some of your work.
Rating: Five Stars