Eli Valley (inset) atop one of his comic strips (images courtesy Eli Valley, and used with permission)

If you’ve been online, and especially on Twitter, then you probably know the name Eli Valley and his brushy drawings that use the grotesque and absurd to make larger points about life, culture, and politics. But it wasn’t until the Trump administration that the New York City-based cartoonist was propelled into the public spotlight. Valley was attacked by a wide range of politicians, particularly Republicans, including Meghan McCain, who called the comic he drew of her “one of the most anti-Semitic things I have even seen.” McCain is not Jewish, and Valley is, not to mention that his father is a rabbi.

In this conversation, I asked Valley to tell us about how he got his start in comics, how he builds on the long history of satire and graphic humor in the Jewish American tradition, and how he copes with the public spotlight while he struggles to survive as a full-time artist. 

This podcast is accompanied by scholar Josh Lambert’s article, which explores the art historical roots of Valley’s art. Lambert writes, “Valley comes naturally by his most pressing and recurrent theme: lies told and violence committed in the name of Jewish safety and security. His cartoon jeremiads can easily enough be fit into a long history of Jewish protest, from the Biblical prophets who excoriated the sinners of Israel to modern novelists who, like the criminally under-appreciated late-19th-century San Francisco writer Emma Wolf, wrote about Jews, as she put it, ‘in the spirit of love — the love that has the courage to point out a fault in its object.’”

The music for this episode is “A Mineral Love” by Bibio, courtesy Warp Records.

Subscribe to Hyperallergic on Apple Podcasts, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.


A full transcript of the interview can be found below. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Hrag Vartanian: If you’ve been online, especially on Twitter, then you probably know the name Eli Valley, or at the very least, his brushy drawings that use the grotesque and absurd to make larger points about life, culture, and politics. He’s been creating art for over a decade, but it wasn’t until the Trump administration that he was propelled into the public spotlight after he was attacked by a wide range of politicians, particularly Republicans and right-wing figures, including Meghan McCain, who even called the comic he drew of her, “Is one of the most antisemitic things I’ve ever seen.” In case you need a reminder, McCain is not Jewish, and, well, Valley actually is, and is very much connected to his local Jewish community. Back in 2019, in response to many of these controversies, Valley told Vice News, “My comics are not intended to try to convince the other side. What my comics are trying to do is galvanize our side and to remind our side that we are not, we are not the evil ones.” I’m Hrag Vartanian, the Editor-in-Chief and Co-founder of Hyperallergic. In this conversation, I asked Valley to tell us about how he got his start and discuss his career that builds on the long history of satire and graphic humor in the art world. Valley is a master of the medium, and I hope this interview will illuminate more about his life and work. Let’s get started.

This episode, I’ve been wanting to do this for quite a while. We have Eli Valley, world-renowned comic artist and provocateur at times, it seems, would that be accurate? What do you think?

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah? Okay. A little bit.

Eli Valley: But not for its own sake.

Hrag Vartanian: Not for its own sake. Definitely not. So I was doing some research about Eli Valley. For those of you who would know his work, I think, no stranger to his presence online. During the Trump years, there were so many mini controversies that seemed to arise from your drawings. In 2019, New York Magazine, an article by Abraham Riesman, the title called you “the angriest political cartoonist in America.” What did you think about that title that was bestowed on you?

Eli Valley: I mean, I don’t consider myself angry predominantly, but I didn’t take offense to it.

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. Well, I think it sort of captured maybe that moment. Because I think we were all angry, to be fair, during 2019.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Maybe you were capturing the zeitgeist at the time. So those of you who may not know Valley’s work, Diaspora Boy was a publication that came out in 2017, which I think is probably the best introduction to your work. Would you agree?

Eli Valley: Yes, certainly to my work prior to the Trump years.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. Prior to the Trump years.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So I wanted to get him in here so we can talk about being a politically engaged artist, being frankly a master comic artist, as well as somebody who’s been very engaged with these issues. And unlike a lot of people that sort of recede into, “Oh, people are attacking me.” And I mean, I’ve even done it to a certain degree, where if you get so much hate, after a while, you’re like, do I withdraw? I’m always impressed with how much you’re still out there, regardless of what you get. So this podcast, we’re going to delve a little bit into your world, a little bit into your background, into your thoughts, and also hopefully get some tips on how to weather these types of storms.

Eli Valley: Sure.

Hrag Vartanian: So, okay. Let’s start. Eli.

