CRNI Executive Director Terry Anderson interview with American cartoonist and medical researcher Jake Thrasher, recipient of a commendation at our annual Courage in Cartooning Award in 2017 and currently one of our Regional Representatives at Large with a special responsibility for LGBTQIA+ matters.
Jake describes the very distressing threats he received while working for the student paper at the University of Mississippi, how he uses cartoons in his current academic work and the absence of gay voices in editorial cartooning.
This interview was conducted in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic; at that time CRNI expressed deep concerns about the future of cartooning. This forms part of a series of testimonies intended to help illustrate CRNI’s work in support of threatened cartoonists.
Jake, your cartoons about the KKK that ran in the college paper at the University of Mississippi led to threats against you. Tell us about your experience.
KKK. Student organizations at my University such as Our State Flag Foundation would routinely doxx me and encourage people to harass me. The student organizations that helped others harass me never faced any repercussions for their actions. I moved often because sometimes the people who sent death threats would tell me they had my address. Although these threats were scary and caused me a lot of distress at times, I never let them stifle my voice or my cartoons.
Death threats to cartoonists are rarely followed though, thankfully, but in themselves they are a violation of human rights. And of course the American constitution enshrines freedom of expression, especially in print media. Has that been forgotten, do you think?
I think conservative Americans don’t actually care about free speech, but rather use it as a tool to protect bigotry and white supremacy. Often when white supremacy groups gather to intimidate minorities, I hear conservatives scream about how it is their right to free speech and expression to do so. These conservatives are misrepresenting freedom of speech though, because they invoke freedom of speech to silence those pushing back against these oppressive groups and ideas. Yet the conservatives screaming about freedom of speech for the KKK never advocate for the freedom of speech for marginalized groups which is a clear indicator of their true motives when it comes to freedom of speech.
So yes, I think freedom of expression has been forgotten in contemporary America because it is being hijacked by the right to protect white supremacy and is not being used at all to protect those who actually need free speech the most.
You were commended during CRNI’s Courage in Cartooning Award presentation in 2017; what did this recognition mean to you?
It was one of the biggest honors I’ve ever received. It made all the work I’ve put in and issues I’ve fought for feel validated. Besides being commended, I felt extremely supported by CRNI during some really scary times in my life, and I truly appreciate that. Being recognized alongside so many brave and impactful cartoonists from around the world was so incredibly inspiring.
Were there other ways in which CRNI supported you?
CRNI wrote about the death threats I was getting, and the publicity they brought to the issue caused the university administration a degree more concern about what was happening to me. CRNI also provided financial support which helped me attend my first ever AAEC convention.
Editorial and political cartooning in the Anglosphere is often characterized as “male, pale and stale”. We don’t have enough women in the ranks and we definitely don’t have enough people of color or LGBTQI representation. Are we doomed to lose touch with a more diverse audience or is there something proactive that can change this?
This is a particularly challenging issue because it is hard to recruit people into a field where we are seeing fewer and fewer jobs daily. Fewer newspapers have a staff cartoonist and we are seeing award-winning cartoonists being laid off. I think advocating for more staff editorial cartooning positions at papers could make the field easier to enter for minorities. Specifically, I think staff cartoonist positions created at queer publications and minority-focused publications like The Advocate, The Root, etcetera would make space for cartoonists to enter the field in an environment where they feel safer.
I’m intrigued by what you said about staff jobs in the queer and minority press. It surprised me a little, given the in-roads that have been made in comics, especially the small and independent press. Do you think there’s been a resistance to cartooning in such publications (the medium perceived as too old-fashioned, or a needless luxury maybe) or they just don’t hear from cartoonists they’d want to use?
That’s a hard question for me to answer because I’ve never worked for one of those outlets. It could just be something that’s not on their radar. Since editorial cartooning is dominated by straight white men, these outlets probably don’t think about editorial cartoons as something they would have in their outlets. It could just me that they don’t realize there are editorial cartoonists in their communities that they could hire. If their budgets are tight, then that could definitely play a role in them not having editorial cartoonists, but I feel like if these outlets do have the budget and knew cartoonists in their respective communities, then they would want to hire them because it would give representation in yet another form of media.
As we speak, America is set to make a decision on its next president. My personal feeling is that Trump could exploit the coronavirus situation to secure a win; authoritarianism and nativism have the upper hand in many places and I don’t see the pendulum swinging back just yet. Is another four years of Trump good or bad news for cartoonists?
Four more years of Trump is bad news for everyone, and unfortunately, I think that’s what we are going to get. I think under four more years of Trump we are going to see a lot more violations to the free press, and I think cartoonists are going to be hit very hard.
Tell us about what you’re doing now; I understand you’re making use of cartoons in a classroom setting?
I’m currently working on my PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University and also doing illustrations and editorial cartoons on the side. This semester I was a TA for the intro biology course for non-STEM majors called “Biology, the World, and Us”. This course focused on scientific topics of particular public interest. I taught a section every Wednesday night where I assigned readings and we would discuss them for an hour. Each week along with readings, I assigned cartoons and comics that were relevant to whatever scientific topic we were discussing that day. I find that cartoons/comics are incredible tools for science communication but are often not used. I want to start creating science comics now, too, so I can make science more easily accessible for everyone! Now that I’ve passed my qualifying exams for my PhD program, I plan on creating cartoons more frequently. I’m hoping soon that I can start publishing consistently with a local media outlet rather than just freelancing.