Steve Brodner: Living and Dying in America

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday September 21, 2022

Steve Brodner, the inimitable social satirist who regularly shoots truth at power through his biting caricatures, original reporting and trenchant commentary, has just published a new book: Living and Dying in America, a Daily Chronicle 2020-2022 (Fantagraphics). Through his six-decade career, his work has appeared in such publications as The AtlanticEsquire, GQ, Mother JonesThe New York TimesThe New YorkerNewsweek, Playboy and Rolling Stone; and he is a regular contributor to The Los Angeles TimesThe Washington PostHollywood ReporterThe NationColumbia Journalism Review and Harper’s among others. 

Since graduating from Cooper Union in New York City in 1976, Brodner has embedded himself within the canon and tradition of American graphic commentators, while also seeking to expand the boundaries of the form. He was recognized for this with the 31st Masters Series Award from SVA, in 2019, where he continues as a member of the faculty. 

Here at DART, Steve holds the honor of being my first interview, back in 2008, when the new magazine was exactly that—print on paper. So it gives me great pleasure to share this email conversation. You can also read previous reports here.

Peggy Roalf: When did it become evident to you that you were cut out for a life behind the lines of political and social criticism?

Steve Brodner: This s hard to say. My first caricatures were of President Kennedy in 1963. Then I went onto Johnson and Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay. It all just came out of me naturally, at a time when I was also drawing Bugs Bunny and the Flintstones. I don't understand how it happened but it was there for me at a time when I needed art to get me through life’s challenges. And it is always been there, going on 60 years!

PR: Who were your early heroes in the crossfire of political satire? 

SB: I grew up seeing Herblock every day in the New York Post. Then the more I learned about the history of satire, I began spending a lot of my time admiring and understanding Thomas Nast, Gillray, Daumier. And then many others.

 PR: Were you always an inker or did the pencil come first?

SB: Caricature was always linked to commentary via political cartoon. I began doing this when I was 14 years old. I would do a cartoon every day based on something that was happening in the news. I wouldn't show these to anybody but kept them in a little book. After a while I brought them to a local Brooklyn newspaper where they began to publish them. At first these drawings were in pencil on printer paper. Then I got a hold of a bottle of ink and some nibs and started to experiment. None of this was any good, of course. But everybody in my world thought this was amazing. One way or another I just kept keeping on, doing another one every day. Exactly as I am doing right now!


PR: Everybody—you included—got lucky with Trump. Who are your most intriguing subjects today. Please tell the readers a bit about how looks and actions combine to make the perfect visually combustible combo?

SB: Peggy, with all respect, I don't think anyone has ever gotten lucky with Trump. Trump is a grotesque manifestation of 400 years of racism, greed and sadism in the United States. I know why you probably say that: because Trump is such a walking circus. But all of politics is like that if you know how to see it. My daily project, The Greater Quiet, which can be seen and subscribed to for free every day at, will show that each day I find a different challenge and go beyond Trump. 

It's hard to describe the alchemy that takes place when deciding on how to draw someone. You first get a sense of their story, who they are, what they are doing, and what they intend to do. These are things that you must consider. Some are idiots, some are evil bastards, some are puppets. Many are an amalgamation of all of the above. You have to go with your gut!

PR: Did you formally study psychology—or was it a matter of osmosis while being there?

SB: Anyone who people watches is a student of psychology. Caricaturists are particularly attentive to how human behavior and state of mind can be reflected in one's comportment. This is what writers do. We are, in essence, writers.


PR: How hard is it to cut through the noise that envelops important and often dangerous situations in order to find the true metaphor that will make a successful drawing?  Here I’m thinking of the immigrants who were flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last week, with the Texas governor tweeting that he had no involvement in the matter.

SB: Cutting through the noise is exactly what this project is about. Find one story every day and try to crystallize it in a face. This can either be a victim or somebody like these sadistic governors who are enjoying becoming popular with online trolls at the expense of life and health and dignity of innocent people. They can rot in hell. Hey, let's draw that! You see, you gave me a great visual!

PR: Who are your three all-time favorite subjects—and why?

SB: My best subjects are the ones who are currently in power. They give me the developing story to improve upon and learn more about. This process is about learning and growing as an artist and communicator. In the beginning there was Nixon. Nixon was the face that sunk 1000 ships.

PR: I’m always amazed by the feeling of motion that you get in your drawings. Have you ever been tempted to animate them?

SB: I don't think animations are necessary to convey emotion. Although, they are great fun. Some people feel that that is an improvement on an illustration. I don't agree with that. People will want to see a drawing do all those wonderful things, if possible. I want to finish a drawing and go onto the next one. But I have worked with some wonderful filmmakers. Particularly my colleague Richard Borge who worked with me on the Alec Baldwin Show. See enclosed clip. Richard is a master of Aftereffects, as well as so many other things. Brilliant.

PR: You must generally spend a lot of time alone with the media blaring into your studio every which way. How was the pandemic lockdown so different—apart maybe from not teaching in person. Please tell readers a bit about how your regular practice accommodated the work that became the new book.

SB: I have an extravagant media diet. The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, NPR, BBC, Pro Publica, Democracy Now, CNN, The Nation, the New Yorker, New York Review of Books; I subscribe to all these things and more. The more you know the more likely you will get ideas. Yes, I am a junkie. And have been since the age of 13 and there is no cure. I am hopeless. 

The pandemic began in March 2020 and that's when I began this project. I would see obituaries of those lost in the Pandemic, and would eventually begin to draw the faces and tell the stories. This went out over social media and soon, into the popular press. The Washington Post and the American Prospect carried these stories and drawings. Soon after that The Nation decided to carry this this as a weekly column. Then I began the dailies for my Substack subscribers. It kind of happened by itself. I just wanted to say things that were meaningful to me. With social media this is something we can all do. I urge everyone to write a poem, a tune, a short story, draw something. Tell the truth every day. It's good for Everyone.

PR: What advice would you give a young artist bent on finding a place in this world of ammonia and diatribe?

SB: Take out a piece of paper and look at your subject and look at yourself and tell the truth every single day.