Illustration as Authorship: When the Story Starts With You

Illustration as Authorship: When the Story Starts With You BRODNERSIGNER2.jpgBy Steve Brodner

My (40 year) freelance career has always been a combination of commissions coming from media and my own pitches for stories going out to them. Coming up with ideas and being lucky to find great designers to collaborate with has made my career more vivid and exciting. It also gives me levels of control I would never otherwise have. When ideas come (and I always have a few floating around) I am grateful for the open door at places I respect. Here is a sampling of projects I've written, drawn and sold over the years.

Note: Although these stories originated with me, they were all collaborations on a very intense level. My great thanks to all the creative directors, designers, writers and editors who sharpened, clarified and focused these projects. You have helped make my life in art and journalism possible.

(Pictured top): In 1984 I proposed my first story to a magazine. I wanted to travel through the Midwest and interview farmers who were being thrown off of their land by Reagan administration farm policies. It was a priority of the Farmers Home Management Agency to turn large parts of farmland over to multinational agribusinesses. I interviewed some 30 farmers for The Progressive. I dove deeply into the process of telling personal stories in words and pictures. This happened with the great support from Patrick J.B. Flynn, art director of The Progressive.

Jessie Jackson-thumb-550x316-22021.jpgOver the years I have covered 10 national political conventions. All were stories proposed by me. One of these was of the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, for Esquire magazine, Rip Georges, art director. In this piece the delegates are listening to Jesse Jackson's stirring "Patchwork Quilt" speech. These people, many of them not actually seated in this arrangement, were composed to reflect the electricity in that hall. Documentary art, I feel, has license to alter a scene to better tell the truth.

Colt scab for spd.jpgIn 1989 the Colt firearms company factory in East Hartford, Connecticut was struck. In fact, the workers were locked out by the ownership for many months. In that time, they had gone from the comfortable middle class to, in some cases, desperation. I traveled for The Hartford Courant into the midst of that strike. I tried to catch the emotions of the people involved. Here the crowd shouts at a scab.

Dole for SPD.jpgIn 1996, Bob Dole was majority leader of the United States Senate and the GOP candidate for president. I wanted to cover him in Washington and on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. I got to do both and the result was a profile in The Washington Post Magazine, Kelly Doe, art director. Coming out of the fundraiser in the snow, Dole said, "You get a snow job inside, you get a snow job outside."

Bush Horse 1000.jpgIn 1998, when George W. Bush was first being mentioned as presidential material, I asked Esquire magazine to send me to Texas to travel with young Bush as he ran for reelection as governor. Art director Robert Priest suggested I do an opener. I decided to involve the old man, which is a true reflection of the polling boost the young Bush, with the same name as the father, got that year.

NYer Cover 1000.jpgAll artists doing New Yorker covers must match their personal sensibility to that of the etiquette and tradition of the magazine. Here's a case, in 1999, where my view of that year's presidential contest fit the mood; on the Bush / Gore race then in full swing. Art director: Francoise Mouly.

Gun Club.jpgThe difference between people's relationships to guns rural Pennsylvania and in the inner city was striking. In rural areas people had very little understanding of what guns were doing to people in the cities. This story, pitched to Philadelphia magazine in 2000, attempted to show both sides with as much realism as possible.

Bushanos SPD200jpg.jpegAt the time of the Iraq War I got the idea to compare the Bush Administration with America's favorite crime family, the Sopranos. In The Bushanos I rendered the gang, assigning each of them a role that they might play in The Sopranos. I pitched this to The Nation and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel.

In America.jpegIn 2005 I asked Texas Monthly to send me to the border and meet people who were living on the very edge of American life, literally and figuratively. These were the Mexican migrants of the Colonias. These are the small communities of immigrants who are looking for work, building homes and raising families on some of the most inhospitable land in Texas. I went down expecting to bring back horror stories of extreme poverty and deprivation. But what I found was a great success story of people who, through determination and courage, dug a life for themselves and their families out of this forbidding land. Art director: TJ Tucker.

Bush Egg.jpgIn 2007 I proposed to editor David Remnick that I and my production company work on a series of short videos for The New Yorker website. This resulted in 32 shows in the Naked Campaign series. The pitch relied on a pilot film we showed to David as well as my track record of working on political pieces for The New Yorker for many years. We'd do things like make eggs talk, etc.

Red NY Blue Page 1 200.jpgRed, New York and Blue is a comic that I pitched to The New Yorker at the time of the 2008 presidential election. Stand-alone pieces for that magazine are not easy to sell, as there is a great deal of competition from, not only artists, but writers and editors as well. But it is always gratifying to get your ideas in. Here I imagine New York artifacts as either Democratic or Republican. Cartoon editor: Robert Mankoff.

romneyimagemoney.jpegMad Men final w type 200dpi.jpgIn 2012 and 2013 I did a series of double-page spreads for The American Prospect, Mary Parsons, art director. This was a new kind of illustration for me; a combination political cartoon and infographic, blending data and point of view. I found it extremely satisfying. Here are two.
One is a graphic treatment of Mitt Romney's wealth. The other is a re-creation of the poster of that year's season of Mad Men. In this, I have replaced the advertising executives with real-life characters who work very hard to confuse the issue of climate change for fun and profit.

JFK_Backpage 200.jpgIn 2013 I contacted The Atlantic about the upcoming JFK assassination anniversary. I had come across some footage of the day in Dallas in 1963 where it was clear that, prior to the shooting, JFK was having a very good day. My concept was take the sunny, festive morning and draw the last things he saw. Art director: Darhil Crooks.

Lewiss.jpgAnother historic project was page for The New York Times op-ed from July 4, 2013. I had done research and identified the signers of the Declaration of Independence who had sacrificed the most during the Revolutionary War. Here is one: Francis Lewis (yes, before he became a boulevard). The British ransacked his home in Whitestone and took his wife prisoner. With the help of Matt Dorfman we boiled it down to 12 men. My research was augmented impressively by The New York Times research desk.

Tar Sands Pipeline of politics.jpgLast week, for The Nation, art director: Robert Best, I did this toon/infographic on the pipeline of filth that runs from the pockets of oligarchs to their handmaidens in Congress working against legislation to deal with the climate problem. My metaphor is a series of pipes going from a tar sands mountain of billionaires to The Capitol, which is drowning in oily contributions.

Visit Steve Brodner's website for illustrations, news, great links, resources, and more.

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