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Drawing Truth Differently. Matt Bors’ Fictional Satire and Non-Fictional Journalism

By Dieter Declercq

This article investigates the comics of American graphic artist Matt Bors, which fall into two main genres: satirical cartoons and graphic (or comics) journalism. Interestingly, Bors also cultivates two different drawing styles—one cartoonish, the other more naturalistic—which map onto the distinction between these two genres. This stylistic difference in Bors’ comics introduces the question of why he consciously cultivates a cartoonish style for his satire and a more naturalistic style for his graphic journalism. The proposal I develop is that this stylistic difference helps Bors to frame his satire as fiction and his graphic journalism as non-fiction. To be clear, I will not advocate that certain drawing styles are essentially fictional or non-fictional. Yet, in the specific context of Bors’ work, the drawing style is one significant marker that frames his comics as fiction or non-fiction.

My proposal entails what Stacie Friend has called contextualism about fiction, i.e., the position that the fictional status of a work is not determined by some essential feature (lacked by non-fiction), but depends on contextual features, especially practices surrounding the publication, reception or promotion of works. In the case of Bors, his drawing style is a significant contextual feature because it signals his intention to frame his satire as fiction, by drawing on stylistic conventions prototypically (although not exclusively) associated with fiction. Contextualism entails that drawing style is not by itself sufficient to fix a comic as fiction, but at best a contributing factor among others. In the case of Bors’ satirical cartoons, another factor is that this genre has historically become associated with fiction in newspapers, for example, due to its spatial separation from the news in the op-ed or opinion sections. Hence, given the genre’s socio-historical development, there would still be significant reasons why Bors’ satirical cartoons are fiction, even if he cultivated a different drawing style. Nonetheless, Bors’ cartoonish drawing style does signal his intention to highlight the fictional status of his satire.

The real question that needs addressing is therefore why Bors stylistically highlights that his satire is fiction. In other words, what is the upshot of foregrounding the fictional status of his satire? Perhaps paradoxically, Bors has acknowledged that his satire intentionally incorporates a journalistic dimension and fundamentally aims at getting things right about the socio-historical world (not just in a deeper moral sense, but also often in a factual or empirical sense). Granted, Bors’ satire incorporates plenty of invented content that is not strictly speaking true, but such content nevertheless serves a role in his project of getting things right about the socio-historical world. The issue is perhaps not so much that Bors’ fictional satire incorporates truths and facts, but that he highlights its fictional status while a certain concern for truthfulness, specifically for getting things right about the socio-historical world, is central to his intentions. Such truthfulness is not incompatible with fiction, but the label also does not imply it. On the contrary, fiction centrally introduces the expectation of made-up content, while classification as non-fiction usually introduces the reassurance that content is true and factual. Bors solicits exactly this reassurance of the non-fiction label in his graphic journalism, by showcasing a more naturalistic drawing style. This naturalistic drawing style serves to signal: ‘Trust me, what I say about the socio-historical world is true, accurate and factual.’ However, given that his satire equally aims to make valid points about the socio-historical world, it begs the question why Bors stylistically forsakes the reassurances of non-fiction and visually highlights the fictional status of his satire.

Although both Bors’ satire and graphic journalism are centrally concerned with truthfulness, they tell truth differently. In other words, the stylistic distinction between Bors’ satire and his graphic journalism supports a difference in truth-telling aspirations. On the one hand, by marking his graphic journalism as non-fiction, Bors inscribes these comics into a socio-cultural framework that legitimizes them as a source of information about the world. Specifically, he uses a naturalistic drawing style to signal that audiences can trust his comic in the same way as a news article or documentary. On the other hand, by marking his satire as fiction, Bors forfeits that socio-cultural legitimacy. Yet, he also gains certain liberties, often in the service of truthfulness, which would be more controversial in non-fiction. Put differently, as fiction, Bors can get away with more in his satire than in his graphic journalism, especially freely using invented content and loose talk (such as metaphors and hyperbole), avoiding journalistic restrictions (including fidelity, objectivity, and dispassionateness), pursuing entertainment for its own sake, and directly attacking opponents through ironic mockery.

1. Satire, Truthfulness, and Fiction

There is an obvious stylistic difference between Matt Bors’ satirical cartoons and his graphic journalism. Consider one of his satirical cartoons about Donald Trump, “Trump Cares about Women: Rob Porter Edition” (fig.1). The drawing style of the comic is prototypically cartoonish in the sense that there is no aspiration to realism. Eyes of characters are either simple dots or big googly eyes (the latter is especially typical of Bors’ cartoonish style). Physical features of real individuals, like Donald and Ivanka Trump, are exaggerated or otherwise caricatured, including hair, mouth, and noses. Similarly, the bright orange color of Donald Trump’s skin is clearly a caricatural exaggeration of reality, not a faithful aspiration to realism. The cartoonishness of Bors’ satire contrasts starkly to the more naturalistic style of his graphic journalism. Take a panel from Afghan Life (fig. 2), a series about everyday life in Afghanistan under American occupation, published in 2010 on Cartoon Movement. Key characteristics of this more naturalistic style include cross-hatched shadowing, more detailed faces (with more realistic eyes) and the use of less saturated, tertiary colors.

Figure 1: Matt Bors, “Trump Cares about Women: Rob Porter Edition.”
Figure 2: Matt Bors, from Afghan Life.

