Meet the Margaret Keane of Political Cartooning

The cartoonist who fills political news with terrifying faces.

If you've spent any time in the progressive corners of the Internet, you've seen the images. You've probably done double-takes at pictures of politicians–mostly conservatives–twisted to look ... different. Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise, grimacing behind his five o’clock shadow. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, jug-eared and sweaty as he chugs a water bottle. The caricatures pop up in ads, as article illustrations, on magazine covers, as dispatches from an alternate universe of giant heads and grotesque facial features.

These have been the work of DonkeyHotey, a photo illustrator who churns out images for Flickr depending on whatever's happened in the news. By his count, he's been published more than 1,700 times, by many nameless web editors who decided that a Creative Commons-licensed caricature would pop more than yet another Getty Image. (DonkeyHotey refuses to reveal a name or gender; I'm using the male pronoun for simplicity.) 

Why DonkeyHotey, a play on Don Quixote? "The Donkey represents me as a liberal," he explains. "I enjoyed the book and I was able to get the domain name."

And there you go. DonkeyHotey is happy to explain a craft that millions of people have seen when clicking through the Guardian or Buzzfeed or Daily Kos or Mother Jones or Truthdig or Esquire. In December, he told Life of the Law about his work and ambitions ("I have a fantasy where some eatery in Washington D.C. near the Capitol will decide to decorate their walls with my work"), and on his personal site he puts his work in the time stream with Thomas Nast.

"This country is ill served by major news-entertainment media. We are distracted by fantasy outrages, petty social differences and celebrity trivia," DonkeyHotey writes. "The corporations and billionaires of our world learned from the Robber Barons that you need to make the activities of graft and corruption legal or unenforceable to avoid consequences."

Nast used pen and ink; DonkeyHotey takes public images and alters them into parody or horror.  "I am remixing images, manipulating them and then treating the entire piece as a whole," he says. "So, most work will be a combination of existing images and my own work. I use my own photos for backgrounds, bodies and other elements when possible. I credit and link to my sources in the descriptions on Flickr. I look for appropriately licensed work, either Creative Commons or public domain, on Flickr, Wikimedia, and U.S. Government websites. In rare cases where I can't find an image to manipulate I will create the image from scratch. I have some forms I set up that help me search for images. Google image search is big help."

One example: A cartoon of Tom Brokaw, based on a free image, then manipulated for six hours.

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One example of how DonkeyHotey can crank it out: A cartoon of Jeb Bush elbowing past Mitt Romney, which required the artist only to grab some old photo elements (real-life human elements from a "personal library of photos") and create a new real-life pose.

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Subtlety is not in the DonkeyHotey paintbox. As Herblock used to annotate every single parodic element of his cartoons, DonkeyHotey relies on literalism and clear references to famous gaffes, or errors, or triumphs. (Usually gaffes.) "I enjoy the work of contemporary cartoonists including Matt Wuerker, Mark Fiore and the late Jeff MacNelly among others," says the artist. "As a child I enjoyed the illustrations of Dr. Seuss and John Tenniel. Tenniel created those iconic images in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland."

I asked DonkeyHotey to walk me through a few of the pieces he was proud of, and explain what he was trying to convey with the exaggerated, caption-free expression.

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Here, Antonin Scalia is thinking that "it's great being right all the time."

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Between tears, booze, and tobacco, Speaker of the House John Boehner thinks to himself: "This has become the worst job in the world."

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Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in a panic, thinking "I thought they knew what they are doing."

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