I wouldn’t wish Eli Valley’s job on my worst enemy.
Picture yourself scrolling through your social media feeds and coming across a news story that makes your stomach turn. Not just something absurd or sickening, but something that gets deep under your skin — that fills you with rage and disgust, or makes you feel personally complicit in the grossest hypocrisy and venality. I assume that, like most people, this happens to you from time to time, and, in response, you do what everyone else does: You watch a cozy baking competition to distract from the distaste.
Valley digs right in. Not the way a critic or scholar might, to fill in context and explain what’s so objectionable. No, Valley gathers photos of the people involved — people he loathes — and spends dozens of hours, sometimes going without sleep, drawing painstaking, intricate caricatures of them. To put it simply: Valley has spent hundreds of hours looking at, thinking about, and making his own intricate representations of Donald Trump’s skin.
In a 2019 cartoon about the hypocrisy of Trump’s calling Rashida Tlaib’s use of profanity “a disgrace,” for example, Valley depicted Trump sexually assaulting the carcass of a pig, backed by hooded klansmen and surrounded by children in cages. All that could have been conveyed, in a few minutes’ work, with flat-surfaced, stylized cartoons, but instead Valley labored for hours on every strand of the pig’s hair, as if it were the mane of a lion, and Trump’s face oozing its jowls in every direction, his eyebrows like antlers — the overall effect very Jabba the Hutt, only less put-together, slimier.
In a more recent, full-color drawing, Valley gives us one of his favorite targets, the lawyer Alan Dershowitz, rendered in sickly greens and blues, his torso a festering mess of pebbly and striated sections. Valley is certainly capable of the clean, strong lines that characterize most caricatures and political cartoons when a subject requires it, as in a recent tour de force about Maus and An American Tail. But when the news gets appalling enough he’ll show you the grotesquerie, make you feel it.
As the son of a rabbi, Valley comes naturally by his most pressing and recurrent theme: lies told and violence committed in the name of Jewish safety and security. His cartoon jeremiads can easily enough be fit into a long history of Jewish protest, from the Biblical prophets who excoriated the sinners of Israel to modern novelists who, like the criminally under-appreciated late-19th-century San Francisco writer Emma Wolf, wrote about Jews, as she put it, “in the spirit of love — the love that has the courage to point out a fault in its object.”
The literary side of that Jewish protest tradition has its analogue in another, lesser-known tradition of Jewish protest art, which Valley’s work exemplifies and celebrates. In his book of cartoons, Diaspora Boy (2017), he lays out some of his key influences, the most familiar of which, to most people, will be MAD Magazine and its predecessor, MAD Comics. In Diaspora Boy, Valley credits Will Elder’s “chicken fat” style in those publications as “a prelude to a narrative approach that [he’d] embrace.” The standard understanding of “chicken fat” is that it “is the term for all the strange side gags, the visual puns, the weird signs, the total non-sequiturs lurking in an Elder strip,” a cramming of shtik into every inch of a comics page. But MAD panels sometimes resembled chicken fat not just in being what the kids call extra, but also, shiny and gross in their excess. When Elder, or other MAD artists — especially Basil Wolverton — would draw a weirdo or a goon, they would let you know you should be squicked out by adding a thousand little wrinkles, pimples and blackheads, beads of sweat, nasty hairs — a landscape of bursting pustules and human sludge. This art was part of MAD’s “satirizing the sacrosanct,” which, in the postwar decades, referred not only to Hollywood clichés and consumerism but also to the smooth, beguiling surfaces and impossibly pretty people churned out by commercial illustrators.
If MAD was, as Valley once wrote, “probably the greatest Jewish achievement since the Talmud,” it built on an earlier protest tradition in the American Yiddish press. Valley singles out Leon Israel, who drew for the humor magazine Der groyser kundes (The Big Stick) under the name Lola (and also illustrated my favorite Passover Haggadah), but there’s another Yiddish-speaking artist whose work always comes to mind when I see Valley’s.
William Gropper (1897–1977), a New York-born son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Romania, came by his hatred of capitalism naturally: His aunt died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and his dad couldn’t get regular work in the United States despite a college degree. Though never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, Gropper drew for all of the major publications associated with American Communism, including The Masses, The Liberator, and The Revolutionary Age — and, importantly, for the Yiddish Freiheit, which was the Communist-affiliated publication with the highest circulation in the US, in any language. In a style that shared with Valley’s a dramatic chiaroscuro and emotional intensity, Gropper made palpable the fury of Americans who had been exploited and impoverished. Most of his thousands of Freiheit cartoons can be seen only on old microfilms, but a healthy selection was published as a book in 1927 under the ironic title Di goldene medine (The Golden Country) and can be browsed online. Gropper’s angry caricatures of ugly, gross scabs, abusive foremen, and corrupt rabbis remind us that Valley’s outrage is highly traditional.
Valley gestured to some of these influences regularly in his early comics, deliberately, for example drawing Theodor Herzl as the EC Comics Cryptkeeper. “Diaspora Boy,” a distillation of Zionist stereotypes about non-Zionist Jews, and the title character of Valley’s book, looks like an almost pure Wolverton hommage. In the last five years or so, Valley’s cartoons have become darker and more direct, understandably enough. One 2018 cartoon pairs Trump-aligned Jews, like former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, and Jared Kushner, with MAGA-inspired anti-Semitic murderers, all of them with wrinkled, shadowed faces and blocky bodies that visually suggest equal parts MAD and Gropper. The cartoon, ostensibly about Trump’s relocation of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, layers in highly charged symbols — the gates of Auschwitz, the architectural design of the Jewish temple — but stays focused on the repellant faces of anti-Semitic murderers and their Jewish enablers, each more appalling than the last.
Of course, no one has a patent on the grotesque. As naturally as cartoonists like Valley and Gropper can apply it to the absurdities and banalities of American Jewish politics, female cartoonists like Aline Kominsky-Crumb could use it to reflect the abjectness ascribed to women in our patriarchal culture (in “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman” from the 1972 debut issue of Wimmen’s Comix, one typical panel has the title character puking into a toilet, thinking, “God I feel like shit”.) And, however upsetting it is, it’s necessary to note that US humor magazines like Puck and Judge employed a similarly grotesque style to dehumanize Jews, Black Americans, and other minorities in the 1880s and 1890s. These images visually instantiated white supremacist beliefs at the origin point of American comics and spun out images that continue to be circulated today.
Valley understands the seriousness of representing people this way, and he chooses his targets carefully. His indelible and monstrous caricatures can’t make up for the horrors and injustices caused by their targets, but at least they attempt, with their graphic intricacy, to hold people accountable. That’s why I’m always grateful when Valley shares a new comic on Twitter: Few other contemporary artists have devoted themselves quite so boldly to the idea that the people who say and do hateful things should look exactly as disgusting as their words and actions.