special December 31, 2000 by Christopher
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. ABOUT ROMAN GENN
It was March 1997, and NR's
"Manchurian Candidates" cover, poking fun at Bill, Al, and Hillary's
zeal in fund raising from Chinese nationals, had enraged the
ethnic-grievance industry. Protestors rented outside our offices in
New-York and Washington; hundreds of letters poured in; the editor
was surrounded by mob at Yale. But Roman Genn, the artist behind the
cover, remained philosophical. "I think that's fine" he told a
reporter. "Their job is to get ticked off at cartoons and my job is
to draw them. We're all doing our jobs.
" Genn has been doing his job
for NR since 1994, skewering the high and mighty with his spot on
caricatures. And while his work for the magazine has brought him
notoriety, his knack for cartooning - and his coolness under fire -
has been on display since he was a five-year-old cutup in Moscow. "I
wasn't interested in anything the teacher had to say so I just
wasted all my time drawing my school buddies and insulting them,"
says Genn, now 28. " I'd draw teachers so my buddies could laugh. But
then I'd get in trouble, and end up having to clean the toilets.
Communist youth camp, he entered competitions for drawing propaganda
posters. "I was collaborating with the regime," he reflects
ruefully. Not that he had any affection for Communism. As a teenager
in the late '80s, he began selling his antigovernment cartoons to
American tourists on street corners, attracting the notice of the
authorities. He was arrested eleven times for his pictures, and was
jailed overnight for lampooning a Kremlin politician. The interior
ministry searched his apartment. On one occasion, the police came
for him during a class at Moscow Art College, sirens blaring.
1989 - when he was arrested nine times - Pravda (yes, Pravda) ran
one of his drawings. "It was funny, because when the cops would
harass me, I'd show them that I was published in Pravda; they'd
leave me alone for a while".
A turning point came in 1990 when a Los
Angeles public-television producer came across Roman and filmed a
segment about his work. The following year, with a help of L.A.
synagogue, Roman and his mother emigrated to the United States.
Settling in Pasadena, he learned English by watching John Wayne
movies. In 1994, his agent sent a submission to NR. "You guys went
for it," Roman says, "suckers that you were."
Roman also contributes
regularly to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He
confesses he saddened by the eminent departure of Bill Clinton:
"He's going and we're crying." Of course, as a caricaturist, he has
his own priorities. Whom does he prefer between Bush and Gore? "Let
the man with the biggest nose win!"
The "Manchurian Candidates"
cover remains his favorite. "I loved it," he says. "Remember, they
marched in front of your offices, not my apartment." He pauses,
perhaps contemplating future covers, then adds, "Don't put my
address in this article".
Caricature in the Age of Political Correctness By FRANCIS X. CLINES
"Caricature is rough truth." -- George Meredith
There is a sense of achievement, plain as a Daumier
leer, that comes upon a political cartoonist when his work stirs
outraged condemnation. For some cartoonists, "going too far" is
exactly where their pens must aim, and the bite of public complaint
is encouraging, even necessary evidence of a bull's-eye.
tremendous amount of people waiting around to get annoyed at
something," said Roman Genn, the cartoonist who lampooned President
and Mrs. Clinton as toothy and narrow-eyed Asians and Vice President
Al Gore as an alms-taker on a National Review cover this month,
stirring complaints of racism from Asian-American organizations.
think that's fine," said Genn. "Their job is to get ticked off at
cartoons and my job is to draw them. We're all doing our jobs.
cover, dubbed "The Manchurian Candidates," depicts a coolie-hatted
president obsequiously proffering a tray of coffee. The first lady
grins widely at his side as a doctrinaire Maoist. Gore stares
stolidly as dollars whirl into his beggar's cup.
The cartoon is a
send-up of the three administration principals involved in the
Clinton re-election campaign's zealous, now fabled scramble for
big-money donations among such groups as Buddhist temple goers and
Asian-American business solicitors. In the most sensational
allegation, the Clinton campaign was said to be the possible target
of Chinese government agents intent on buying high-ante influence in
"Extremely offensive and racist," Daphne Kwok,
executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans, said of
the cover. She complained that Asian-Americans sense that their
patriotism is being besmirched in simplistic renderings of the
Not everyone, of course, agrees. "Roman did a great job,"
said Pat Oliphant, a master caricaturist whose wit is razor-sharp
from four decades of skewering politicians. "We need it, God knows,"
he said of the drawing. "It's a wonderful fact that there is a
publication that will still run these politically incorrect things."
