In Chris Chuckry’s home art studio, hidden behind a one-car garage, there is a glass door that opens onto a deck with an enviable view of the Red River. It’s as serene as a workplace can be, but the artist — who for 30 years has worked as a comic-book colourist — is not entirely at peace.
He can’t be. How could anyone be? In these times? In this place? When the world seems every day to be falling apart, the fault lines of yesterday’s earthquakes still deepening as new tremors shift the ground under our feet. Even an idyllic view of the river cannot distract from the neverending story of the pandemic in Manitoba.
Over the past year Chuckry has spent much of the time in his workspace — surrounded by towers of CDs, shelves lined with art books and comic-book memorabilia, kept bright by the sun peeking through the skylight — embroiled in the news of the day in the province, reading the newspaper and websites, watching news briefings, and scrolling through local political Twitter, figuring out who said what, who screwed up badly, and who screwed up worse before squeezing all of that into a single, daily political cartoon.
"I was looking for a new daily art practice," he says, taking a well-deserved break from the news cycle, which sounds like the worst machine at the gym. "And let’s just say I was frustrated with how the pandemic was being handled."
It started last fall, when, after what was in retrospect a lucky, relatively quiet period of the pandemic — case numbers were below 100, COVID-19-related fatalities were extremely low — Chuckry could no longer go quietly about his business. The second wave, a tsunami compared to the first, was coming ashore, and the comic-book colourist was like the Marvel Comics’ mild-mannered Bruce Banner, turning green with anger.
“I was looking for a new daily art practice, and let’s just say I was frustrated with how the pandemic was being handled.” ‐ Chris Chuckry
Premier Brian Pallister wiped his nose with his face mask during a news briefing. The provincial government called for volunteers to assist at health-care facilities, which critics including Chuckry felt was lingering evidence that health-care cuts made prior to the pandemic were short-sighted. Intensive care units were preparing to be filled. Children, including Chuckry’s, were in school.
Chuckry went to the drawing table and got set to sketch out Pallister, looking for a way to sum up his feelings. He drew the premier, who many felt dragged his feet on implementing restrictions to curb the coming deluge, as he watched the press briefing that day, making the artistic choice to cover the premier’s eyes with a red blindfold bedecked in dollar signs.
"Meanwhile in Manitoba," Chuckry wrote on Twitter, posting a photo for the first time in 18 months, "the premier and his cabinet are leading the way through the pandemic — penny-wise and pound-foolish."
Thus began a new tradition — a daily skewering of the powerful — Chuckry has kept for more than 10 months. His wrist is less tired than his brain from trying to make sense of it all, though the wear and tear is minimal, he insists, in comparison to health-care workers, front-line workers, small business owners, teachers and essential workers of all stripes. He draws to give life to their ire, his art a form of immersion therapy and a separate practice from his comics work, which pays the bills and offers escapism, though the two worlds — real and imagined — tend to merge frequently.
Raised in Arborg, Fairford and on a family farm near Rembrandt, Chuckry’s career began as all comics careers seem to do: with a stack of the pulpy books arriving with a thud beneath innocent eyes.
It was the 1970s, and a five- or six-year-old Chuckry had gotten his tonsils removed, his father bringing some issues of the Fantastic Four, Haunted Tank and Sgt. Rock to entertain him while he recovered. The young boy was hooked, headed to the drugstore, buying whatever was on the spinner rack that he could afford.
Later, when he had graduated high school and university, he reconnected with a Winnipeg cousin named Lovern Kindzierski, an early comic influence who was by the 1980s working as a colourist and artist for companies such as D.C., while working with local artist George Freeman, who’d worked on the Captain Canuck series.
With Kindzierski quickly amassing work, Chuckry was brought in as an assistant to put more hands on deck. Back then, the work was all done by hand, not computer.
By the early 1990s, the duo and their collaborators were extremely busy, with their first gig colouring issues of L.E.G.I.O.N. ‘89. They went to the San Diego Comic Convention to network under their new company name, Digital Chameleon. They were approached by Dave Olbrich, who in 1986 launched Malibu Comics. Olbrich told the Manitoban visitors he’d send over some secret art for them to colour.
The art arrived, and it was drawn by Rob Liefeld, known as the co-creator of the characters Cable and Deadpool. That package, Chuckry said, was the first piece of art for Image Comics, soon to be one of the most influential comic publishers in the world.
For nearly 30 years since, Chuckry has coloured thousands of pages, with characters lately veering into the political realm, including a cover of Spider-Man featuring the hero alongside Barack Obama after the 43rd American president’s first inauguration and a series in which the playful villain Loki runs to be commander-in-chief. He also coloured Billionaire Island, a well-timed skewering of capitalism released on the cusp of the pandemic.
"The style that he has come up with for these political cartoons is a variation on a lot of his earlier work," Kindzierski says. "I’m thinking of his illustrations of movie monsters and some of his free-association sketches. Of course he has to stick to reality with the portrayals of the politicians because we have to be able to recognize them, but the signatures of his style are still there."
If it seems comic books are only recently becoming political, that isn’t the case, says Candida Rifkind, a comics scholar at the University of Winnipeg. Editorial cartooning has been traced back to 16th-century woodcutting and 18th-century broadsides, and later, in satirical magazines and lampoons. Comic-book history is grounded in real-life political drama.
"Comics have always been political," she says. "Even when we don’t think they are."
Nearly every political ideology has used comics to their advantage and to the disadvantage of others, Rifkind says, and it’s not isolated to the left or the right: comics are a powerful political tool because they "speak powerfully and very quickly," she says, working as "shorthand for larger ideologies."
In Chuckry’s case, the ideology is a pointed critique of the powerful class, which in Manitoba is currently typified by the cast of characters making up the Progressive Conservative party. He doesn’t hide his bias.
There’s Finance Minister Scott Fielding, who Chuckry draws with shaving cuts all over his face. There’s MLA James Teitsma — who on several occasions has drawn ire for errors in judgment, including leaving the province on a holiday road trip during code red — drawn stepping in piles of feces. Others make appearances, but Chuckry’s bête noir has been Pallister, whom he’s depicted in vacation mode, with a long, sausage-esque Pinocchio nose, and frequently wearing a dollar-sign blindfold.
Politicians have engaged with his work: NDP leader Wab Kinew stood for a picture next to several Chuckry originals at a March rally for IBEW Local 2034. MLA Eileen Clarke followed him on Twitter after Chuckry featured her in a cartoon in the wake of her resignation from Pallister’s cabinet. Fielding, Chuckry says, has him blocked on social media.
Nearly a year after beginning his daily practice, though he’s missed a few days, Chuckry’s drawn more than 260 snapshots of a Manitoban nightmare.
Flipping back through them is a disorienting experience, a trip down a grimy alley of memory. So much has happened, so much anger, so much outrage, so much — apologies — cartoonish behaviour, it feels impossible that it has only been 18 months.
Political moments that would have once been remembered for years are often forgotten in a matter of weeks, replaced in the collective consciousness by the next worst thing.
For Chuckry, the experiment goes on, even after his main character has left the Legislature. He continues to read the news, listen to criticisms of the government from those wiser than he, and use his visual skills to understand what’s happening.
As long as there is politics, there will be political cartooning. Chuckry is happy to fill the void with watercolour and ink, whoever is in charge.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.