Comic Strip of the Day: Toweling Off

For the love of God and Thomas Nast and Woodsy Owl, can we please, please stop with the paper towel cartoons?

Yes, Trump once disgraced himself and showed his lack of compassion by tossing out paper towels at a photo op in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

We all know that, and, in fact, a short time later, when he further disgraced himself by insulting the widow of a soldier killed in Niger, there were a couple of clever cartoons showing him tossing her a roll of paper towels as she wept on her husband’s coffin.


And just the other day, I highlighted this David Fitzsimmons cartoon, in which Trump clutches a roll of paper towels and takes a selfie with the dead body of the Hurricane Maria victims draped over his lap.

But that’s the point: Fitzsimmons used the paper towels as a touchstone, a relevant reminder, part of the overall picture he was painting of a self-centered narcissist with no sense of timing, no sense of dignity and no sense of caring for anyone but himself.

The paper towels will always stand for that.

What they won’t do is stand in the place of imaginative, penetrating commentary.

They can augment it.

They can’t replace it.


Don’t confuse this with a matter of coincidental thinking. Drew Sheneman is far from the only cartoonist who used talking headstones to counter Trump’s astonishing, cruel denial of the facts.

But the flurry of talking headstones sprang up within about 48 hours.

I have no patience with someone who chimes in three or four days later with a concept everyone else has already done, but that’s different: I’m contemptuous of their lack of professional curiosity about the industry beyond their own tiny corner.

I’ve often heard cartoonists say that, if the idea comes quickly to you, it’s probably coming to a whole lot of other cartoonists at the same time and you should discard it, but Sheneman added a delightful bit of dark, sarcastic humor by having his headstones involved in Trump’s preposterous conspiracy.

Which I would suggest is how you deal with “If I thought of it this quickly, surely others have thought of it, too.”

Your next sentence could be “I have to come up with something else”or it could be “What sort of twist would make my version stand out?”

Sheneman found the twist.

Here’s another element: There are certain things a public figure is going to drag along with him. A lot of cartoonists never let up on Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, and Trump’s inability to tie his tie so that it doesn’t hang down so low has become a permanent part of drawing him.

And, of course, Trump set himself up for the “small hands” thing by objecting when someone mentioned them.

That was a blunder that reminds me of “Lord of the Flies,” when Piggy announces that he doesn’t want to be called “Piggy,” a name none of the other boys would otherwise have known.

There’s actually a lot in “Lord of the Flies” that Donald Trump brings to mind, but I digress.


In 2006, South Africa’s former-deputy-president Jacob Zuma was charged with raping the adult daughter of an acquaintance. It turned into a he-said-she-said and he was acquitted, but along the way it emerged that she was HIV positive and Zuma had not used a condom.

In a nation plagued by AIDS, this was a disastrous example for a public figure to set, no matter how consensual the sex, but then Zuma doubled down on it by explaining that he showered afterward, a preventive measure so absurdly idiotic that it became as big a story as the encounter itself.

Jonathan Shapiro — South Africa’s legendary “Zapiro” — placed a showerhead on Zuma’s bald, creased head to ridicule the excuse, but then left it there as a permanent reminder of Zuma’s lack of overall awareness.


It was a hilarious touch for those who did not like Zuma, but, in South Africa, that tends to break down along racial lines as well as political ones, and this well-reasoned column in the Daily Maverick is mandatory reading on the topic of the place of ridicule in editorial cartooning.


Zapiro continued to feature the showerhead as Zuma, nearly a decade later and now head of state, fell under investigation for more kleptocracy than the nation was willing to accept.

But note that, while the showerhead is there, it’s completely secondary to Zapiro’s point, which is that the report on spending is about to brutally slice away the lies Zuma and his minions have been putting forward.

This is in contrast with Fitzsimmons’ cartoon above, where the paper towels are an actual element — though not the centerpiece — in the commentary on Trump’s self-centered indifference to both suffering and to the truth.

Zapiro has made the showerhead a permanent, expected part of his depiction, like Trump’s over-length tie, but far more sharply targeted.

If every South African cartoonist had added the showerhead, it would have been repetitive and imitative, not only adding nothing to their commentary but dulling the edge of Zapiro’s.

Similarly, for every American cartoonist to reflexively draw paper towels, even if they save them for hurricane season, makes the symbol ineffective and thus counterproductive.


Not every public relations blunder provides a straightline you can exploit indefinitely. David Levine’s classic LBJ cartoon was a one-off: True, the president had pulled up his shirt to show his surgical scar, but that’s not something you could put to use very often.

(Well, okay, Paul Conrad got a second use out of it when Humphrey ran for president.)


The closest we’ve come to a showerhead is when Pat Oliphant hung a purse on Bush senior’s arm, a personal response — albeit an ungracious, sexist one — to Bush’s unwillingness to rock the boat.

If one particular cartoonist had, from the moment the paper towels were tossed, adopted them as a permanent, branded icon, it would have worked like the showerhead and the purse.

But timing is everything. The moment has passed.


And they can’t be recycled, so do the right thing.



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