As memes have overtaken inking as the artistic outlet for the governmentally frustrated, the withering political cartoon is at an ebb in America. But New York cartoonist Eli Valley, less Garry Trudeau than Dank Meme Stash shitposter, leads a revival of pen-and-ink ribaldry.
Valley says he draws inspiration from the zaniness of Mad magazine, but I’d just as soon believe that he births his illustrations out of Ouija board orgies with Hieronymus Bosch. Like that fifteenth-century master of apocalyptic what-the-hell triptychs, Valley stuffs his images with dense grotesqueries. Every panel bursts with both his signature ink ribboning and his caustic wit, such that deciphering a whole cartoon can seem like an exercise in hermeneutics. Even so, Valley isn’t interested in doctrinal screeds. The targets of his pen are instead enforcers of orthodoxy, particularly the gatekeepers of Jewish identity.
Where other satirists might toe the line between sacrosanct and sacrilegious, Valley devours it whole. In 2014, he was released from his position as artist-in-residence at The Forward after lobbing a Molotov comic at the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman. Now that we live under a president who describes murderous neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” however, Valley’s confrontational style finds vindication. Within the past year, his work has appeared in The Nib and Current Affairs, while the cartoonist himself has offered commentary on MSNBC and sketching lessons at The New York Times. Having published his first collection, Diaspora Boy, a few months ago, he’s again working on a book: illustrations for a print project from left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House.
I caught up with him over saag paneer in the East Village. We talked Jewish authenticity, ethnonationalism, and the state of satire under President Cartoon Villain.
—Matthew Miles Goodrich for Guernica
Guernica: Diaspora Boy takes its name from a series of comics you wrote starring Israel Man, a virile superhero, and his sidekick Diaspora Boy, a sickened cretin. Can you explain the premise of the comic?
Eli Valley: It’s a satire of Zionist attitudes towards diaspora Jews since the inception of Zionist thought. Zionism imbibed a lot of anti-Semitic ideology and caricature, which took the form of the self-hatred and denigration of the diaspora. Some claim this all dissipated after a couple of decades once the state of Israel was normalized. But that’s just not true—look at statesmen and cultural Zionists to this day, and the hatred of diaspora Jews persists. It becomes more pronounced when directed at progressive Jews today, given the off-the-brink extremism of the Israeli government.
Diaspora Boy himself is the embodiment of that kind of caricature. Zionist ideologues have called this comic self-hating, which is just playing into the very caricature that I’m satirizing. It’s funny how they always take the bait. Diaspora Boy just portrays the viewpoint of those Zionists who think diaspora Jews are “doomed.”
Guernica: Is that doom related to the crisis in your book’s subtitle, “The Crisis in America and Israel”?
Eli Valley: The crisis has roots in the inception of Zionism, but it has been exacerbated by Israel’s choice of these extremist leaders over the past decade. The crisis was also crystallized with the advent of Trump, even though most of the book was written prior to the election. These comics all have new urgency given that we are now led by America’s Netanyahu. Trump may be more buffoonish, but his demonization of human rights and marginalized communities as well as his attacks on the foundations of civil society have all been tested first in places like Israel.
Guernica: I feel as though that crisis manifests in the White House, where we have Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, working alongside—until recently—Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon, who are pretty much neo-Nazis. Where does that dissonance come from?
Eli Valley: In the mentality of Kushner, as long as someone is pro-Israel, and especially a pro-expansionist Israel, then everything else about them is forgivable or even totally unproblematic. Bannon and Gorka can worship at the altar of anti-Semitic fascism, but as long as they also worship at the altar of Israeli fascism, then they’re copacetic.
One of the other objectives of my book is to reclaim Jewish authenticity, which has been defined by right-wing Zionist ideologues over the course of the past several decades. In the Jewish consensus view, Orthodoxy and Zionism are the highest aspirations of our community. That’s why the term “self-hatred” refers to hating your essence. In their view, your essence must be Orthodoxy or the belief that Israel is your homeland. [This view] even extends to our vernacular. The term for born again Jew, baal teshuva, means “master of return.” Though it has connotations of repentance as well, the idea is that you’re returning to your true, authentic self. Or take the word for diaspora Jews migrating to Israel: aliyah, which means ascent, going up to a higher plain. All of our educational apparatuses from birth through death revolve around that kind of Zionist identity parading as Jewish authenticity. That’s what I’m trying to invert.
The truth is, most American Jews are progressive and not particularly nationalistic. It’s a joke—it’s ludicrous!—that we’ve been accepting these notions of authenticity our entire lives.
Someone like Jared Kushner can excuse working with literal neo-Nazis because to him, he’s Orthodox and he’s Zionist, so he’s the embodiment of Jewish authenticity. But really, self-hatred isn’t about criticizing the occupation. Self-hatred is giving any kind of legitimacy to the Trump administration. Jared Kushner is the embodiment of self-hatred. He’s one of the most venal human beings alive today.
