Author: Steve Brodner
Publish Date: September 2022
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books Inc.
Catalog ID: 978-1683965534
Where to buy: https://bookshop.org/shop/graphicmedicine
by Stephen Dudas
In his foreword to Steve Brodner’s Living & Dying in America: A Daily Chronicle 2020-2022, Edward Sorrel draws the apt comparison between Brodner’s graphic diary of the COVID-19 pandemic and the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Just as Pepys “fastidiously kept a record of the effects that the bubonic plague had on London” in the 17th century, Brodner records a nuanced experience of the first two years of the pandemic in our own time. Deeply reflective and carefully analytical of the intersectional dimensions of illness in a politically and socially tumultuous era, the artifact Brodner creates (and is still creating) accurately captures the emotional, intellectual, and lived realities of Americans during COVID.
Originally posted on social media, Brodner’s near-daily sketches, caricatures, and political cartoons echo the temporality and events of the news cycle while also filling in important gaps with stories that might not be as visible outside of mainstream reporting. The pieces grapple with new events, ongoing stories and crises, the deaths of individuals (famous, infamous, and ordinary people), and the successes and failures of people in power. His subjects range from the rising figures of COVID-related deaths to new incidents of police violence against Black Americans. He draws and writes about the cruel treatment of migrants and incarcerated individuals, about activists and community leaders, about rocket-happy billionaires, about insurrectionists and the villains of the Trump administration.
But Brodner’s work is something a bit more intimate than a graphic rendering of straight journalism. It is the obvious result of a profoundly personal, mindful response to chaotic times. In his Artist Statement in the closing pages of the book, Brodner writes “Journaling helps me look at my feelings as they occur, in real time; later, as those feelings shift around. Journaling can help me achieve perhaps a bit more perspective.” In the tone of his captions and in the care visible in his linework, Brodner is clearly meditating on and feeling the subjects he turns into his art. And in doing so, Brodner replicates the experience of many conscious, close-readers of the last three years—grappling with the complex events and information and individuals as fragments felt discretely and daily, yet understanding these pieces as simultaneous and intersectional.
Living & Dying in America is a testament to the heroism witnessed and the loss suffered through the years of pandemic. The project champions the efforts and traumas of medical workers like Indiana University Health ICU nurse Brandie Kopsas-Kingsley who, in Brodner’s December 04, 2020 entry, says that she might not be able to mentally visualize hundreds of thousands of deaths, but after caring for individual patients who ultimately die of COVID, she “can understand the humans behind those numbers. And every single one was a life. A person that mattered.” Paired with a drawing of a close-up on Kopsas-Kingsley’s eyes—weary behind her glasses and framed beneath by her mask—the entry asks its audience to empathize with a medical worker’s the first-hand experience of death and grief. The same invitation into compassion is built into his memorialization of those killed by police and school shooters and into his celebration of individuals who have taken significant strides to create change in their communities and in legislation.
As Sorrel notes, Brodner differs from Pepys in that he also takes up the responsibility to critique—often scathingly—the political officials who exacerbate problems, create new ones, stoke alt-right mania, or remain complicit in existing systemic evils. Trump, the blunders of his administration, and the violent absurdity of his supporters are chronicled alongside the more tender portraits of the admirable and the lost. While portraits of heroes and the deceased remain affectionate and dignified, cartoons of the people Brodner condemns exercise his talents as a caricature artist, warping and hyperbolize faces into surrealist buffoons. In his May 26, 2021 cartoon, Brodner depicts a naked a paunchy Ted Cruz basking in the aftermath of insurrection. Cruz is tattooed and surrounded by familiar faces of the January 6th attack on Capital Hill (Jacob Chansley of furry, horned hat fame yells out from Cruz’s gut). With eyes closed and arms stretched up in worship of the violence and racism and rioting around him, Cruz cuts the image of a leading disciple of batshit ideology.
The intermingling of evil, ignorance, pain, grief, love, healing, under Brodner’s magnifying glass resonates with the experience of decent human beings during the pandemic. It is a chronicle of one person’s anger and confusion and hope in a time of seeming helplessness. Like Pepys, Brodner documents a traumatic and globally-felt horror with depth and precision as key events are felt both as individual moments and as pieces of larger, ongoing narratives. In collecting his caricatures, cartoons, and writing in Living & Dying in America: A Daily Chronicle 2020-2022, Steve Brodner has compiled a body of work that should serve as a crucial artifact of the COVID-19 pandemic for historians of the future. Journalistically thorough, artistically stunning, and necessarily critical of the powers that shaped and harmed the United States’ direction through the years of the pandemic, the collection is not only a series of portraits, but a portrait of an ill nation struggling to survive and heal.
Stephen Dudas holds an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature from Miami University. His writing has been published in The Great Lakes Book Project, Ohio’s Best Emerging Poets (Z Publishing House), BALLOONS, Trilobite, The Caterpillar, and elsewhere. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, An August Nightmare (Prolific Press, 2018).