Eli Valley: Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: Where were you born? What is your origin story?

Eli Valley: Well, I was born in Rhode Island, but I quickly moved. My parents moved to upstate New York when I was little. And then when my parents got divorced, I moved to south Jersey with my family, with my mom and my sister. That’s my origin story. I mean, in terms of geography.

Hrag Vartanian: It’s not bad for a superhero, no?

Eli Valley: Nah.

Hrag Vartanian: You’re like a comic book superhero sometimes, I tell you, especially for those of us who follow you on Twitter. From what I understand, and those of us who have read Diaspora Boy, there you talk a little bit about growing up in a Jewish American community, being a part of the different institutions that have been part of that, whether it’s Hebrew school and the different organizations, fundraising …

Eli Valley: Summer camp.

Hrag Vartanian: Summer camp, and all those. Now, why don’t you give us a little bit of a … I don’t know, a sense of what that was like. I mean, there are a lot of communities, as someone in the Armenian community, I definitely relate to a lot of what you said, but I’d love people to get a little bit of the flavor. What was that like, going to a Jewish summer camp? And what are the types of things that you sort of noticed that now, in retrospect, you’ve been thinking a lot about, for instance?

Eli Valley: Okay. I mean, obviously I can’t give a single sentence about an entire climate childhood, instance, et cetera.

Hrag Vartanian: Fair.

Eli Valley: But I will say that, in terms of what’s recently been happening in the Middle East, you never realize the degree of just innate, one could say propaganda, one could say pedagogical direction, which is very benign way of saying it, that every American Jew is subjected to and imbibes, from birth to death. You know? Every synagogue, in my experience, has an Israeli flag in it and an American flag. Which, I don’t think there should be any flags in any house of worship, but let alone an Israeli flag.

Israel is taught as our Homeland, and the myths both politically and ideologically are ubiquitous. You know? So it’s not just that we, so to speak on, they literally say we, we say we, I should say, made the desert bloom. You know, it was an empty place that Jews came to. I mean, that’s the political aspect, but also the ideological and philosophical aspects of Israel being the heightened state for all Jews everywhere in the world. I mean, literally “Aliyah” means to go up, and “yordim” is the term for Israelis who leave the country, which means going down technically.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So “aliyah” is when people, when Jews migrate to Israel for those people who don’t know.

Eli Valley: Yeah, that’s the term that is used for those who moved to Israel. Earlier, in religious tradition, it’s a term when you’re called to the Torah. And so, it just shows the intensity of the vernacular. And so, all aspects of our upbringing are suffused with Israel at the core.

Hrag Vartanian: But you grew up pretty progressive. Would you characterize it that way?

Eli Valley: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, progressive influence. Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: Progressive influence.

Eli Valley: I wasn’t mailing pipe bombs to senators at the age of seven, that kind of thing.

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I don’t know if I’d call that progressive.

Eli Valley: That’s true. I don’t know. I wasn’t political at a young age, you know?

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah, you’re pulling out your satirical bone. I get it. I get it. So, okay. But now was that something … Reading that introduction to Diaspora Boy, you get the sense that your family had this sort of irreverent take sometimes.

Eli Valley: Yes, that’s true.

Hrag Vartanian: On their own identities.

Eli Valley: Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: Is that correct?

Eli Valley: Well, yes. But as I say in Diaspora Boy, my parents got divorced when I was five. And my mom has an irreverent and also social justice-inclined direction and attitude. And my father was irreverent as well, but he was much more … He was progressive on American politics, but right-wing on Israel, as many American Jews are.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: Especially of his generation.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: But I did grow up with that kind of irreverence, you could say.

Hrag Vartanian: And one thing we both share is we have genocide survivors in our family trees. Is that correct in your case?

Eli Valley: Yes, but not direct. Both my parents’ parents, in fact in my mom’s case grandparents, came here prior to the horrors of 20th century, mid-20th century.

Hrag Vartanian: So out of curiosity, when it came to something like the Holocaust, how did you understand that in terms of your family? Was that part of your upbringing? Was it part of the education around social justice? Would love to get a little bit of sense of what that meant for you.

Eli Valley: In terms of the education around social justice?

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah.

Eli Valley: Not necessarily directly, because again, social justice was sort of informal education from my mom, kind of thing. Although in Jewish day school, yes. Israel and the Holocaust were two cores of our identity and the structures of how we were taught. And I do remember in art class, and this apparently wasn’t that uncommon, drawing scenes from the Holocaust. I would need to really go through hypnosis therapy to remember exactly what I was drawing. I do remember once drawing a guy being chased in the woods. So we might have been drawing partisans, as well. I can’t remember if we actually drew gas chambers. I don’t remember right now.

