“A is for Autocrat” is an illustrated alphabet for our current times. Done in the style of a children’s book and designed to be as direct as possible, this illustrated journey through the past four years of this administration is edifying, imaginative and strangely comforting. Warning: spoilers ahead.
I’m a Dowd and Gericke fan – Spartan Holiday is an inspired travelogue, and the duo puts together some truly lovely tomes. “A is for Autocrat” is a reasoned, intellectual take on the unabashed bullshit (excuse my French) of the Trump administration. However, what makes “A for Autocrat” worth reading isn’t the Trump take-downs, cathartic though they may be for some. The book’s more interesting because of the hints of the structures and systems that enabled this nonsense in the first place. “A is for Autocrat” is a primer not on the ego of one individual, but rather on the mechanisms of disinformation, regime-building and systemic racism.
Dowd aims to keep the text simple, and mostly succeeds. The book’s one stumble is in its intellectualism. The prose is academic, born from a writer with a good vocabulary, and while a cloyingly simple sentence structure or rhyme scheme would be irritating, there’s still a bit of loftiness here. It’s not pretentious, mind, but something to note. Still, the gold here is in the illustration (Dowd’s strength) and what Gericke does to construct vivid layouts that capture our imagination.
Dowd understands what graphic art and cartooning can do, and he picks deceptively simple symbols to get at deeper meaning. One of the best spreads in “A for Autocrat” is the N and O pages (Nero and Odious, respectively,) and when we break them down we get at the book’s greatest strengths. N features a cartoonish close-up of a sculpted Nero with suspiciously Trumpian features – the combover, the paunch in the cheeks – and a broken nose. To the left, a yellow silhouette of Trump hits a golf ball aimed at the putting green of Nero’s open skull, made out in visceral red. The ball follows a yellow dotted line to the top of the page, but doesn’t quite land – instead, it functions as the poppy moon in the page’s starlit backdrop. Nero’s right cheek bleeds across the fold, and the “O” emerges out of the cheerful blue background onto a sunny yellow to intersect the snake and toad illustrations of McConnell and Barr respectively. McConnel’s done in the same darker blue outline as the head to the right, while Barr’s jaundiced toad takes center stage in the vivid red-orange of the putting green. The final balance on the page are the bookends: the twinkly white stars (top left) and the pointillist White House silhouette (bottom right.)
There is a lot at play here, but the spread hits the right balance of unique design and visual symbolism, with a dash of surreal overwhelm to complete the experience. The creatures, the Classical art, the ‘50s advertising schtick and the ghoulish Trump outline shouldn’t work together, but they do. Dowd and Gericke blend different aesthetics through fine cartooning, diagrams and caricatures to capture a cut-up experience that pays off in both effect and execution. As in “Spartan Holiday,” the blend of serif and sans serif fonts is apt, readable and builds on the Dowd/Gericke house style for continuity across a body of work.
“A for Autocrat” evokes a synesthetic experience as much as it edifies through its political stance, and provides a bit of a pressure valve for those of us who’re all too aware of the ludicrous hypocrisy of our times. Dowd includes citations for each letter at the end of the text that provide more context, and the preceding Z offers hope and admonishment: healing our culture will take work. It might not be work that we’re ready to do, but if we have any hope of survival, a significant dismantling and healing will have to take place beyond moving a single blithering jackass out of political office.
Dowd and Gericke succeed where all our hot take Tweets and familial Facebook rants fail because they’ve made something more of the takedown. We can bask in vivid color, punchy visuals and clever takes on the ghouls and gals of the regime, and we can stop and grieve in more serious moments, too. Overall, “A for Autocrat” is Dowd and Gericke at their best in a topical and strangely tender send-up of our times.
The Verdict: 8.5/10 – “A is for Autocrat” delights with excellent craft, design and careful attention to detail.