Cover of Barbara Slate's book "The Mirror Test."
Barbara Slate, graphic novelist, cartoonist, DC Comics legend, teacher and author (“You Can Do a Graphic Novel”), could not be more in the present than she is with her newest foray, a slim paperback called “Mirror Test: The Cassidy Hutchinson Story” which bears a back cover statement from then Congressional Representative Liz Cheney.
Cheney, who had been appointed Vice Chairwoman of the U.S. House Select Committee to look into the January 6, 2021 siege on the Capitol, said that Cassidy Hutchinson, a White House intern who got promoted to trusted aide to Mark Meadows, President Trump’s then chief of staff, undertook a daring risk when she agreed to testify to the committee for a third time, moving from earlier “I don’t recall” responses to testimony that would later figure in presidential indictments. Cheney heralds the 26-year-old’s “bravery and patriotism” as “awesome,” especially inspiring to young girls across the country.
Barbara Slate now heralds both of them in a form youngsters especially might easily process, assuming they will not submerge themselves in the transcript. Her booklet, clever, witty and relevant, makes an important contribution to the genre of political art (a previous graphic novel on “The [Robert] Mueller Report” was a hoot). Her intent? To “provide helpful and informative material on the subject matter covered,” she says up front, innocuously. Comics, with their origin as political commentary, have slyer subtexts. Clearly, Slate — a rarity in the world of cartoon illustration — wants to educate women to speak up and speak out. That’s a tough order in a town like Washington D.C., overwhelmed with female second- and third-degree players, with most positions of real power in the hands of men.
There’s no doubt from the transcript selections Slate chose to illustrate in “Mirror Test” that Cassidy was in a pickle. She was subpoenaed by the committee and then courted by a Trump attorney to lie about what she knew — her move-up office space was “just steps away from Trump’s Oval Office” and she sometimes sat in on high-level meetings. She also had heard about the event in Trump’s limo when the president physically urged his driver to go to the Capitol (the car was called “The Beast”) on January 6, 2021. At first, she was told by Trumpworld that she would be given a lawyer, free. Then she was thanked, in advance, for being “on the team,” for being loyal — prestigious jobs would be coming her way. Her role? To testify quickly, play down her position and remember practically nothing, as her assigned lawyer Stefan Passantino advised. She said she didn’t know at the start know who was paying for her legal bills.
The title of the booklet “Mirror Test” comes from a remark made by a friend of Cassidy who told the “scared” young woman to remember that she is “the only one” who has to pass the mirror test. “You’re the one who has to look at yourself for the rest of your life.” Easy to say but what would she herself do, Barbara Slate wondered. And what would we do? Cassidy is depicted deliberating: “I am completely indebted to these people. They will ruin my life if I do anything they don’t want me to do.” Later, she reads on Twitter about her dancing-around-the- questions testimony, and the next panel shows her ashamed: “I’ve become someone that I never thought I was going to become.”
Cass wants to be loyal but she wants to do “the right thing.” The dilemma prompts her to research — who in the past was in a position similar to hers? John Dean in Watergate? Yes, but above her pay grade. She finally finds someone mentioned in a book, “The Last of the President’s Men” — Alex Butterfield (who served as deputy assistant to President Nixon during the Watergate hearings and revealed the existence of a White House taping system.) She’s encouraged.
Slate’s drawings are black, white and gray, simple, linear, and focused on major expressions. Cassidy decides on The Truth . . . by stealth. She will testify again, after “backchanneling” — making behind-the-scenes arrangements — here set up through a friend — to leak info to the investigating committee that will indirectly lead to their questioning her about specifics. Stefan, Cassidy’s Trumpworld attorney, would not know, but the House Committee would be alerted to know what to ask. Despite being terrified, Cass testifies again, a third time, swearing “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” And does. Of course, Trump said he didn’t know who she was, but heard she was a “total phony and leaker … bad.”
One of the hopes of political cartoonists is not only to savage the opposition and send up hypocrisy, but to encourage believers in The Right Thing to keep believing and to act on their beliefs. Graphic artists like Barbara Slate are particularly effective in this effort because their art is not just a one-panel shot like a magazine cartoon, but a narrative. There’s a story to engage the viewer with text as well as visuals. An inference is that perhaps we will want to know more and seek out more information. In this sense graphic novels can serve as prompts to further, deeper reading — the very opposite of social media quickie news bites.
One fine body…