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I’ll tell you in Armenian Saturday school in Toronto, we were also drawing. So I don’t think this is so uncommon. I think community drawing, drawing genocide.

Eli Valley: Genocides, really? Okay.

Hrag Vartanian: Scenes and stuff. So I do think maybe there was sort of a period where people were really confused of how to teach this, too. I just sort of want to put it out there, because I think it’s a very complicated question, for sure. Okay. First time you remember drawing, first time you remember the lure of art in your life?

Eli Valley: Well, I actually found some old drawings of my kitchen growing up at the age of 10. I think I drew better then than I do now. They faded a bit, so the black lines are really black and the other lines are sort of, the opacity is down just because of fading on this, not newsprint, but like drafting paper. And there were scenes around the house. And I like those.

I don’t know when I first started drawing. I was drawing comics at an [early] age. I was drawing my own comic, I think called Weirdo or something. I mean, there was the Chrome Weirdo. So I didn’t even know about that at the time, but it was actually influenced by Plop, which was this DC thing, which was I think partly reprints of earlier Mad/Cracked type things. It didn’t have as good a reception as some of the earlier ones, but actually Basil Wolverton, either original art or in reproductions, illustrated the covers. And he was a direct influence, definitely.

But also in summer camp, I used to draw and I have some of those still, too. My camper mates, we would be sitting out and I would draw them in pencil.

Hrag Vartanian: Which camp did you go to?

Eli Valley: I went to Ramah in the Poconos.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, okay. Okay.

Eli Valley: Do you know Ramah?

Hrag Vartanian: I’ve heard of it.

Eli Valley: It’s a conservative synagogue movement, I’m pretty sure. Don’t quote me on that, but it definitely also had a Zionist background. When you’re playing baseball and you’re out, it’s “yotzei,” which means “out.” I don’t know if it’s actually the term used in baseball in Israel, but it means “get out.” So those kinds of things, Hebrew-suffused.

Hrag Vartanian: Upbringing.

Eli Valley: All aspects. No, but of camp in particular.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it.

Eli Valley: Chadar Ochel, I’m trying to remember the place for eating, the cafeteria, things like that, they all had Hebrew names and stuff.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it.

Eli Valley: No Yiddish.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right. So then you went to Cornell.

Eli Valley: Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: And what was your college experience like?

Eli Valley: I actually don’t like to talk about Cornell. It was the worst years of my life. And so …

Hrag Vartanian: Wow.

Eli Valley: Yeah, so …

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So we’ll fast forward.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Unless you want to linger on anything.

Eli Valley: No, I don’t even talk … It’s so funny. The joke is people who went to Cornell like to brag about it. I don’t let anyone know I went there because it’s so embarrassing. And when I found out people …

Hrag Vartanian: Wait, okay. So I have to ask you why.

Eli Valley: You know, it’s …

Hrag Vartanian: Come on. It’s just you and me. No one else. [both laugh]

Eli Valley: Well, it’s a long story. But first of all, I had an injury a week before college started. And so I went up there on crutches. Going to Cornell on crutches, it’s not a fun experience. I was in a suite with kind of Lord of the Flies type people, who actually preyed on my physical handicap. I mean, I was on crutches and they were just mean people. And the larger issue was [at] Cornell, the people I met there were predominantly from a wealthier background and …

Hrag Vartanian: Class.

Eli Valley: Yeah, there were definitely a lot of class issues there that made me feel alienated. I mean, I eventually made friends and got along okay. But I always associate it with the darkest periods.

Hrag Vartanian: Did you ever face antisemitism there?

Eli Valley: Yeah, yeah. Well, not directly. It’s funny because Cornell has a very strong, large Jewish population, but for some reason I ended up freshman year with just the entire floor was not Jewish. And I don’t know if that inspired … One guy was this track guy from New Mexico, he would talk about the hats that Jews wear and stuff, and little comments here and there. But it was never like, “You fucking k-word,” kind of thing.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it, got it.

Eli Valley: But I do think I was an outsider, which is weird. Cornell, in the Northeast, Jewish Northeast. Basically when I was there, it’s not like that anymore, but when I was there, there was the West campus and North campus. West campus was known [as] more social, probably party-ish as well. North campus was more quiet and maybe withdrawn, et cetera.

