The long march of the 2016 presidential election brought with it a bevy of bizarre surprises, among them the unexpectedly prominent role that four cartoonists — none of them of the traditional “editorial cartoonist” ilk — would end up playing in online political chatter. “The line between the professional political-cartooning class and everybody else is beginning to blur,” says comics theorist Scott McCloud. In his estimation, much-memed figures like Pepe the Frog and the “this is fine” dog — which have risen to unlikely notoriety in venues as varied as the official GOP Twitter account and the Anti-Defamation League’s index of hate symbols — caught on precisely because the original works are open to interpretation, modification, and appropriation in a way that classic political cartoons aren’t: “A traditional political cartoon is a finished political idea,” Adams says. “But what we’re talking about here is political discourse that’s picked up cartoons along the way.”
The quartet of cartoonists are Pepe progenitor Matt Furie; K.C. Green, the artist behind the aforementioned dog; Kris Straub, who made a much-shared strip about Black Lives Matter; and, bizarrely enough, Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who has emerged as an astoundingly vehement Trump backer. Their prominence in 2016 likely has to do with artist and critic Art Spiegelman’s theory about the power of cartoons: that their relative simplicity cuts past our defenses and evokes a visceral response. After all, this is an election that is, more than any in recent memory, about gut feelings like disgust, mistrust, and fury.
But comics journalist and historian Tom Spurgeon says we shouldn’t just attribute these images’ success to the random whims of meme-dom: “Cartoonists like Furie, Green, and Straub are the future kings of entertainment media. They are smart, funny and weird,” he says. “As for Adams, well, I’ve never been able to explain Scott Adams.” Here’s a look at what went down with all four figures and their work.
Pepe the Frog
Who it is: Matt Furie’s Pepe the Frog debuted in 2005 in the self-published online comic Boy’s Club, which followed a quartet of animal stoners. Users of the anarchic message board 4chan embraced the character around 2008 for reasons unknown.
What happened this year: Trump enthusiasts and the self-described “alt-right” adopted Pepe as a subversive online mascot, and his image became so associated with digital bigotry that the Anti-Defamation League added Pepe to its list of hate symbols, in September.
What’s next: Creator Matt Furie was initially blasé about pro-Pepe Trumpism, but after the ADL condemned his creation, he joined the organization in a campaign to combat appropriation of the morally compromised amphibian. Additionally, he drew a horrifying new comic in which Pepe has a nightmare about his face transforming into Trump’s.
The “This Is Fine” Dog
Who it is: From 2008 to 2014, K.C. Green published a popular and semi-absurdist online comic called Gunshow. A 2013 entry depicted a dog sitting placidly in a flame-engulfed room declaring, “This is fine” and “I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently” before being melted by the heat. On sites like Reddit and Tumblr, users posted it as a simple way to comment on disastrous situations.
What happened this year: “This is fine” gained traction on Twitter this year as a way for political commentators to describe the ongoing nightmare of the presidential campaign, and the image was thrust to the forefront during the DNC, when the official GOP Twitter account posted the first two panels to mock the Democrats.
What’s next: Green was furious at the GOP’s usage and published a variation on the strip showing an elephant in the flames. The next week, he made a new, nonpartisan version of the original strip. This time, the dog quickly realizes the situation is not fine and screams, “OH MY GOD JESUS FUCK” before extinguishing the fire.
“All Houses Matter”
Who it is: In 2014, Seattle-based cartoonist Kris Straub published an installment of his online comic chainsawsuit entitled “all things considered.” The three-panel strip was a commentary on “all lives matter,” a slogan used by critics of Black Lives Matter who felt that the rising movement was overly divisive. Straub’s comic featured a smug individual spraying a fire hose on a peaceful house situated next to one on fire and saying, “all houses matter.”
What happened this year: The strip became a common online response to “all lives matter” arguments, but criticism of the comic prompted Straub to update it in July. The expanded version had nine panels, wherein the other figure calmly tore down counterarguments that had been deployed by those who disliked the original. In the final panel it’s revealed that the resident of the burning house has died in the fire.
What’s next: Though Straub tweets the occasional bit of political commentary, chainsawsuit has always been nonideological, for the most part, and that continues to be the case.
The Vitriolic Voice Behind Dilbert
Who is it: Scott Adams is the creator of the popular cubicle-centric cartoon Dilbert, and he’s long been a conservative, though that was a little-known fact for much of the strip’s existence. There were, however, canaries in the coal mine: In 1997, writer Norman Solomon published a book-length critique of Adams’s anti-liberal viewpoint entitled The Trouble With Dilbert, but the cartoonist’s views were far from the public eye prior to this election cycle.
What happened this year: Adams drew increased attention, and ire, for his vigorous online defenses of Donald Trump — whom he’s called “magnificent,” “pitch-perfect,” and a “genius” — and for claiming that a Clinton victory would mean “[e]verything that goes wrong with the country from this point forward is women’s fault.”
What’s next: In the wake of the recent wave of sexual-assault allegations against Trump, Adams has chosen to endorse Gary Johnson. He seems unconcerned about what impact his views may have on his audience: When someone tweeted at him that his views on women may halve his support base, Adams replied, “5% of my followers are female. So no.”