Tribute to the life and work of Elizabeth Powell (1930-2007).

Author:Thorkelson, Nick


Elizabeth Powell was a master cartoonist, though virtually unknown as such to anybody who didn't read this journal. With no tools at hand but her own perceptiveness, passion and drawing skill, she could conjure up a zany alterkocker lifting hourglasses instead of weights (figure 1), a daydreaming bag lady (figure 2), a low-income mother attempting to bear her burdens with dignity, an arrogant pastor or president, or an entire cast of random characters engaged in an impromptu discussion of media and politics.


The most striking quality of her drawings was empathy. Though lack of thoughtfulness was an inexcusable crime in the worlds she created, even her thoughtless characters had life, weight, and bones beneath their flesh.

A central problem of cartooning is that a cartoon communicates in generalities and yet, for the cartoon to be compelling, each character should come across as autonomous and self-determined. We male cartoonists tend to use vivacious or ingenious technique to mitigate our reliance on stereotypes. Liz was like many of the best female cartoonists--Nicole Hollander, Lynn Johnston, Alison Bechdel, and Sharon Rudahl are others that come to mind--in her ability to give characters physical and personal specificity, at the same time that they are rendered symbolically or simply enough to speak for whole classes of people.

She had a few continuing characters: the bag lady mentioned above; George W. Bush, whose studied hypermasculinity Liz nailed very nicely; a philosophical pair of pigeons (figure 3). In three different versions of a poor family in its kitchen, the sharp and experienced yet bewildered profile of the grandmother contrasts with the open faces of her daughter and grandchildren (figure 4). Uncle Sam appears often, borderline handsome, bland, gone-to-seed but vain nevertheless. In one drawing he flashes his naked self to a group of females. They...

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