The stylistic differences between Bors’ satire and graphic journalism send out different messages to audiences and introduce different expectations. Concretely, the more naturalistic drawing style of Bors’ graphic journalism contributes to what Nina Mickwitz has identified as a documentary mode of address “through which audiences and readers are invited to accept that the persons, events, and encounters signified are actual rather than imagined” (7). Implicitly, through his drawing style, Bors suggests: ‘Trust me, it’s non-fiction.’ Specifically, Bors wants audiences to trust him that he has visited Afghanistan and that the information he relays about that visit is accurate, objective and balanced—put simply, that the information is true. By contrast, the cartoonish drawing style of his satire is not designed to inspire trust about its truthfulness. Quite clearly, Bors does not claim he or anyone witnessed the represented conversation between President Trump and his aides, or that he is representing it truthfully. Instead, the cartoonish style of his satirical cartoons seems to imply: ‘Relax, it’s only fiction.’

There are good reasons why Bors would cultivate a cartoonish drawing style to signal the fictional status of his satire, especially from the perspective of defamation law. In the American legal system, the fictional status of satire helps to protect satirists against the accusation of libel. Such accusations require proof “that the defendant made a statement with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or not” (Penrod 20). Yet, as Grant Penrod highlights, “[t]he problem with applying this standard in the context of satire is that a satirist knows and intends that he or she is making false statements of fact” (20). Similarly, Steven Price explains that something cannot be “understood in a defamatory sense” if “it’s made up” and he adds “[t]hat’s particularly the case where there are strong contextual indications that [something] is satire”. In this respect, Kenneth Creech reports a decision of The New York Supreme Court that states, “[w]here it appears in the context of fiction and deliberate humor which does not purport to relate to actual events, or is obvious satire … a statement cannot reasonably be susceptible of libelous meaning” (281).

This legal reasoning is certainly applicable in the case of “Trump Cares about Women.” In this cartoon, Bors downright insults Trump by making it appear as if he is simple-minded and does not understand the counsel of his advisers. Specifically, when John F. Kelly wants the president to “at least gesture toward domestic violence being an issue that concerns us politically”, Trump responds, “About four words there I don’t know.” If Bors claimed this conversation really happened (which he does not), he could, in principle, be sued for defamation. The fictional status of the cartoon protects Bors from such liability, because it clearly signals that this conversation is only imaginary. Bors does not present a matter of fact but creates an imaginary scenario to convey personal opinion. The opinion may be about real people, but Bors strongly implies that its content is not factual.

The most significant factor that helps to signal fictional status, I argue, is Bors’ cartoonish drawing style. In this respect, The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press explains that

“[b]ecause liability for satire and parody hinges on a reasonable person’s belief about the truthfulness of the commentary, you would be wise to consider various factors that may help ensure that a reasonable person would recognize your material as protected ideas and opinion rather than actual facts that could be defamatory.” (RCFP Staff)

To that purpose, the distortions of Bors’ cartoonish style, especially the caricatural representations of Donald and Ivanka Trump, clearly signal a distinction from realism and the representation of actual facts. In the same vein, the representation of the White House signals a departure from the real world, as it reasonable to assume that Trump does not really have a map of the electoral results in his office, attached to the wall with sticky tape. These cartoonish and caricatural cues contribute to the fictional status of the comic and signal that Bors is not intending to make actual statements of fact.

Hence, there seems to be a straightforward and simple explanation of the stylistic differences between Bors’ comics. On the one hand, the more naturalistic style of Bors’ comic signals his attempt to be truthful, while the cartoonish style of his satire conveys that he does not state actual matters of fact, but only “fair comment” (Moloney 8) or “honest opinion” (Price). However, this explanation risks becoming too simplistic. Concretely, in legal discussions of satire, it is a common argument that satire is “by definition fictional” and therefore “false” (Ryan; see also Treiger 1215-16). Underlying this argument is a basic syllogism: fiction is untrue; satire is fiction; therefore, satire is untrue. However, this syllogism is invalid, because it has an incorrect premise, namely that fiction is untrue. The problem is an equivocation between fiction as an antonym of fact and fiction as an antonym of non-fiction. When we classify satire as fiction, we distinguish it from non-fiction. We do not (or should not) mean that satire is entirely non-factual, as we do when we dismiss a student’s excuse for their late submission as ‘fiction.’ In discussions about comics, scholars sometimes conflate these two meanings when they posit an opposition between “fact and fiction” (Pedri 128; El Refaie 136). The distinction is similarly sometimes overlooked in philosophical investigations of journalism (Kieran 33). Yet, fiction as a classification of media should be distinguished from fiction as a synonym for untruth.

As a case in point, fictional comics typically contain several factual truths. Granted, there never was a Gaul called Asterix, who had a friend called Obelix (who fell in a cauldron of magic potion when he was a boy). So, it is obviously not true that these two Gauls ever visited Egypt, because they never really existed. Yet, when we read in Asterix and Cleopatra that Alexandra is the capital of Egypt during the rule of a queen called Cleopatra, that information is factually true. We could find the same fact in a history book or encyclopedia. Moreover, these comics conceivably even serve an educational function for many young readers, as the first introduction to ancient history. Of course, much of the information in Asterix and Cleopatra is indeed not factual. For example, it is not really true that Alexandria’s best architect has enlisted the help of Getafix the Druid, so his workers can benefit from a magic potion in order to complete a magnificent temple for Cleopatra. Yet, although much information in Asterix and Cleopatra is not factual, at least some information is historically and factually true. Hence, satire is not by definition false because it is fiction.