 I think now they forced everyone to go on North campus as freshmen. I’m not sure though. But I think they sort of tried to correct for what was going on when I was there. And when I was there, I ended up on North campus. And so that was already alienating a little bit, being on a floor with just this random assortment of people that I wasn’t really clicking with, was another thing. And going there and crutches. Oh, I missed the entire orientation, too, because I was in the hospital.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh my God. Okay.

Eli Valley: But I will say this, if I may.

Hrag Vartanian: Please.

Eli Valley: Because I know you wanted to talk about Prague.

Hrag Vartanian: Yes.

Eli Valley: Right?

Hrag Vartanian: I want to talk about Prague after that, yep.

Eli Valley: Okay. Well, I will say, it all comes together because … I never really talk about this, but what the hell. Just briefly. I was working at a day camp the summer after graduating high school, a Jewish day camp, actually. And I sustained an injury at the camp on the bus, basically. Long story. I don’t need to get into the details of that, but basically it was a worker’s compensation thing.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh wow.

Eli Valley: And the suit was settled when I finished Cornell. And without that money, I never would’ve been able to go to Prague.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh wow. Okay.

Eli Valley: I mean, it really opens up your understanding of privilege in America. I mean, my student loans alone would’ve kept me … And the kind of job I would’ve been able to get. I would’ve been really in a very bad state, financially and emotionally, had I not … And by the way, it wasn’t so extravagant that I could, you know, retire for life.

Hrag Vartanian: Of course, yeah.

Eli Valley: But it was enough to be able to pay off my loans, pay for a plane ticket, and pay for my rent in the beginning of Prague, before I started doing some other things there.

Hrag Vartanian: I wanted to bring up Prague because when I was doing research for this, there was one article that mentions you moved to Prague. And then, because you had some workable Hebrew and sort of I guess, needed a job, you ended up being a tour guide?

Eli Valley: Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: To groups, both from Israel and other tour groups as well, as well as Jewish Americans.

Eli Valley: Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: And all these types of things. Tell us a little bit about that experience. And part of the questions I’m asking is also to understand how you’re thinking on this issue evolved. When I say this issue, I mean about art, I mean about identity, I mean about politics in general.

Eli Valley: Well, I mean, from the Jewish perspective, when I was in Prague … Because first of all, my dad’s a rabbi. You didn’t mention that, but that’s …

Hrag Vartanian: That’s sort of subtext. Seems it’s important to mention, yeah.

Eli Valley: Yes. But my experience in the American Jewish community was, I took everything for granted, you know? And when I was in Prague becoming friends with the local Jewish community, and in the years following communism, I just met people who looked upon Judaism and Jewish community in a far different way than what I had experienced.

And also when I would meet these tourists coming from all over the world, I would sort of see it every day through their eyes, which was also eye-opening for me. So it gave me … My haters would be shocked because they say that I’m an antisemite, but it actually gave me a greater appreciation for the treasurer of Jewish tradition, especially of course in the diaspora.

But also I will say that most of my American tourists came to Prague assuming it was a graveyard, because of our Israel-slash-Holocaust identity, bifurcation upbringing. And so, they just expected to see only sites of horror and devastation, both graveyards from the past and also devastation from the war period. And although Prague was not exempted from the Holocaust, there’s a synagogue, the Pinkas Synagogue, with names of close to 80,000 Jews who were murdered. I would need to check the numbers. I don’t want to …

Hrag Vartanian: I get it. I think people understand that it’s sort of ballpark.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Because the numbers are always horrific as it is, so I don’t think we have to play that game of how many exactly. We’re good.

Eli Valley: So, I’m not saying that the Holocaust didn’t happen in Prague. What I’m saying is that people come there expecting only devastation. And then when you open their eyes to, for instance, the oldest continuously used synagogue in all of Europe, the Alteneu Shul, where the most famous golem legend occurs there.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. And golem, for those who don’t know, of course is sort of a spirit creature or something in Yiddish tradition. How would you characterize the golem?

Eli Valley: I wouldn’t say spirit creature, as much as just a humanoid made of clay.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, right. That’s it. That’s it. I apologize.

Eli Valley: Or mud. It doesn’t have to be clay or mud. Actually, I wrote a book about …

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right.

