Tiny Hands, Huge Pencil
The significance of Tom Toro’s cartoons in the Trump era
An avid liberal, a passionate artist, and a Saybrook alum, Tom Toro hates Donald Trump. Toro’s first book directly addresses the undeniably volatile Trump administration through an entertaining medium — cartoons. From white supremacy to gentrification and U.S. foreign relations to Steve Bannon, Toro’s unique angle on these daunting but important issues makes thinking about them a little bit easier. In Tiny Hands, Toro grapples with these challenging topics candidly, making readers both appreciate and reflect on the state of the nation.
Before he was an established artist, Tom Toro was an undergraduate at Yale, sketching cartoons for fun as the Yale Herald’s cartoon editor — but never considered that it might turn into a career. Toro submitted hundreds of cartoons to the New Yorker — only to have them all rejected because, in the editor’s words, they lacked happiness. Nowadays, he submits upwards of 750 cartoons a year to the editors at the New Yorker and sells around twenty of them. In the challenging world of professional illustration, he is considered to be a great success. But Tiny Hands, Toro explained in an interview with the Herald, is an outlier in his body of work. Toro created one cartoon during Trump’s inauguration that went viral, and people wanted more. Then came the book.
Tiny Hands is driven by its honesty and humor; Toro weaves the two together to bring comic relief to a frightening historical moment. Toro doesn’t shy away from his biases — in fact, he unabashedly leans into them, and his incisive digs are funnier for it.
Although he addresses important social and political issues with marked success, Toro treads the line between what is and is not “acceptable” to say. A few cartoons push the boundaries of political and social commentary, such as the one in which Donald Trump, watching a football game, asks which team Frederick Douglass is playing on. Here, Toro reflects on Trump’s personal racism, but it is uncertain whether these social and political concerns should be trivialized in such a way.
Before each of his cartoons, Toro includes drafts that allow one to see how the cartoons developed. Toro’s drafts, chicken scratches of thought on the page, feel like exposés of his artistic process. In one of the cartoons, Toro jabs at Trump’s elusive relationship with Russia by sketching Trump’s motorcade to outline “KGB,” referring to the Soviet Union’s secret security organization. But as shown in the draft on the previous page, the cartoon originally said “KKK” instead of “KGB.” When asked about the change, Toro explained that when he was making the cartoon, talk of Russian relations was “much more prevalent,” and that he creates each cartoon as a captured moment of the time. The drafts of the cartoons also highlight the importance of phrasing in single-sentence captions of cartoon art. In the draft of a cartoon in which the ghost of Richard Nixon is speaking to Donald Trump in a bathrobe, readers can see that Toro wrote over a dozen potential captions — some varying by just a single word, but all conveying slightly different messages. Seemingly insignificant changes in a caption can make a world of difference, and these drafts exhibit the tediously thoughtful process of creating each cartoon.
In the end, and perhaps to its detriment, Tiny Hands is not meant to be read like a novel, or even a comic book. Because it’s a compilation of cartoons, there is a dissonance in its pages. It does not follow a smooth storyline; there are no particular transitions from one cartoon to another. But this spontaneity amongst the pages is also unique: approached as a collection of drawings, Tiny Hands evokes the feeling of browsing through a museum. In this way, it becomes an unorthodox artistic experience.
Toro does not shy away from his opinions, and this book serves as an important reflection on the contemporary crisis in which America finds itself. In Toro’s interview with the Herald, he explained his hope that the book functions as a reminder of the many grievous consequences of Trump’s election — a reminder that the Trump administration is anything but normal.
Follow Tom Toro on social media:
Purchase Tiny Hands: http://dockstreetpress.com/project/tiny-hands/