Moreover, the argument that satire is false because fiction is directly antithetical to Bors’ self-professed intentions as a satirist. According to Bors, “if you’re stripping [satire] down to the core purpose, then maybe what we’re all trying to get out is some truth” (personal communication). Other satirists also frequently defend the idea that satire is concerned with truthfulness. Dan Perkins (better known as Tom Tomorrow) has argued that “[s]atire is about probing the spots that bother you, whether or not they’re conveniently partisan. This is not to say that we don’t take sides—strongly held opinions are at the very core of what we do. But satire which values partisanship over truth, is not satire at all, but rather propaganda. And there’s a reason that ‘propagandist’ is not a job title anyone wears with pride.”

Similarly, scholars like James Sutherland have argued that the satirist “comes around knocking us up from a comfortable sleep to face hard and uncomfortable facts” (6). Such grand claims about satire’s truthfulness should be nuanced, given its reliance on simplification and exaggeration (see Declercq “Can we learn”). Nonetheless, truthfulness is a core aim of satire as a genre which incorporates the moral purpose to critique perceived social wrongness (Declercq “A definition”). Concretely, through a satirical cartoon like “Trump Cares about Women,” Bors wants to get something right about Trump’s suitability as a president, his viewpoints on women, and his egotism.

Truth and fiction are therefore not incompatible, especially in satire. Still, critics could grant that satirical cartoons may indeed aim at truth, in some deeper symbolical sense, but deny that such truths are factual in an empirical or journalistic sense. Concretely, in “Trump Cares about Women,” Bors may attempt to get at some truths about the moral character of Trump, but these are not empirical or journalistic facts (and, in the wake of postmodernism, perhaps uncomfortably identified as truths at all). However, despite the centrality of invented content, “Trump Cares about Women” does introduce or imply empirical or journalistic facts. At a basic level, the cartoon implies that Donald Trump is the President of the United States and has an office in the White House. More to the point, the cartoon also introduces Ivanka Trump as a key advisor of her father, which is a well-established journalistic fact—and one Bors needs to get right for his satirical critique to get off the ground. In other words, had Ivanka Trump not been known to often advise her father, Bors’ imaginative scenario would appear incongruous, if not gratuitous.

While “Trump Cares about Women” only indirectly implies factual truths, satirical cartoons often also incorporate direct statements of fact. Consider “Onward Christian Soldiers!,” a cartoon by Bors about a decision of the Alabama Senate to allow a church in Birmingham to establish its own law enforcement department (fig. 3). Concretely, the opening statement that “[t]he Alabama Senate voted to allow a mega-church to start its very own police force” is clearly factual, irrespective of other invented story content. In other words, albeit in a clearly fictional cartoon, Bors introduces what in legal contexts is known as “a statement of actual fact” (Gibson). For this reason, should this presented information be factually incorrect, it would legally count as an act of “actual malice” and Bors could in principle be liable for defamation (Treiger 1215).

Figure 3: Matt Bors “Onward Christian Soldiers!”

In this respect, Bors explains that “there is sort of a journalistic element to it [his satire] that I don’t think a lot of people know” (personal communication). He specifies that “when I do my comics [and] I send them to my syndicate, they’re fact checked”, adding that “when I’m basing something off of an abortion bill or stating how many states in the US have restricted abortion … that has to be accurate” (personal communication). Bors emphatically stresses that “when considering a fact, the fact has to be accurate” (personal communication). Some legal counseling does acknowledge that satire commonly “blurs the line between truth and outrageousness” (HG Staff; RCFP Staff). Nevertheless, the issue often remains misunderstood. The real problem is not that “it is difficult to discern whether [a] publication is truthful or satire” (HG Staff). Instead, the paradox is that satire is both fictional and truthful.

Given the centrality of truthfulness in satire and Bors’ professed journalistic aspirations, it gives to wonder why these cartoons should be labeled as fiction, and not non-fiction? And why would Bors want to frame his satirical cartoons as fiction if truthfulness is so central them? I think the answer is still connected to the licenses afforded by fiction, as indicated in legal discussions about satire and defamation law, but the picture is more complex than typically acknowledged in that context. It is not so that fiction precludes truthfulness, but classifying media as fiction introduces certain liberties which are unavailable to non-fiction. In this respect, Bors explains that satirical TV shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or Full Frontal with Samantha Bee are “informative and filled with facts that are checked” and therefore have a real “journalistic element to it” (personal communication). Nevertheless, these satirists often actively deny their journalistic credentials by “saying they’re just comedians and they’re just doing jokes” (Bors personal communication). Similarly, I argue that Bors does not want his satirical cartoons to be non-fiction, because he then sidesteps the expectations associated with non-fiction genres, especially journalism and documentary. But first, the most pressing issue is to establish what exactly makes Bors’ satirical cartoons fiction and to what extent is this classification impacted by his stylistic choices and other authorial intentions?

