Political cartoonist Kirk Anderson rules in a “Banana Republic”

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St. Paul cartoonist Kirk Anderson wields humor like a machete: slashing through denial, hype, and spin. It’s a staple of editorial cartooning to caricature the political figures of the day, but Anderson’s new book Banana Republic: Adventures in Amnesia cuts a fresh path.

kirk anderson speaks on december 6 at 4 p.m at may day books, 301 cedar ave. s., minneapolis; and on december 18 at 7 p.m. at true colors bookstore, 4755 chicago ave. south, minneapolis. for more information, see kirktoons.com. hear a november 28th interview with anderson on catalyst archived at kfai.org.

Moving from Wisconsin in 1995, Anderson became a staff artist for eight years at the Pioneer Press. Anderson’s cartoons have also appeared in the Star Tribune, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Onion, and Newsweek.

“It’s freeing and fun to create a fictional world. You have a much broader brush to paint with,” says Anderson, whose quiet demeanor belies his live-wire wit. “I’m trying to preach not to the choir. I’m trying to reach people who might not agree with us on everything but, for crying out loud, should be against torture [and extraordinary] rendition.”

In Banana Republic, Generalissimo Wally presides over the country of Amnesia like an authoritarian Father Knows Best. Wally loves his people too much not to wiretap their phones and put dissident relatives in secret prisons. Wally-Mart shelves are always full, with Hellburden Condominiums planned for construction. War is sport. Returned soldier Casar Diaz struggles with prosthetic bazookas for arms, as a VA nurse says, “[with] a retrofitted drink-holder and universal remote, you’ll blend right in!” From “enemy co-habitant” couples to Global ScamCorp looting a storm-destroyed city to Hackworth Voting Machines, collapsing bridges and “sex boat” pro-football players, Anderson veers between national to local issues.

“Generalissimo Wally is a stand-in for Bush some weeks [and] some weeks he’s Governor Pawlenty—depending on the issues that come up,” explains Anderson, a news junkie with a sharp eye for gallows humor and the horrifically absurd. “I take notes: ‘Oh, this will work well,’ or ‘This outrages me!’ A handful of themes emerged. Once I had a fictional world, everything fell into place.”

Anderson is primarily a political satirist, but Banana Republic also has touching, oppressed heroes, reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: idealistic Rita fighting to free her husband Diego, imprisoned as a ‘terrorist’ (after buying light bulbs) and enduring torture. “For the last year, we’ve debated whether waterboarding is less than the Spanish Inquisition,” Anderson dryly observes. ”When you’re arguing [that] you’re morally better than the Spanish Inquisition, you’re losing the argument!”

Banana Republic‘s satire is bi-partisan, with Democrats taking plenty of hits as the only state-authorized opposition party, Los Cause. Their spineless members opt for wrinkled brows and equivocating speeches, exemplifying their motto: Standing up for something risks losing your seat for nothing! “Los Cause meet at Miguel’s Diner to discuss things but lack the vertebrae to actually do anything,” says Anderson. “After the 2006 election, I knew there’d be no shortage of material, but, I wondered what would happen—nothing changed.”

Under pressure from progressives, President-Elect Obama’s intelligence advisor, John Brennan (who supported torture and extraordinary rendition) resigned. Kirk Anderson has this advice as the Obama era begins. “We’re not getting rid of the ways of the last junta. We’re getting used to them. [Look at] Obama’s pick for national security, John Brennan. That’s why you don’t give them a honeymoon. That’s our job. We have to watch over their shoulder.”

Anderson takes aim at Americans’ acquiescence as much as the actual policies we acquiesce to. Banana Republic is a bracingly funny wake-up call that’s a perfect holiday gift for the seasoned activist as well as for that conservative Uncle Wally you debate at family gatherings.

Lydia Howell (lhowell@visi.com), a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m.