Eli Valley: There are ones that are actually made of wood too, early on.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: But it’s actually one of the differences between a golem and a human being is the capacity for speech, because that is supposed to be the thing that carries the human spirit and conscience, and therefore if they can’t speak …

Hrag Vartanian: No, in early cinema, it looks very ghostlike, the way they sort of represent it.

Eli Valley: Oh, do they? Oh, okay.

Hrag Vartanian: Maybe that’s why I’m thinking ghostlike.

Eli Valley: That makes sense. Yeah. Or dybbuk. Sometimes people confuse dybbuk and golem. But anyway …

Hrag Vartanian: I do it every day. I admit it. I admit it.

Eli Valley: And also, for various reasons, there were streets, even though the entire former Jewish quarter had a renovation in the early 20th century, there were still so many synagogues that existed. Plus of course, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov, that district. It opened up travelers’ eyes, but also my own eyes to the richness of Jewish history that I had maybe taken for granted, when I was living in America.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, so you spent how long in Prague?

Eli Valley: Five years.

Hrag Vartanian: Five years. Then you came back.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: What brought you back?

Eli Valley: Well, I finished this travel book and I realized … Because I was also writing fiction there.

Hrag Vartanian: So do you want to mention the travel book?

Eli Valley: Oh. Well, I don’t make a penny off it. I wish I did, but it was a bad situation with the publisher, of course. But it’s called The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe. I don’t even know if it’s still in print. I meant to just scan it in and throw it online, but it takes time to do that, too.

Hrag Vartanian: Of course.

Eli Valley: I think you can get it used, or a lot of it’s on Google Books actually, if you check it out.

Hrag Vartanian: Good idea.

Eli Valley: Of course, all of the current information needs to be updated.

Hrag Vartanian: Of course.

Eli Valley: All the historical stuff is still good stuff.

Hrag Vartanian: So you finish the book.

Eli Valley: Yeah. And so I realized that my connections to American culture were becoming attenuated. I was living in Prague. All my friends were Czech. Basically, I was at this precipice where, if I were to continue living there, the fiction that I was working on would basically be emigrant fiction, sort of. You know?

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: I was no longer comfortable with … I mean, I was comfortable, but I was just feeling the tendrils disappear from my consciousness, of American culture. You know? And this is beginnings of the internet, basically. This is late ’90s.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: So it wasn’t as easy to stay connected. And even if you’re connected … I mean, even today, if you’re in another country all the time, it doesn’t matter how many newspaper articles you’re reading from America. You’re still imbibing the local culture, and that’s what is inspiring, however you interpret inspiring. So, I knew that if I was going to stay in … Because basically my Czech was conversational. It wasn’t enough to … I mean, it was conversational. I got by, but …

Hrag Vartanian: You weren’t going to start writing in it.

Eli Valley: No, I wasn’t going to start writing it. But also like this, examples are, the most salient examples for me were when people would make references to Russian cartoons from their childhood.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: I didn’t know those things. And it would always be a stumbling block. And I knew that I could cross that boundary, with a huge amount of work, and just become a Czech, in every sense of the culture, of the word. But I didn’t want to. I love Czech, but I also was missing my American roots, and I wanted to continue working on fiction. And so it’s like, I needed to go to my own homeland, which was America.

Hrag Vartanian: So, would you say your work is in the American tradition? Do you find that your work fits most in that tradition?

Eli Valley: Yes. I mean, obviously right now I’m doing, these are political comics. And when I was coming back from Prague, I didn’t actually expect to be doing political comics.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it.

Eli Valley: I was thinking that I’d be doing fiction, and yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: And so your first comics, where were they published?

Eli Valley: My first comics?

Hrag Vartanian: In general.

Eli Valley: In life?

Hrag Vartanian: In life. Was that in Cornell?

Eli Valley: Yeah, I did some work at Cornell, but also fifth grade I did Five Alive.

Hrag Vartanian: But did it get published?

Eli Valley: Well, it was a mimeograph or whatever. It was a Xerox from like fifth grade, so yes.

Hrag Vartanian: Wow okay, sorry.

Eli Valley: I count that.

Hrag Vartanian: You were DIYing it in fifth grade.

Eli Valley: Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: I love it.

Eli Valley: It was Samizdat. So there’s the fifth grade stuff. I did stuff at Cornell. And then when I came to Prague originally, I was trying to get some kind of gig with either Prague Post or Praguenosis, these two English …

Hrag Vartanian: English language, right.