2. Contextualism about Fiction in Comics and Cartoons

My opening position was that drawing style helps to signal that Bors’ satirical cartoons are fiction, while his graphic journalism is non-fiction. In this respect, Mickwitz argues that “the way we approach and understand something as fiction or not, is directed by the text and its ancillary prompts” (24). One such ancillary prompt can but does not have to be, drawing style. This position conforms to what philosophers have called contextualism about fiction. Contextualism entails that there are no essential conditions which distinguish fiction from non-fiction. Classification of media as fiction therefore relies on contextual factors, especially practices surrounding the publication, reception or promotion of works. In the case of comics, drawing style can sometimes (i.e., in some contexts) be a factor which contributes to the classification of works as fiction or non-fiction.
Contextualism about fiction was introduced in philosophical debates as a challenge to essentialist positions. According to orthodox essentialism, classification as fiction stipulates that audiences are supposed to understand that the author does not intend them to believe the content of a fictional narrative, but instead to imagine or make-believe it (Currie The Nature 25). Concretely, when we read that ‘Harry Potter is a wizard,’ we are not supposed to believe the content of that sentence, but make-believe it. In this regard, Gregory Currie has introduced a distinction between assertions, i.e., speech acts which invite belief, and fictive utterances, i.e., speech acts which invite make-belief (The Nature 21). According to essentialists, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction can ultimately be traced back to this difference between assertions and fictive utterances. In other words, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction depends on the communicative intentions of the author.

However, fictive utterance theorists like Currie do acknowledge that both works of fiction and non-fiction commonly combine utterances that invite make-belief and belief (“Standing” 353). For example, Arthur Conan Doyle intends his audience to make-believe that Sherlock Holmes is a detective who lives on 221B Baker Street, but also believe that London is the capital of England. Similarly, in the docuseries Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson intends audiences to believe his assertions about astrophysics, evolution theory, and other scientific facts. Yet, he also wants them to make-believe that he is physically traveling through the universe in a ‘spaceship of the imagination.’ In other words, while there are often factual truths in works of fiction (like Asterix the Gaul), there also are often factual untruths in works of non-fiction.

At the same time, essentialist theories stipulate that classification of a work as fiction or non-fiction can be traced to its “intentional profile” (Currie “Standing” 353). In other words, the sum total of an author’s communicative intentions fixes a work’s classification as fiction or non-fiction. For this reason, essentialist-intentionalist theories of fiction face the so-called ‘patchwork problem:’ (1) both works of fiction and non-fiction typically consist of a patchwork of fictive and non-fictive utterances; (2) they both solicit a mix of make-belief (or imagination) and belief to their content (Friend “Fictive Utterance” 167). In response, fictive utterance theorists must prove that the intentional profile of a work nonetheless essentially demarcates fiction from non-fiction.

Perhaps the most convincing intentionalist response to the patchwork problem is David Davies’ revised fictive utterance theory. In any case, the problems of Davies’ proposal suffice to indicate the problems of intentionalist accounts in general. According to Davies, “a narrative is fictional just in case (1) it is the product of an act, or acts, of fictive utterance that prescribes making-believe a fictive content of a real setting, and (2) the over-riding constraint on the construction of the narrative is not the ‘fidelity constraint’” (44). The first part of Davies’s proposal stipulates that an author prescribes make-belief only of the fictive content of a narrative, say, that Holmes is a detective, as opposed to its real setting, in this case, London. The second part stipulates that fiction (say, a biopic) as opposed to non-fiction (a biography) is not governed by the constraint “on the narrator’s part, to be faithful to the manner which she takes actual events to have transpired” (40).

Davies acknowledges that both works of fiction and non-fiction can contain fictional narratives (50f.). His proposal tries to bridge this explanatory gap between fictional narratives and works of fiction based on “the relative place accorded to a fictional narrative in the structural organization of the elements making up the work” (Davies 54, original emphasis). Specifically, if a fictional narrative “serve[s] to illustrate, clarify or amplify something asserted within the work” it is a work of non-fiction (Davies 54). By contrast, when “what is asserted within the work serve[s] to clarify or comment on the fictional narrative”, it is fiction (Davies 54). However, although this proposal has strong philosophical coherence, it is problematized by actual examples like Bors’ “Onward Christian Soldiers!” (fig. 3). Despite the fictional status of Bors’ cartoon, its fictive content about Jesus and the Christianized Judge Dredd is developed in the service of an assertion about legislative changes in Alabama, not the other way around.

In response, a fictive utterance theorist like Davies may decide to classify Bors’ satirical cartoon as non-fiction. Yet, such classification would be counterintuitive in the case of “Onward Christian Soldiers!” No reasonable reader would interpret Bors’ satirical cartoon as non-fiction. Hence, in this case, Davies’ proposal does not adequately capture actual practices of classification. The decision about placing a book on the fiction shelf in bookshops does not depend on considerations whether the assertions are relative to the fictive utterances, or vice versa. Instead, Friend has argued that “[i]n attempting to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, we should consider, not how the parts of a work add up to the whole, but instead how the whole work is embedded in a larger context: in particular, the practices of reading, writing, publishing, and so on” (“Fiction” 187). Moreover, “it is the intention that a work belongs in a particular category, along with contemporary practices regarding categorization, that helps to determine classification—not the intention that certain parts of a work be believed or imagined” (Friend “Fiction” 203). As discussed above, Bors’ cartoonish drawing style indeed helps to signal his intention to create a work of fiction.