Not only did John O'Sullivan, editor of National Review, publish the
cartoon in color, he defended it mightily amid the controversy that
followed. He insisted the caricature was only fair in exaggerating
such features as the First Lady's own toothy smile and not, as
critics saw, the buck-toothed visage of an Oriental stereotype.
Above all, he denounced the complaints as orchestrated by "the
ethnic grievance industry," and, far from offering the apology
requested by Ms. Kwok, demanded one from her.
Philipon!" exulted Genn, referring to the 19th century journalist
who defended Daumier's graphic ridicule of the French authorities
when they locked up the great caricaturist for his opinions.
Oliphant feels that the "confrontational art" of political
cartooning needs a boost from provocative work like Genn's if it is
to survive the homogenizing pressures of American culture.
drowning in political correctness and somebody's got to kill it," he
said. "It's the ruination of my business," he added, citing
individual newspapers that withhold his more controversial work or
quickly apologize for it when the first complaint is lodged.
"Newspapers are really the only vehicle there is for political
cartooning and they won't speak up and provide a forum for the more
outspoken cartoonists," he said, complaining not so much for
himself, he said, as for the tartly gifted newcomers who are
rebuffed by publishers wary of giving offense.
But his sense that
political correctness has triumphed is debatable. After all, Genn's
cartoon is not the only rough-edged lampoon of an ethnic group. Last
week's New Republic cover, "Jude the Odd," uses an Islamic
prayer-rug as the setting for an American target, Jude Wanniski, the
Republican economic theorist.
And in a recent Wizard-of-Oz rendering
by Oliphant of Alan Greenspan, chief of the Federal Reserve, some
Jewish readers perceived an echo of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.
friend and colleague of Oliphant's, Dan Wasserman, cartoonist of The
Boston Globe, grants that editors can be timid, but insists that
clumsy stereotyping is no less a problem.
"Only a minority of
cartoonists agree with me, but I don't think this is about
sensitivity or political correctness," Wasserman said. "I think it's
about racism. Cartoonists ought to get at the essential, not the
accidental, and what's essential here is a fund-raising scandal in
the nation's capital. The fact that some of the figures happen to be
Asian -- that's number 20 on the list of important things.
he said, the main problem is not foreigners' contributions: "It's
that U.S. corporations are buying the government." And Wasserman,
like many caricaturists, is delighting in the rich possibilities of
the donation scandal. "It's something of a smokescreen here to call
up the Yellow Peril and not get to the heart of the matter. Why not
pick on these hot-shot Ivy League lawyers who can't read the
All three cartoonists agree that dollar-hungry
politicians have provided a fresh mother lode of material.
"Hypocrisy is good for cartoonists," said Wasserman. "And we're up
to our hips at least in hypocrisy."
Oliphant, whose laughter has a
merry edge of mayhem to it, thinks there is no way to be offensive
in the depiction of Clinton.
"He writes his own stuff like Nixon
did," the artist said gratefully. "Wonderful! The man's an
embarrassment of riches.
" Oliphant's inclination is to pick on
everyone and never apologize for what he does. "You have to get mad
in this business, work yourself up to a boil once a day," he said,
as if this precious work dynamic can only be dulled by trying to
keep in mind the multiple sensitivities of his variegated audience.
As a post-Soviet immigrant, Genn, who was once jailed overnight for
caricaturing a Kremlin politician, suspects the current complaints
come mainly from second-generation Americans who are concerned about
having a place in the Establishment.
"Clinton's the one who should
be offended," the cartoonist said with a certain air of
disappointment, as if maybe he had not gone quite far enough in
rendering his Manchurian candidates.
Copyright 1997 The New York
November 4, 1996 By Michael O'Sullivan Washington Post Staff Writer
Arts Beat Form Follows
Dysfunction In Georgetown, a Gallery of Politicians' Idiosyncrasies
I don't care a
straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don't know how to
read but they can't help seeing them damn pictures. - William Marcy
The literacy rate may have improved somewhat since the
19th century when New York's corrupt "Boss" Tweed inveighed against
his unflattering portrayal in the editorial cartoons of Thomas Nast,
but the state of political caricature has, if anything, gotten
nastier. That is to say, it's gotten better - if not for the modern
politicos who suffer ignominy under the poisoned pens of today's
artist, at least for the voters who have one reason to laugh at the
end of a long and excruciating presidential campaign. Recent work by
two of the best practitioners of the art of visual satire is on view
through Saturday at Georgetown's Susan Conway Gallery, where the
24-year-old, Moscow-born prodigy Roman Genn, who now works and lives
in Los Angeles, has joined forces with D.C.'s own Richard Thompson
(of The Post's late "Why Things Are" column) to create a bicoastal
bipartisan evisceration of American statesmanship. The exhibit
features two roomfuls of cartoon likenesses of Bill, Bob and H.
