Monsters thrive in the messy swamps of pop culture. They live in the fertile space where classic literary narratives and traditional aesthetic norms are blown apart by visual strategies born at the crossroads between political turmoil and contemporary taste. The particularly adversarial climate of the current American Presidential election campaign proves that monsters are nourished by culture’s incessant need for new imagery.
In an example from a couple of weeks ago, game designer Mike Selinker worked with several illustrators to produce an adaptation of the well known ABC book The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. The original 1963 illustrated book is an assembly of macabre pictures about children meeting their unfortunate ends through such creative mishaps as being “sucked dry by a leech” or being “devoured by mice”.
In 26 different images the 2016 persiflage transposes the visual language of the original source directly onto a set of new images. While most of the illustrations in the amusing A-Z feature distorted drawings of Trump, it is the last picture that eventually sees him morph into a tentacled, bog-eyed and bewigged creature, wafting over a dystopian landscape and ushering the little girl Zeitgeist over a cliff. The Trump ABC is a reinterpretation directly addressing a range of policy issues that the illustrators see as marking out the Conservative candidate as unsuitable for the office of Commander in Chief. In doing so it relies heavily on the retention of the original alphabet structure and uses textual elements to deliver its criticism.
This first example shows the ways in which satire allow us to make sense of current issues through already familiar visual contexts. While stealing from or ‘being inspired’ by other art work is one of the most common ways for artists to find authentic expression for their own ideas, most monsterisation processes are a lot more complex than this. Often when a new monster is born, it dodges attempts to be assigned a conclusive meaning. This is not only because it draws its fangs and slimy limbs from a variety of visual sources, it also relies on the violent deformation of forms and contexts. Monsters leech off images that are freely circulating in popular culture. In their bellies they churn around these ideas and regurgitate them into new, puzzling and scary shapes.
When monsters fuse the remnants of several texts and images onto their bodies, it is not only incredibly difficult to make out the exact sources that have served as inspiration; exactly what they are saying, alluding to and achieving also becomes much more ambiguous.
In October a Big Issue magazine featured a cover illustration of Donald Trump in jarring colours reminiscent of the iconic ‘Uncle Sam’ image in which a man points at the onlooker. Big Issue, for those not familiar with the British publishing landscape, is a magazine set up as a social enterprise and which has been around since 1991. It prides itself on producing high-quality journalism and is published on behalf of homeless and vulnerably housed people who are able to support themselves through working as street vendors. The magazine covers are usually laid out in striking colours, sometimes featuring celebrities or allusions to current affairs. The picture on that particular issue is special because it is not merely an amusing picture of a person of current interest, but because Trump has been turned into a zombie-like creature. (EDIT: As critic Andrew Haydon has just pointed out to me, the aesthetics of the figure are directly informed by the John Carpenter alien invasion B-Movie They Live which was made in response to Reaganomics. In the film a special pair of sunglasses allows the wearer to detect the weaknesses of the American democratic system as personified in the fleshless aliens. Below I hint at the various visual and pop culture influences that have come together in this figure.)
The origin of Uncle Sam as the personification for the United States is apocryphal but likely dates back to at least 1812 when America was, still, or yet again, at war with Britain. It took about a hundred years, until 1916 for the image we know now to solidify into its iconic state. The illustration by artist James Montgomery Flagg appeared first in the magazine Leslie’s Weekly under the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” and later, in the Second World War, served as a military enrolment poster. The creature with its exposed jaw and teeth also has distinctly zombie-like features. The idea of Uncle Sam as a zombie is not new: in 1996 — a time in which the States were involved in numerous military operations all over the globe — a horror military comedy lured punters into the cinema with the catchy tagline “Uncle Sam wants you… dead!” Now, this unspecific personification of America’s national pride has been swapped for an actual politician.