Contextualism about fiction does entail that the contribution of drawing style to the classification of comics as fiction is neither necessary, nor sufficient. In this respect, Elisabeth El Refaie has challenged the visual modality thesis, according to which the truthfulness of a visual representation correlates to “how much an image corresponds with what one would see with the naked eye” (164). In other words, the basic idea behind the visual modality thesis is that naturalistic images appear truthful. This premise seems to have some explanatory force in the context of Bors’ work, because his non-fictional graphic journalism is drawn more naturalistically than his fictional satire. El Refaie also acknowledges that “naturalism and perceptions of veracity are apparently sometimes linked” (172). However, she rightly stresses that such links are contingent and provides Marjan Satrapi’s Persepolis as a specific example of a non-fiction comic with a cartoonish style. Still, I argue that the links between a cartoonish drawing style and fiction are historically so strongly connected that their association is by default. In other words, media in a cartoonish style must work harder to signal they are non-fiction than if they were presented in the naturalistic drawing style conventionally associated with non-fiction.

In this respect, consider Ted Rall’s graphic biography, Snowden. Like Bors, Rall is both a graphic journalist and satirical cartoonist. However, unlike Bors, Rall uses the same abstract, blocky drawing style for his cartoons and graphic journalism (fig. 4). Hence, the drawing style of Snowden does not announce the work as non-fiction and therefore does not by itself invite the same trust concerning the comic’s truthfulness as the drawing style of Bors’ graphic journalism. For this reason, Rall has to rely more strongly on other strategies to signal the accuracy of his information, for example, the inclusion of detailed notes and sources at the end of Snowden. Put differently, Rall has his work cut out to overcome the default association between his drawing style and fictional content. The opposite is true as well, which is why the cartoonish drawing style of Bors’ satirical cartoons does a lot of the work in signaling their fictional status.

Fig. 4: Ted Rall, Cover of Snowden.

Apart from drawing style, comics can rely on a range of other factors to cultivate a fictional or non-fictional mode of address, including paratextual elements. According to Mickwitz, “[t]hese might be materially appended publisher’s/editor’s descriptions, quotes from reviews on the back cover, and often a substantial author statement or a foreword by somebody else, but also reviews, listings, and advertising” (1). A relevant example is War is Boring, a graphic memoir co-authored by Bors and American military correspondent David Axe, about Axe’s trips to various warzones. The comic is identified as a “memoir” on the back cover and as a “war memoir” on the publisher’s website. On that same website, readers also have the opportunity to explore further publications, which appear under “More in Military History” and “More in Arts & Entertainment Biographies & Memoirs” (“War is Boring”). The comic itself also features a prologue by Ted Rall, who introduces David Axe as a friend and fellow war journalist. Similarly, there is an afterword by Axe himself, commenting on the story’s authenticity. A variety of reviews further help to affirm the status of War is Boring as “confessional memoir” (Williams) with a “documentary feel” (PW Staff). These paratexts all contribute to the framing of War Is Boring as non-fiction.

Similarly, paratexts surrounding Bors’ satirical cartoons support their classification as fiction. Nowadays, Bors publishes his cartoons on the digital comics platform, The Nib, as well as its associated magazine, which he both edits. The Nib offers a mix of various content, including satirical cartoons, alongside non-fiction comics like graphic journalism, short memoirs, histories, and creative infographics. This content on The Nib is presented without an explicit separation between genres, or between fiction and non-fiction content. Rather, all comics are presented in descending order by date in one continuous feed. Nevertheless, some distinction between fiction and non-fiction is at play in paratexts on the website. On a separate page, The Nib presents itself to audiences as a “daily comics publication” that “run[s] political cartoons, journalism, essays and memoirs about what is going down in the world” (“About”). Similarly, artists who want to be featured on the website are told that “[w]e’re looking to publish the best political satire, journalism and non-fiction comics” (“About”). These paratexts single out political satire as a specific genre on The Nib and either juxtapose it directly to non-fiction comics or else to non-fiction genres like journalism, essay, and memoir.

A similar distinction also underlies Bors’ characterization of The Nib in interviews. On the one hand, Bors does argue that the variety of graphic material on the website “all [falls] under an umbrella of things about the world that we live in. It’s all non-fiction,” including “serious journalism” but also “political satire” (personal communication). On the other hand, when pressed, he does distinguish satire from non-fictional genres such as graphic journalism by explaining that “in most political [i.e. satirical] cartoons, you’re fictionalising the setting, the drawings, the caricature” (personal communication). Specifically, Bors explains that in satire, “there is a lot of opinion and there is a lot of leeway with hyperbole and exaggeration” (personal communication). What seems implied is that such leeway would be much more problematic in the non-fiction context of graphic journalism. In other words, by framing their satire as fiction, for example through a cartoonish drawing style, satirists like Bors cultivate a mode of address that creates a certain leeway from the demands of non-fiction.

