The BFG Interview
Whether it was his crazy illustrations in the pages of Howard Stern’s Private Parts or his work on the covers of such publications as The New York Observer, SPY, The Village Voice and The New Yorker or his famed portrait series of “Old Jewish Comedians,” artist Drew Friedman has been a key figure in American comics culture for four decades.
An acolyte of both Norman Rockwell and MAD Magazine’s Usual Gang of Idiots in equal measure, Friedman’s distinctive stippling style of cartooning empowered him with the uncanny ability to recreate famous faces with such a sense of detail he leaves no blemish unrepresented.
This November, Fantagraphics Books released Friedman’s latest book of portraiture, this time taking on the 45 men who’ve had the misfortune of being elected to the Presidency. All the Presidents pairs each with essential information and a fun fact on the opposite page. It will quickly become an indispensable reference if you have a hip kid in the public-school system.
I spoke with Friedman about the new book
How did All The Presidents come together?
A fellow artist on Facebook posted their just completed portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which I thought was good, but it reminded me that I’d never drawn Lincoln, one of the most iconic and certainly fascinating faces in history. So I got to work on his portrait, posted it, got some nice responses. And then I drew a few more early Presidents, and soon realized I had the makings of a possible book, and more importantly, an unexpected book. That said, I’ve drawn literally hundreds of images of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump over the years for editorial assignments, but have rarely drawn any of their predecessors. Until now.
What was it like to finally draw Abe?
Well, since his portrait was the first I created for what turned out to be this book, I probably spent the most time on him. Also, there are a total of 66 photos of Lincoln that were taken during his lifetime, the most famous by Matthew Brady in his studio in lower Manhattan, so I didn’t want to base my two portraits in the book on any of those well-known images. Most of them are so familiar, mainly from five dollar bills. So I finagled a bit, using Lincoln’s hair and lion’s-mane beard from one source, his face from another, and body from other sources, finally concocting the two Abraham Lincolns drawn for the book.
Do you have a particular favorite president you’ve drawn over the years?
I’ve always loved drawing Nixon, since I was a kid and would imitate David Levine’s interpretation of Nixon, to my mind, the definitive caricaturist of Nixon. Nixon had a face that was a gift from God for caricaturists. When he left office and Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, caricaturists basically took a cigarette break until Jimmy Carter (and his smile), won the election two years later.
Do you remember when you first began keeping up with the American presidents as a kid? Was there one who stuck out for you during your initial history education in grammar school?
No, I never particularly paid any attention in any of my classes. If it was being taught by a teacher, I usually wasn’t interested. My passion from the get-go was drawing and that’s mainly what I did all day long during school. My political education, and interest in presidents began with MAD magazine, political comedy records by mimics like Vaughn Meader’s JFK albums and David Frye’s Nixon albums, and National Lampoon, which I discuss in my illustrated introduction to the book. I think I was first educated about past Presidents by the Topps chewing gum cards that came out in the early seventies, formal painted portraits of every president up until Nixon, with mini biographies on the flip side. I still own my set of cards.
My favorite portrait in the book is Martin Van Buren. Did he really look like a bulldog?
Based on the images of him that exist, he certainly did have a pugnacious, bulldog-like face.
The look on Andrew Johnson’s face in your portrait really seems to capture his attitude. What did you learn about him leading up to this portrait? He looks like a real dick.
Yes, he wasn’t a pleasant guy, and he wasn’t well-liked, especially after assuming the Presidency following the beloved Lincoln’s assassination. And of course he was the first president to almost (just one vote short) be impeached, although it really was a trumped-up business. So again, not very popular, he had many enemies and I’m sure knew it, reflecting the dour expression I gave him.
Who do you think was the weirdest President we’ve had?
I actually think you have to be a bit weird, or slightly demented to even want that job. There have certainly been some weird or strange ones over the years, but I’m not Doris Kearns Goodwin, I’m not a Presidential historian, my main focus was creating a physical representation of each guy, warts and all. But, after drawing all 44, I think as far as the weirdest looking, It’s a toss up between William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.
Zachary Taylor looks like 40 miles of bad road based on your illustration. How did you come up with this particular caricature of him?
Again, basically basing it on the limited reference available of the man. Yes, he had an interesting complexion. The trick was not to go overboard in my depiction, or to exaggerate, as if I was mocking him in any way.
Which portrait most surprised you and why in terms of how it turned out or what you learned about that particular president?
I can’t say I was surprised by any particular portrait but again, I’m not a Presidential expert, so in several cases I didn’t even remember what certain Presidents even looked like. For instance Franklin Pierce, who was known at the time as the first good-looking President, and James Buchanan, who was the only unmarried president in history and who might have been the only gay president. One of the things that was fun for me was casting the Presidents, in other words, which actors I felt looked like them and who would be perfectly cast to portray them in a biographical film. So playing casting director, the aforementioned James Buchanan is a dead ringer for John Lithgow, Millard Fillmore could be played by Alec Baldwin, Andrew Johnson…Tommy Lee Jones, and Jimmy Carter, perfect casting would be William H. Macy. And…Ronald Reagan as Ronald Reagan.
I love how you capture that classic gleam in Reagan’s eye in your portrait of him. Do you have a soft spot for The Gipper?
Someone pointed out that only three of the portraits in the book are smiling, one being Reagan. it’s interesting, when you look at photos of most of them while they’re campaigning for the presidency, most of them are smiling and energetic, yet when they have the job, their expressions change, almost like a “Oh shit, what did I get myself into?” expression. Not Reagan, he continued smiling throughout his eight years as president, as if it was just another fun acting job. I can’t honestly say I have a soft spot for the man, but I thought he was pretty good in a couple of his films, especially Dark Victory.
As you had said earlier, you’re no stranger to the last five presidents we’ve had based on your editorial work through the years. Is there a favorite of yours that sticks out?
I’ve drawn both Bushes, Clinton, Obama, and Trump many, many times, for mainstream publications like The NY Times, Time, Newsweek, the NY Observer, etc. Trump I drew first for SPY magazine back in the mid-eighties when he was still known as a real estate developer/huckster. Probably my most well-known presidential portrait was my cover of Barack Obama dressed as George Washington for the Obama inauguration cover of the New Yorker. But I don’t do much political illustration any more, by choice. To quote the illustrator Edward Sorel: “After a while you realize you’re not changing the world, you’re just changing the heads.”
Did you ever have an opportunity to meet one of the presidents in your career?
Not a single one. I’m lucky, I’ve met and even become friends with several of my heroes over the years, among them Groucho Marx, Jerry Lewis, Howard Stern and Robert Crumb, but no presidents. I suppose the closest I’ve come would be meeting Jared Kushner on several occasions when he was the publisher of the New York Observer. He also purchased several of my original NYO cover drawings. What ever became of him?
Of all the candidates in the ring for the Democratic ticket in 2020, who would you be most interested in drawing and why?
Without hesitation…Bernie Sanders. An Old Jewish Comedian president living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, perfect! I just hope there’s a good Jewish delicatessen near the White House. Jared might know.
Friedman’s presidential portraits are currently on display at his current exhibit “Drawn To Presidents” at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University in Columbus through February 9th, 2020.