It’s always strange to hear about artists in the pay of governments — the union seems so mismatched. In a recent interview with the Washington City Paper, cartoonist Chip Beck discussed using his pen to further the CIA’s mission abroad.
“When I worked for the agency, I was frequently called upon to use my cartooning skills during the Cold War with the communists,” he said. “Beyond that, I can’t say any more without going through the publication review board process.”
Though the article remains vague on this point — despite being impressively long-winded on so much else — the CIA did set up a division in 1947 called the Propaganda Assets Inventory that, at its height, influenced more than 800 newspapers, magazines, and public organizations. Throughout the war years, the agency used art to fight Communism; in the 1950s, it developed a policy called Militant Liberty that encouraged movie studios to explore themes of American freedom in their films.
But Beck’s artistic career under the government extended far beyond the Cold War. He served as an army combat artist for the US Navy during Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. “I was pretty much on my own in the desert, covering Navy, Marine, Army, Air Force, and Coalition Forces during the entire 47 days of the war,” he recalled.
Beck created 500 cartoons about military security for the navy during the 1990s, many of them featuring a character called Kiljoy, based on Kilroy, a World War II character that was never copyrighted. Then, after September 11, the Pentagon asked him to organize Cartoonists Against Terrorism, an effort to promote democratic themes in comic strips, along with a similar program in Baghdad between 2003 and 2005. Most recently, in 2013, he spent a couple of months in South Africa, “[drawing] editorial cartoons in the opposition campaign to oust [Robert Mugabe,] Zimbabwe’s aging president (i.e., dictator) from office.”
“I’ve now traveled to 126 countries, witnessed 20-plus wars, revolutions, and assorted conflicts, and have sketched, painted, and photographed all of them to various degrees,” Beck told the paper. The art collections at the Navy Art Gallery, CIA Special Operations Division, National Foreign Affairs Training Institute, the Pentagon, and the US Postal Service together house 130 of his paintings.
It’s hard to say what Beck’s work for the CIA was like; the context of the cartoons posted on his website is unclear. Most of the Kiljoy strips take shots at the criminal justice system — low-level police, lawyers, the justice department. Others take up the hypocrisy and bureaucracy of American politics, focusing especially on the Clinton administration. One shows President Bill Clinton telling Janet Reno, “Don’t ask,” to which she responds “Don’t tell.”
Beck isn’t the first artist to cover wars, just the latest in a long history of them, and he’s not the first cartoonist to draw in the service of a government agency either. Still, the idea of political propaganda cartooning seems somehow antithetical to the sort of independent, bold satire that we generally associate with the form. Comics can still be incredibly influential — maybe that’s what’s so unsettling about the idea of them as propaganda. As the Charlie Hebdo massacre proved, political cartoons are much more powerful than we might think, whether that power is wielded by an independent publication or the government.