Ross, as well as many supporting players in the sordid drama that is
an election year: Hillary Clinton as St. Joan of Arc, a wooden Al
Gore and an ocher-haired Strom Thurmond. One word of warning:
Although Genn and Thompson are certainly equal-opportunity character
assassins, choosing victims from both sides of the aisle, the
exhibit features a preponderance of GOP targets.
A blushing Susan
Conway professes astonishment recently when informed of the nearly
2-to-1 ratio of Republicans to Democrats on her walls. " I can't
honestly say that I noticed that", Conway protested. "We just tried
to pick the best drawings." Thompson says he also was unaware of the
imbalance but attributes it to the Republican control of Congress
and the lopsided nature of the presidential race. "Hmmmm. Aren't
there just more of them?" he ventures. "I mean, let's see, you've
got Clinton and Gore, but on the other side there's Dole and
Gingrich and Buchanan and Forbes and Bill Bennett..." Although he
acknowledges that Dole's "dark and angular" visage can be more fun
to draw than Clinton's "funny, puffy face," Thompson is unconcerned
that a last-minute visit to the gallery will sway undecided voters.
"If anything it may convince them to emigrate," he says with a
laugh. "Political Caricature '96", at the Susan Conway Gallery, 1214
30th St. NW. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Los Angeles Times February 11, 1993
By RICK VANDERKNYFF
MUGS BY A MUSCOVITE. A RUSSIAN'S CARTOONS OF AMERICA'S NOTABLES AND NOTORIOUS ARE ON VIEW IN IRVINE
Two years ago, Roman Genn was hawking his comic renderings of Soviet
political figures on the streets of Moscow.
Today, his caricatures of such American faces as Bill Clinton,
George Bush and Magic Johnson regularly grace the letters-to-the-editor column
of the Los Angeles Times.
Genn's odyssey between those two points is a tale marked by both
video-age good luck and old-fashioned perseverance. Examples of his work,
starting with his days in the then-Soviet Union, are on display through Feb.
19 at Irvine Valley College in Irvine. In 1990, KCET-TV "Videolog" host Huell
Howser went to Moscow, met Genn on the street, and included a short segment
on the young caricaturist and his mother, Ludmilla, in a one-hour public television special.
Donald W. Pine, then editor of the Easy Reader in Hermosa Beach, saw the special,
contacted Genn, and began featuring his work alongside that of U.S. cartoonist
Matt Wuerker in a regular feature called "Cartoon Wars."
Meanwhile, back home, Genn's work was getting him into hot water
despite the advances of glasnost. He did manage to get a few pieces published
in the official press, but mostly the risk wasn't worth the effort: "Editors were yelling
at me when I brought things in," he recalled during a recent telephone interview,
"so I didn't try very hard."
In June, 1991, Genn and his mother emigrated to Los Angeles, with help from
a synagogue there and from Pine. After a month in this country, Genn again began
trying to sell his work and almost immediately The Times bought a piece, relating to the attempted coup in the U.S.S.R.
But after that, Genn said, "it took a long time to sell something else" -- eight months, in fact.
Still, he would visit The Times offices weekly. At one point Jeff Horn, an art instructor from Irvine Valley College who himself was visiting the newspaper, saw Genn's work there and asked about him.
"I was really taken with this caricature of Reagan," Horn remembers. "I didn't know the background at all. . . . My initial excitement was that the drawing was so good." When he met Genn and learned his story, he was even more impressed -- first, that Genn was doing successful political caricatures after such a short time in the United States, and second, by Genn's age (he is 20).
Horn decided to mount a show of Genn's work at the college, in the hallway gallery of the school's arts building. He felt "it would be a great lesson in perseverance and stick-to-itiveness for my students. He's their age. It's especially interesting that this lesson should come from a Russian."
When asked if it took a long time to understand the American political system,
Genn said, "I don't understand it, even now!" Actually, he is staying away from political cartoons as such, but in his caricatures, he has honed in quickly on personalities from U.S. public life.
Some prove more difficult than others. Vice President Al Gore is particularly tough for lack of any unusual physical features, Genn says. But he does have his favorites: "I like (failed senatorial candidate Bruce) Herschensohn, (former President Richard M.) Nixon. The scarier the person, the better for me."
Copyright 1993 The Times Mirror Company