Guernica: I also see that dissonance in Richard Spencer. One of the things that scares me most about Spencer is his reversal of identity politics to create a powerful white sensibility. Recently, he said that white leftists will be the first to convert to white nationalism because ethnocentrism always wins at politics. Presumably, to him, racial makeup pulls stronger than any ideology, and so by framing our fight in terms of identity, the left flirts with tribal ethnonationalism.
Eli Valley: Richard Spencer has pointed to Israel as his model of an ethno-national state, which is horrifying. Unfortunately, Israel is giving him ammunition in that regard. It doesn’t help that Netanyahu is making alliances with the most horrific forces across the world, giving tacit or explicit support to the Hungarian government’s anti-Semitic, anti-refugee campaign. Within the Jewish world, this applies to issues of universalism and particularism. Often our views on Israel and Jewish nationalism are informed by our views prioritizing either the interests of only our community or of all of humanity.
Guernica: Not only is your book a series of searing political indictments, but it’s also a poignant narrative of your life. Since you’ve suggested these comics constitute, at least partially, a reclamation of identity, I want to hear about your self-definition against right-wing nationalism.
Eli Valley: Inserting my own narrative into the book was totally deliberate, a way of pointing out how Jewish culture is fluid and is owned by each of us. My childhood oscillated between religious observance at my dad’s and secularism at my mom’s, a dichotomy I found expression for via the satirical fervor of early MAD comics which I discovered as an adolescent. To me, that’s legitimate and authentic Judaism.
I take great cultural pride in MAD and, at risk of sounding ethnocentric, great Jewish pride in MAD, because it was created by Jewish children of immigrant New Yorkers. They had this cacophonous, Yiddish theater sensibility they put into their comics—literally, with Yiddish all over the place—and it was at time before Jews had achieved full acceptance in America. They were putting this funhouse mirror up to sacred icons of American culture, and it was risky! They even took on Santa Claus in a MAD spinoff called PANIC, which got the comic banned in Massachusetts. Their receptionist was arrested in New York. They were really pushing it.
My thinking when I started doing these comics was that Jews are now in the American mainstream, and yet you can be an outsider within the Jewish community because our leadership tends towards the right. The voices that are more lefty, particularly regarding Israel, are often ostracized and silenced. To use the frenetic, cacophonous MAD sensibility, but apply it inwards towards our own community, felt like that perfect match. From the start it was cathartic and invigorating to mash up these two spheres—Jewish politics and MAD comics.
Guernica: Speaking of the cacophony of the comics, do you ever feel like you’re competing with yourself to make the next one even more absurd?
Eli Valley: Whenever that does occur to me, I just put my pen down. I take a break from it. I don’t want to become a person who just provokes for the sake of it. I have a lot of comics that I have scripts for but have never drawn because they didn’t take the discourse in a new direction.
Guernica: I heard you were recently protesting at the summit of the Zionist Organization of America.
Eli Valley: Yeah, it was a protest of young Jews organized by If Not Now. We were saying that ZOA is not Judaism and can’t claim to represent the Jewish people, and also saying, “You’re in bed with fucking Nazis and we’re gonna do everything within our power to throw Nazism out of the communal tent.” I believe in large tents, but when you start inviting in Nazis under the guise of protecting Israel’s extremism, then you’ve gone off the brink and your citizenship with the Jewish people should be revoked. I have no problem with saying that Mort Klein, the head of ZOA, should be excommunicated. And also Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who gave the blessing at Trump’s inauguration. If you go on the stage blessing this bigoted demagogue, you’re no longer Jewish. It’s horrifying to me that celebrities who want to help civil rights in the wake of Donald Trump elevate the Wiesenthal Center, when it’s like, “Hold up man, they helped normalize this shit. Don’t give a dime to them.”
Guernica: How do you beat the cartoonishness of a world in which a rabbi gives Trump his presidential benediction?
Eli Valley: It’s hard. Satire is no longer ahead of reality. It’s actually behind reality. Satire used to be a hyperbole of our current existence, but current existence has turned rapidly dystopian. And since satire is intertwined with dystopia, then reality is satire! It’s difficult to be a satirist when the joke is just…literal. If satire can match this horror show of reality, it might not be laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s more chilling. I think it’s the job of satire now to not be hyperbolic, but to let the horror speak for itself. Leave the readers aghast, because the subtext is that this is real life.
Guernica: It’s astonishing how many scenarios in your comics have become real.
Eli Valley: I used to use swastikas sparingly because they’re so extreme. But the election, I think, repealed Godwin’s Law. When you have David Duke and leaders of American Nazism celebrating Trump, and when you have Trump choosing the leader of the alt-right for White House counsel, swastikas aren’t satire. They’re mandatory. At least for me. I depicted Kushner as a Nazi deliberately in order to cut close to home, because I think it’s horrifying that any synagogue would allow him into its doors.
I joke that antifa, excommunication, and comics are our most severe means for letting these motherfuckers know that they have no place in our community once they’ve sided with Nazis.