MOORHEAD — When Spider Johnk watched clips from Donald Trump’s 2015 press conference announcing his candidacy for president the next year, a lightbulb went off.
“When he came down the escalator, I thought, ‘This will be fun. He’s such an idiot. He’s such a cartoon,’” says Johnk, whose birth name is Steven.
The time since hasn’t necessarily been fun for the Moorhead artist, or millions of other Americans, but Johnk found the best way of coping was to follow his own instincts and make Trump a caricature.
The artist just published a collection of single panel comics on the former president and how his words and actions have affected the country. It’s a book you can actually judge by the cover, or at least by its title — “It’s True. I Never Liked the Guy: How Cartooning, Dirty Gin Martinis and Blood Pressure Pharma Helped Me Navigate and Survive the Trump Presidency.”
The main title is a line Johnk says Trump used to dismiss many, and the cartoonist uses Trump superlatives instead of blurbs on the back of the self-published book.
He first started posting cartoons on his Facebook account and used that to gauge which ones were successful and which ones fell flat.
“The immediacy of Facebook kept me going. It was immediate gratification,” Johnk says.
The posts also underlined that while many of his friends liked the sketched-out satires, others didn’t approve. People told him he risked losing personal relationships by sharing his political views.
“You can’t live around here without half of your friends being Republican,” Johnk says.
The first cartoon in the book features an older man hunched over a walker, saying to another man, “Looks like the governor started fertilizing his yard a little early this year,” as they stroll past a Trump 2016 lawn sign. The image is a poke at then-North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s support of Trump.
While watching and listening to Trump for four-plus years was tough for Johnk, drawing cartoons was a bit of therapy.
“It was cathartic for sure, to get rid of my frustrations,” he says.
He admits he’s not a polished cartoonist or as prolific as someone like Trygve Olson, though both artists’ works have been published in The Forum’s editorials.
Producing a book wasn’t on Johnk’s mind until a friend in early January suggested he publish one. The artist jumped at the idea and started culling through the collection to get it down to about 70 images. He was doing layout when Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, and Johnk couldn’t bring himself to make a cartoon about it.
“There wasn’t anything funny. It was wildly serious,” he says.
The book came together so fast that it wasn’t until after the first pressing was done that he realized he forgot to include contact information for how people can buy the book, which is available via mail order only through his website and sells for $20.
He doesn’t have any second thoughts about publishing the book after Trump has left office. While the former president may be out of the spotlight, “the jury is still out” on how Trump will be judged on other issues like his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnk says.
The pandemic plays large in the book, and he makes a dedication to those who took an active role in the fight against it.
“A thousand thanks to all of the mask wearers. No joke here,” Johnk wrote. “And thousands of thanks to all the true first responders, caregivers, doctors, nurses and essential workers around the country who managed to hold on to a sense of humor and serve their fellow citizens in the face of a terribly dangerous pandemic and a man who, for far too long, claimed it all to be a hoax. Better humans than I.”
“He lit the fuse on a bunch of stuff. He’s not going away,” Johnk says of Trump’s impact. “He’s not done. His influence is not done.”
In fact, some of the cartoons have resurfaced as topical, like a 2019 one in which Trump offers cover-up pointers to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a reference to the mysterious disappearance and murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Last week, a report concluded that the 2018 assassination got the OK from bin Salman, who Trump had defended as an ally.