3. Journalism, Documentary, and the Demands of Non-Fiction

Although there is no essential difference between fiction and non-fiction, the two classifications do function as different modes of address and introduce different audience expectations. For many artists, the difference in a classification of their work as fiction or non-fiction is not neutral. Consider Art Spiegelman’s surprised and displeased reaction when The New York Times Book Review listed the second volume of Maus as a fictional comic. Spiegelman explains that “I shudder to think how David Duke [former Grand Wizard of the KKK and Holocaust denier]—if he could read—would respond to seeing a carefully researched work based closely on my father’s memories of life in Hitler’s Europe and in the death camps classified as fiction.” Spiegelman explains that “to the extent that ‘fiction’ indicates that a work isn’t factual, I feel a bit queasy.” Although I have argued that fiction often includes true facts, Spiegelman rightly implies that the label ‘fiction’ does not inspire confidence that the presented content will be factually accurate. Instead, the ‘label’ fiction highlights the expectation that the author has taken some liberties with the truth, including inventing content. In this respect, Spiegelman particularly complained that “[a]s an author I believe I might have lopped several years off the 13 I devoted to my two-volume project if I could only have taken a novelist’s license while searching for a novelistic structure.” In other words, even if Spiegelman transgressed some conventions of non-fiction “by delineating people with animal heads,” he nonetheless argues that Maus meets the most pressing demands for classification as non-fiction, including fidelity. In the end, the editors accommodated his request, supporting their decision with the contextual evidence that both the publisher and the Library of Congress listed the comic as non-fiction.
Classification as non-fiction can lend a comic like Maus a crucial air of believability and gravitas unavailable to fiction. Non-fiction genres, especially journalism and documentary, hold a certain privileged position in society because they afford legitimacy to the aspiration of media to present “truthful and honest accounts of the social world” (Roscoe and Hight 14). Much like Spiegelman, it is this legitimacy which Bors seeks in his graphic journalism, including War is Boring. Apart from a more naturalistic drawing style, one other strategy Bors cultivates to legitimately frame War is Boring as non-fiction is imitating the conventions of live-action documentary—a strategy also often used by animated documentaries (Wells 41-42). For example, the opening image of War is Boring is a professional video camera that Axe uses throughout the story to document warzones like Iraq and East Timor (fig. 5). Moreover, not only are several panels in the comic also represented as if they were recorded by Axe’s camera, but it is often as if panels which include Axe are similarly documented by a second camera (fig. 6). These panels showcase cinematographic parallels to the imagined documentary footage, like the particular (low) angle of a shot. Through such stylistic choices, War is Boring presents itself as very similar to a documentary and accordingly claims the legitimacy that comes with non-fictional status.
Figure 5: David Axe and Matt Bors, War is Boring
Figure 6: David Axe and Matt Bors, from War is Boring.

Among comics scholars, there is some discussion about whether comics such as War is Boring are most aptly classified as comics journalism or documentary comics (cf. Schmid 2019). These are interesting and useful considerations, which add welcome nuance to the classification of these comics. Still, the upshot is that both documentary and journalism are non-fiction genres that claim legitimacy to represent the socio-historical world, which fiction does not. As non-fiction, the genres overlap in significant ways, especially because “[d]ocumentary practice, and the cultural assumptions and expectations we have of it, have been informed by the discourses of journalism” (Roscoe and Hight, 13). These discourses are centered around values of truthfulness, including accuracy, sincerity, fairness, and objectivity (although objectivity may foremost apply to journalism specifically, at least narrowly defined as news reporting). In this regard, documentaries can be subjective to the extent that they represent somebody’s experience of reality, if that experience is represented accurately, sincerely and fairly (Aufderheide 3). Still, documentaries also often aspire to objectivity, especially when they are made by journalists. Regardless, both documentary and journalism generally claim virtues of truthfulness associated with non-fiction.

However, while classification as non-fiction lends media a certain legitimacy, artists may find its demands of truthfulness unachievable or limiting. Take Kate Evans’ graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Red Rosa. Although the publisher labels the comic as graphic non-fiction on the back cover, Evans herself disavows that label in an opening disclaimer, stating that “[t]he following is a fictional representation of factual events” (4). In other words, had Evans made a film rather than a comic, her disclaimer would frame her narrative as a biopic rather than a documentary. Evans makes it clear that the comic is not entirely faithful to the life of Luxemburg by explaining that “minor events have been omitted, some peripheral characters have been conflated, and in a few places the chronology of events has been reversed for dramatic effect” (4). Still, Red Rosa does adhere to many conventions associated with non-fiction, including notes, which Evans highlights “contain a full explanation of any deviation from the historical record” (4). Therefore, I am uncertain that Evans’s admission trumps the publisher’s classification and makes the comic fictional. Nonetheless, her disclaimer signals some unease with the expectations of non-fiction and a desire to cultivate some license associated with fiction.

This opposition between the legitimacy of non-fiction and the leeway of fiction has been central to the historical development of the satirical cartoon. A crucial stage in this development is the function and placement of satirical cartoons in journalistic media like newspapers and political magazines. In these journalistic media, satirical cartoons can typically be found in editorials or sometimes op-ed (US) or opinion (UK) sections (Reeves and Keeble 28). They moved to those spaces when newspapers abandoned partisanship (in the early twentieth century) and came to embrace impartiality, objective reporting and the strict separation of facts and values (Allen 23). From then onwards, subjective opinion was in principle only allowed on editorial pages and op-ed sections (Meltzer 1034). Although a rigid separation between fact and opinion is more of a theoretical ideal than practical reality, it remains nonetheless a regulatory norm of journalistic practice, even in the digital age. In digital versions of newspapers, news is still typically featured on different sections of the website than opinion or editorial comment.