This Trump Monster both invokes the uncertainty about America’s future and plays to the popular conceit of a dystopian apocalypse. The flesh is taken off its face, revealing the sinews underneath which are made up of the colours of the American flag. The ‘rotten core’ forms a visual antithesis to Obama’s iconic 2008 election poster in which the colours of the flag are unambiguous and blocky, an image surface on which ‘Hope’ is quite literally projected. Instead, the projection of fear reflects back at us a jarring zombie-esque face, and instead of “Hope” an ironic “Nothing to fear” in a B-Movie alien flick font is splattered across as an ominous warning. The Trump Alien erupts from the complex paradoxes that underlie American history exactly in that moment when the patriotic idea at the core of Uncle Sam is twisted into senseless oblivion by a demagogue.
Another example draws heavily from European cultural history. Greek mythology in particular with its unreasonable deities and suffering demi-gods has been a rich source for artist reworkings throughout the millennia. Cursed by the goddess Athena for ‘laying with’ Poseidon in a sacred temple, the snake-headed female Medusa has become a popular choice especially when attacking women in power.
Vanity Fair’s illustration by Edward Sorel which depicts Trump as the ancient Gorgon beast appears a strange choice for a refiguration of Trump as monstrous. According to some interpretations of Ovid’s take on the story, Medusa was cursed by Athena after being raped by Poseidon. It introduces a strange irony into the picture to cast a man accused of and bragging about sexual assault in the role of a vilified woman. There is after all a history of female artists of reclaiming monstrous females, such as Medusa, to probe into female relationships (Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote a poem about her mother which alludes to the myth).
The article accompanying the picture discusses the convoluted tax issues around Trump’s business empire. Therefore the central themes of the underlying myth have been completely emptied out and have little bearing on this new monster. Instead, an amusing jibe about Trump’s unruly hair is fused with the symbolic character of the serpent standing in for regeneration. This aspect is perhaps more prominent in the myth of the many-headed snake creature Hydra which regrows a new snake head if one has been hacked off.
More intriguing in context with the same mythical background is this street poster which depicts Democratic nominee Clinton as a female Perseus slaying the Medusa. While the askew Medusa/Trump parallel is still present, the focus of the image is on Clinton dressed as the American comic book super hero Wonder Woman.
In the original myth the alliance between the cursing goddess Athena and the conquering hero Perseus stands opposite the perpetrator Medusa. The two women, according to art historian Marina Warner, act out the conflict between a woman being able to demonstrate and side with masculine strength and female fertility and victimhood (in the moment of death Medusa bears the fantastic beast Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus). In the act of violence committed by the new Clinton-Perseus lingers the rejection of traditional binary gender circumscriptions that govern how are females in power are supposed to act.
The picture also alludes to the misogynistic attack that Trump has repeatedly launched at Clinton. On top of the figure the word ‘nasty’ is printed in a celebratory gesture of reclaiming a word that was meant as an insult. The way figure and font are positioned in relation to one another echoes pop artist Beyoncé’s reclaiming of the word ‘feminist’ in one of her performances. Only in taking on the role as the Medusa slayer and exerting violence, the proto-masculin hero turns into an empowered female. For those who want to know more about the Medusa, Elizabeth Johnston has written a great article for The Atlanticexamining how throughout history powerful women have been vilified through portraying them as the gorgon.
To finish off this menagerie of political monsters, I would like to share one of my favourite Trump monsterisations. It comes from a blog on tumblr that regularly posts stomach-churning photo manipulations using a different, uglifying strategy.
Instead of overlaying countless intertextual references the artist reduces the facial features of Trump to only a few aspects (hair, chin, mouth) and distorts any human familiarity. It’s a literal defacement of the politician the artist would like to get rid of. This deformation transfixes the perceived human failure of the candidate on moral, ethical and behavioural levels onto the visual body of the new monster.
When new creatures come to life, an awareness for the visual strategies involved in their generation is vital in order to pin down the heavily politicised ideologies behind them. The kinds of monsters we encounter in popular culture are part of the currency of creatively facing contemporary challenges.