The Poster Biz Part II: Attack on Reagan’s Head

categories: Cocktail Hour


After our poster of the Trickle Down Theory flopped (see my earlier blog) my friend Dave and I continued undeterred.  We next created something called “Ronald Reagan: A Physical Examination.”  This was a drawing I’d made of Reagan naked except for his presidential seal boxer shorts and a dozen arrows slanting in from the sides (like the one pointing at his groin that said “gender gap” or the one pointing at his pompadour that said “nuclear warhead.”)  It was intentionally dumbed down in hopes of sales, tamer than our first effort, but I still wanted to make the drawing great.  Though I had been a political cartoonist for three years, and already had a set caricature of the President that I drew, I vowed that I would start over and create the perfect Reagan, and so avenge the failure of our first poster.

I worked on the poster in an attic study of a room on Cape Cod, looking out at the steely blue ocean and the last of the gold leaves peeling off a post oak.  I listened over and over to a tape of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and drank black coffee, and drew Reagan after Reagan.  It was early November, the time of year of Melville’s “suicide weather,”but while a sense of melancholy had begun to prey on my edges, I often enough managed to lose myself in the drawings.  My writing habits were not yet in place, but I’d been cartooning for years by then and set right to work.  If I couldn’t control other things in my twenty-three year old life at least I could control this.  I tilted my drawing board straight up and taped up enormous sheets of art paper, plastering my wall with dozens of photos of the President.  I drew Reagan after Reagan.  To help with my general sketch of his body I had Dave take Polaroids of me in boxer shorts, hands on hips, a jaunty cock to my head, and then taped the Polaroids to the drawing board.  I imagined my own body into decrepitude; I wanted to capture both the President’s remnant of muscularity and the old man sag, without making the whole too unappealing.

Reagan’s body came relatively easily, but the head was another story.  I penciled in all the usual features–the ridiculous twisting pompadour, the dot-like eyes, the affable smile, the elephant ears hanging tattered from the side of his head–and then painted them over with my brush, letting the line flow from thick to thin, thin to thick.  When I was finished with the brush, I picked up the Rapidograph and became a dentist.  With Rapidograph as excavator, I picked at the gummy folds of flesh.  Slowly, I worked over every inch, stabbing and scraping at the drawing as if cleaning teeth.  With the pen’s sharp nib, I speared the skin’s gumline, driving the point down to the fang, down to the root.  I gave the drawing texture.  I gouged and mottled.

While I drew I drank flagons of strong coffee and my heart responded by trilling off and slamming against my chest, like a sparrow trying to break free.  I’d like to have a chance to go back and talk to my younger self, to tell him a few basic rules about how the body he lived inside worked.  One of the things I’d tell him was to go easy on the coffee.  If my younger self asked “why” I would explain patiently that it turned out that his heart was mildly defective. That is that the erratic trilling and beating he heard in his chest was caused by a mitral valve prolapse and a fairly substantial arrhythmia.  But of course I can’t go back and if I did my younger self would just ignore me.  At the time that self accepted coffee and its results as part of a Faustian deal, enduring the palpitations because the caffeine allowed him to work intensely for hours.  If my heart went on the fritz I would just go harder during my beach run later that day to recalibrate it.

Jinked up on coffee then, I fought my mano a mano battle with the President for the first two weeks of November.  Dave wanted to get the poster into production but knew better than to interrupt me.  Wearing the same sweatshirt and sweatpants day after day, my heart racing, I would toss one drawing after another to the floor, never satisfied, until, after a week, I stood knee deep in a pile of decapitated Reagan heads.  While my life might be slack in other areas, here I was a perfectionist.  “I’ll show those bastards,” I muttered to myself, a phrase I mentioned in last week’s post and one I’m pretty sure I learned from my father.  That I didn’t know exactly who the “bastards” were yet didn’t matter.  I would stare so hard at my Reagan that when I went outside to piss in the briars behind the house I could close my eyes and still see his head bobbing on the screen of my inner eyelids.

The thing was I didn’t just want to get across the usual shorthand features, the standard Reagan, but instead wanted something deeper.  And my more general obsession with the president’s head contained a sub-obsession.  I spent over-caffienated hours working just on Reagan’s wattle, the magnificent scrag of flesh that hung below the presidential chin.  It was, it seemed to me, a glorious thing: an anatomical oddity, an epidermic bib, a medallion of skin.  In my twisted state it seemed a rancid slab of beef caught on a meat hook, huge and hanging, and I painted it in all its glory.  I even wrote notes about it.  “No mere turkey or lizard wattle this,” I wrote.  “This is a wattle that would do an Andean Condor proud.  It can’t be covered up.  It spills out of his collar, drools down his shirt front and drags along the floor.”

I remember that I often talked out loud as I worked, exhorting myself and slapping my thigh.  I wonder now just how crazy I looked sitting there, wearing my gamey sweats, staring down at dozens of photos of Reagan and muttering about “showing” some “bastards.”  What if a secret serviceman found me there?  He would have seen me cowering in the corner of my attic, a manic, obsessed look in my eye, dozens of pictures of Reagan on the wall, and would no doubt have assumed he’d stumbled on the den of a young assassin.  The textbook “crazed loner.”  I wouldn’t have blamed him if he shot on sight.

  1. Mara T writes:

    So what happened? Did you avenge the failure of the first poster? Don’t leave us hanging like this!!

    • Dave writes:


      The sad truth was that Ronald Reagan: A Physical Examination was kind of a flop too. I still have hundreds of the posters, and thousands of the Trickle Down Theory, upstairs in my mother’s house! Want any?

      Onward, David

  2. dave writes:

    Oh, I get it. I know just what “more cartoons” means. It means you get to be the writer and before I know it it’s Bill and Dinty’s Cocktail Hour (With Cartoons by Gessner.) Oh, yeah I get it……

    Just one thing: If we break up I get to be John and you’re Paul, or maybe Ringo.

    • Bill writes:

      Hey, Pete, I hadn’t thought of that, but a full-time illustrator would be great. Let me talk to Dinty.

  3. Bill writes:

    More cartoons, Dave. This is really great.