As satirical cartoons moved to the op-ed or opinion pages, alongside other satirical content like columns, they became spatially associated with values, rather than facts (Makemsom 258; Riley 317-319). These spatially distinct sections are not strictly speaking spaces of fiction in newspapers, but nonetheless spaces in which fiction becomes possible. In this regard, Janice Hamlet has argued that “[e]ditorials (…) combine fact and fiction to interpret news and influence public opinion” (473). Although fiction is not strictly antithetical to fact, the point is that editorials allow for certain imaginative licenses typically associated with fiction. Similarly, in the opinion sections, newspapers like The Observer sometimes publish spoof columns by satirists like Chris Morris which are closer to the content of The Onion than the rest of the newspaper (Hargreaves 54).

Moreover, within the spatially distinct editorial or opinion sections, satirical cartoons are once more spatially separated by a gutter or frame (or, on websites, are located in a separate subsection of the opinion sections). In other words, within the special space of the editorial section, the cartoon space is an additional special space where cartoonists have the fictional license to invent imaginative and often outlandish scenarios, involving the likes of talking elephants or donkeys. Further, the fictional status of the editorial cartoon space is enforced due to similarities with the comics page, which is another space in newspapers demarcated for graphic fiction. Not only do editorial cartoons and comics often share similar cartoonish drawing styles, but comics often also feature satirical content. Walt Kelly’s Pogo or Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks are comic strips which fulfill the same satirical function as editorial cartoons. Similarly, Steve Bell publishes both editorial cartoons and the satirical comic strip If… in the Guardian, while Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury not only appears in the editorial section of some newspapers but was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning (McAllister and Kahle 324).

Historically, satirical cartoons have developed as a fictional genre due to a combination of factors, including their spatial separation from news content in newspapers, their central use of imagined content, and their similarity to comics and comic strips. At least for now, this association arguably remains enduring in the digital age, when satirical cartoons are increasingly presented in contexts which do not spatially distinguish non-fiction content from satire, like The Nib. Therefore, the upshot remains that strong associations with fiction permit satirical cartoonists like Bors to forsake the demands of truthfulness associated with non-fiction (including accuracy, objectivity, fidelity, and fairness).

4. Satirical Cartoons and Fictional License

Bors is not the only satirist to explicitly disavow labels of non-fiction, nor are comics the only medium in which this frequently happens. For example, when John Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire and criticized its journalistic credentials, he explicitly denied that The Daily Show had itself journalistic aspirations. Doing so, Stewart stressed that The Daily Show was not broadcast on a 24-hour news channel but followed a show on Comedy Central about “puppets making crank calls” (“Jon Stewart on Crossfire”). Similar claims are also often made by John Oliver (perhaps the most successful alumnus of The Daily Show). In its first season, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver received a Peabody Award for distinguished and meritorious public service by “bringing satire and journalism even closer together” (“Last Week”). However, Oliver has always publicly disavowed claims that his show aspires to journalism (Garrahan). He continuously highlights Last Week Tonight’s goal to entertain for its own sake and accordingly claims “[t]hat’s what’s weird to me about when people ask about the show’s relationship to journalism. It’s so clearly comedy” (Marchese). Although it does not follow that Last Week Tonight therefore does not fulfil a journalistic function, remarks like these are supposed to downplay the stringent demands of truthfulness associated with non-fiction, especially journalism.

That there may be good reasons for satirists to disavow non-fiction classification is clear from the reception of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. Marketed as a documentary, several critics felt cheated when it transpired that the chronology of events presented in the film was not faithful to the order in which they really occurred (Aufderheide 4). In response, Patrica Aufterheide explains that Moore “argued that [Roger & Me] was not a documentary but a movie, an entertainment” (4). Similarly, the difference in critics’ reactions largely depended on whether they stressed or downplayed the movie’s status as non-fiction. Classifying the film as non-fiction, Carl Plantinga accused Moore of predetermined deception that undermined “[t]he quality of public discourse” (96). By contrast, identifying Roger & Me as a satire, Roger Ebert downplayed the film’s status as non-fiction and argued that “Michael Moore was getting away with something” because he “was taking the liberties that satirists and ironists have taken with material for generations.” Still, Ebert does not downplay the truthfulness altogether but concludes that “[p]arts of ‘Roger & Me’ are factual. Parts are not. All of the movie is true.”

Ebert’s comments indicate that by disavowing status as non-fiction, satirists can have their cake and eat it too. As a fictional genre, satire can still be praised for its truthfulness without being held to the same standards as journalism. This fictional license is only really ever problematized in cases of genre hybridity, like ‘Roger & Me,’ when satire mixes with a non-fiction genre like documentary. In this respect, while Marisa Lubeck claims that “satire is often criticized for defying the conventions of traditional journalism” she adds that “[n]either conventional news nor comedy, satire often escapes the editorial processes of conventional journalism and is less subject to censure” (1247). Good satire may often have a lot in common with good journalism, but satirists can usually get away with more than journalists or documentary makers. For this reason, it is ultimately not so paradoxical that satirists like Bors profess to aspire to truthfulness while stylistically claiming fictional license. As I will discuss now, some of the licenses afforded by classification include imaginary content, subjective values, explicit bias, non-rational argumentative strategies, and direct attack.

