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Talking With Eli Valley About Art in the Hell Times

Today in 'What Now': we chat with the most merciless satirist of our era.

Eli Valley

Hi-diddly-ho bloggorinos! Rafi here, with this week’s WHAT NOW? and what a week it is. It’s a sweltering 40 degrees in Minnesota today — shorts and t-shirt weather, really — and I’m already picturing myself sipping brightly colored drinks from a hollowed-out coconut, with at least four or five tiny umbrellas tossed on top for good measure. For now, though, I’ll find my satisfaction how much you’re sure to enjoy this week’s interview with artist and cartoonist Eli Valley. You’re gonna love it, I promise.

I’ve had the pleasure of being friends with Eli for years, having watched him go from a chronicler of Jewish communal dysfunction as artist-in-residence for The Forward to one of the most insightful, mercilessly accurate satirists of the Trump era and beyond. So when it was my turn to take the helm of this newsletter, I leaped at the excuse to give him a call. We were able to cover all sorts of great stuff, like Japanese manga, Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy (1999) and the sincere challenges of creating art in the Biden era. Check out Eli’s Patreon and Twitter account for more.

Here’s a sneak peek of the interview with Eli. Our Steward tier members are the only ones who get the full edition of What Now sent to them. To read the whole interview, subscribe to our Steward tier. You’ll get the latest edition of What Now in your inbox about an hour after signing up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Rafi: I don’t remember who it was who said it — It might have been Amanda Palmer? [note: it was!]— But someone was like ‘People are going to make great art in the Trump years” And it’s like a total indulgent, jerk-off statement. But I feel like you have made great art in the Trump years! How do you see the sort of inspiration that it provided as compared to the work that you’ve done before and the work that you’re doing now that the Trump years are over?

Eli: Prior to the Trump years, I was doing very Jewish communal, Israel-oriented comics and I actually was hoping to move beyond political work and do more, you know, fictional or memoir-ish type of graphic comic art. And then Trump just upended everything. I guess one could argue that he was such a cartoon villain that it’s actually not difficult to be outraged and to make outrage art. But on the other hand, like when you look at a lot of the outrage, especially — and not to be generationally cruel — but the boomer type of shit, I’m sure you’ve seen it. Well, I mean, the obvious stuff is like, you know, homophobic stuff with Putin. You know, that stuff is really, really crappy. But it actually disturbs me because boomers seem to love that stuff. It’s just very disappointing about what people like. So so people are outraged. And so you can make awful art out of outrage, it turns out.

Rafi: We’re 30 days into the Biden administration and everyone’s eager to say ‘wow, things are going back to normal, blah, blah, blah…” Do you feel it’s more of a challenge to unearth those obvious grotesqueries now? 

Eli: I think the challenge with Biden is that there is nuance. He’s done some things which have rolled back some of the horrors of Trump. He has done some things which are incrementally positive, we can say. So when people are online saying ‘there’s no difference between them” or “Biden is just as bad or worse.” I just think that it’s just a fucking performance on the part of people who are saying this. So the challenge can be: I don’t want to just look for things to shit on, to be like, “ha ha.” But also political art is not something to wield as applause, you know? Increasing the minimum wage — even that is fucked up because in a wait five years to do it now is probably to pull it out of the relief package — But I mean, I’m not going to draw celebratory comics, and I still have serious issues with Biden overall. But certain things, like adopting certain elements of the Green New Deal. I’m not complaining about that, you know? So that obviously, again, it’s incremental and it’s partial, and he might take several steps back in the near future.

Rafi: How would you compare the vitriol of people who criticize you over your critiques of Biden, as opposed to your critiques of conservative figures?

Eli: Well, I got it from two directions when it comes to Biden: One of them is, as I mentioned, the..what’s the word?… you know, more “righteous than thou” left, that segment of the left that is pure. But the other one is the centrists. And I find a centrists actually to be a bit more irritating, because they imply that I’m pro Trump. It’s like, where the fuck have you been the past five years? So when they act like you can’t criticize Biden because the alternative is Trump — even in February after he’s been inaugurated. It’s frustrating. I don’t consider it to be in good faith. I mean, they would argue that my comics are not in good faith, so we’re even. 

Read the full interview with Eli Valley in today’s What Now. Subscribe to our Steward tier to get it in your inbox.