Perhaps the most obvious license of fiction is to represent imaginary content, as is evident from the previously discussed scenarios in “Trump Cares about Women” or “Onward Christian Soldiers!” Although unremarkable in the fictional context of satire, such invented content would be much more problematic in non-fiction contexts. Concretely, freely inventing imaginative content is associated with bad journalism, including tabloid publications (Hargreaves, 53). In this respect, Ian Hargreaves explains that tabloid publications started to decline in the 1980s because “all newspapers, along with most television, had by then muscled into the tabloid game. One illustration of this trend has seen British broadsheet newspapers publishing fictional columns, mostly with comic or satirical purpose, but occasionally misjudging the ability of their readers to get the joke” (54). Hargreaves does not only associate the entertainment of satire with tabloid journalism, but he is quick to add that “[t]hings do not look so funny, however, when high-profile conventional journalism also turns out to be infected with this easygoing relationship with facts” (55). Put differently, for Hargreaves, it is only a small step from blurring the boundaries between fictional satire and non-fiction journalism to full-blown journalistic fraud.

The fictional status of satire does not only lend satirists a license to invent content, but also to express what would be considered subjective values in a journalistic context. As Lubeck argues, from a journalistic perspective, satire is inherently “biased” (1245). Concretely, the purpose of a satirical cartoon like “Onward Christian Soldiers!” is not simply to inform that a mega-church in Birmingham has been granted permission to set up its own police force. Bors also does not just want to argue that the religious privatization of law enforcement is likely to lead to a xenophobic backlash. Rather, his point is really to pass moral judgment, informed by the deep-rooted distrust of neoconservative policies that underpins his entire body of work. Although Bors himself is unlikely to consider this distrust of neo-conservatism as just a matter of taste, it is a value judgment and therefore qualifies as subjective opinion from a journalistic perspective. In this respect, William Hanff highlights “the friction between subjective satire and the notion of a purely objective journalism” (1254). Granted, subjective forms of journalism exist, but objectivity is nonetheless a key principle guiding journalistic practice, even if it is difficult to achieve in practice.

With fictional license, satire uses argumentative strategies that would be considered suspicious in non-fiction contexts. Matthew Kieran explains that “our understanding of the news media as committed to reporting the truth entails a distinction between non-rational means of persuasion and rational ones” (30). Rational means of persuasion must typically adhere to dispassionateness, whereas satire is anything but dispassionate. Since its inception in Roman times, satire has often driven on anger, if not downright outrage (Keane). Moreover, falling short of anger, satirists like Bors can freely indulge in non-rational rhetorical strategies to get audiences on their side, including loose talk like metaphors and exaggeration in (see “This Is For Bribing, This Is For Fun”, fig. 7). Although loose talk is not uncommon in journalism, it would no doubt be problematic for a journalist to hyperbolically describe the lobbying practices of the NRA as throwing money in the face of rapacious politicians. Moreover, even if “This Is For Bribing” may reveal some truth about the lobbying practices of the NRA, its use of metaphor and hyperbole does not constitute a rational means of persuasion. For one, the rhetorical function of metaphors is largely non-rational because it is mostly covert, i.e. people are often unaware of how metaphorical framing influences their opinions (Thibodeau and Boroditsky; Lakoff and Johnson). Such non-rational means of persuasion would be suspicious in journalism, but are less so in a context of fiction, where there are less stringent regulations around argumentative strategies.

Figure 7: Matt Bors “This Is For Bribing, This Is For Fun”.
Figure 8: Matt Bors “Avenging Uterus“.

Finally, satirists have the fictional freedom to use strategies like metaphors and hyperbole in the service of direct attack, which would be more problematic in non-fiction genres. As explained above, the classification as fiction permits satirists to attack public figures by exaggerating facts and even making things up without facing defamation charges. This classification makes it easier for satirists to mercilessly attack opponents and still make the attack appear palatable in the public eye (because it is ‘only’ fiction). For example, the representation of physical violence as retribution against political opponents in “Avenging Uterus” would be hard to stomach if it were not fiction (fig. 8). As this example shows, satirists are similarly free to use irony and ridicule to openly mock opponents, as Bors does by having fictional characters ironically echo the absurd viewpoints of misogynistic politicians.

5. Conclusion

This article has addressed the paradox that satirists like Matt Bors aspire to truthfulness but nonetheless explicitly frame their satire as fiction. Specifically, in his satirical cartoons, Bors cultivates a cartoonish drawing style that has historically become associated with fictional comics. However, the link between a cartoonish drawing style and fiction comics is not absolute, but depends on context, in this case, a strong contrast to the naturalistic style of Bors’ graphic journalism. Crucially, the explicit framing of Bors’ satire does not preclude its truthfulness, given there is also no absolute distinction between the content of fiction and non-fiction. In other words, it is not so that non-fiction is wholly factual or that fiction cannot include facts. Still, classification as fiction and non-fiction introduces different expectations for comics. Specifically, fiction does not inspire the same trust as non-fiction in the truthfulness of the presented content. Conversely, classification as non-fiction introduces stringent demands in the service of truthfulness, including objectivity, accuracy, fairness, fidelity, and honesty. By explicitly marking their satire as fiction, satirists like Bors circumvent those demands and freely include imaginative content, loose talk, value judgment, emotiveness, direct attack, irony, and ridicule. Although several of these techniques have a higher risk of compromising truthfulness than the techniques associated with non-fiction, they are not necessarily untruthful. Most importantly, they are characteristics which are centrally associated with satire.


Thanks to delegates at the “Graphic Realities” (2018) conference in Giessen for thoughtful questions about an earlier version of this paper and for stimulating discussions around comics and non-fiction. Thanks also to the editors for valuable comments and feedback.

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