Eli Valley: Yeah. It didn’t quite work out. I did maybe one thing for them. I still have a picture of Havel that I did, of Meciar who was the head of Slovakia at the time. And I was pitching here and there, but it never really worked out. And honestly, my feeling at the time was I was a fiction writer. And it’s like, how am I going to have my day job be as unstable financially as my passion job? So why am I doing this cartooning, when I should just put it all into the fiction and not worry as much about the cartooning anymore.

And again, drawing Havel for the Prague Post, it’s such a cultural impersonation, you know? I’m an American in Prague for three weeks and I’m going to start drawing Havel? It’s absurd. And I should say that the Havel drawing was just a portrait. It was not a cartoon on his …

Hrag Vartanian: I get it.

Eli Valley: You know, post-Soviet …

Hrag Vartanian: Realities.

Eli Valley: Politics.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right, exactly.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, so now you come back to the US. And so we’re talking early aughts, around 2000? When is this?

Eli Valley: Roughly, roughly. Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Roughly. Okay. So what do you do? You touch ground, and what do you start doing then?

Eli Valley: Well, I was actually editing the travel book for six months. And then after that, I had all these temp jobs in New York. I worked …

Hrag Vartanian: So you came back to New York?

Eli Valley: Yeah. Yeah, I did. I’m trying to remember now, a whole array of time, including CBS news once. I was answering phones one time, literally Dan Rather calls. And I’m like, “Who? Who is this?” He’s like, “Dan. I work here.” That kind of thing. So I was just trying to get by, et cetera. But again …

Hrag Vartanian: It sounds like the perfect transition job.

Eli Valley: Yeah. Yeah. New York Magazine as a fact checker for maybe six weeks or so. I think I have one little thing in one of their issues, one of their retrospective issues, looking back at the previous 20 years or so. And oh, this is funny though. I mean, the only way to make it in this fucking country or in this world is through who you know.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: And the only person I knew was my rabbinical father. And so, he actually tried to get me a job at the ADL of all places.

Hrag Vartanian: The Anti-Defamation League?

Eli Valley: Yeah, yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Sorry, I’m just laughing, knowing the more recent comments.

Eli Valley: Right, no, exactly.

Hrag Vartanian: And what you’ve drawn.

Eli Valley: Foxman must have been there at the time.

Hrag Vartanian: Foxman who, of course, is the head of the ADL and has been forever.

Eli Valley: Well, no, he’s not anymore.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, right. He’s not. Okay, sorry. I apologize.

Eli Valley: Yeah, now it’s Jonathan Greenblatt.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right, who was the head of the New England ADL for a while. Wasn’t he? I’m trying to remember.

Eli Valley: No, he had the head of the New England ADL fired for …

Hrag Vartanian: That was what it was.

Eli Valley: … acknowledging the Armenian genocide.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, that’s true.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Ah, that’s where I remember the name from.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: I was like, wait a minute. There was a New England connection.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, got it. Go ahead.

Eli Valley: Anyway, but it does turn out that my dad was able, via just a phone book kind of thing, to call someone who worked at a Jewish foundation, here in New York. And that’s how I got an in to begin just doing clerical work for them, xeroxing and stuff like that.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So, your experience at the ADL, what was that like?

Eli Valley: No, it wasn’t at the ADL. Again, it was another nonprofit. The ADL didn’t come through. It was another Jewish foundation. And I started off there doing clerical work and ended up editing their in-house journal kind of thing. So, that was a job that I had. That was my day job in New York until a couple years ago.

Hrag Vartanian: Were you still involved in making comics at the time?

Eli Valley: Well, that’s the thing. I returned to comics in the midst of that, maybe in 2006 or so. And then I just, I found it to be an exhilarating means of self-expression and commentary, so I continued with it.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So, where did you start publishing then? Was it then you were publishing at The Forward or where else were you …

Eli Valley: Originally it was Jewcy, which was this …

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, I remember Jewcy.

Eli Valley: Do you?

Hrag Vartanian: I do remember.

Eli Valley: Oh, okay. So then, there you go. It was this startup …

Hrag Vartanian: Now, it’s spelled J-E-W-C-Y.

Eli Valley: Yeah. Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: It was kind of this … It almost had a bit of a sort of, again, irreverence, almost punk aesthetic-y kind of energy.

Eli Valley: Iconoclastic.

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah, iconoclastic. That’s a great word.

Eli Valley: Yeah. And so they had room for me, on a freelance basis. So that was nice. And I published some of my earliest work there, including … Or earliest …

Hrag Vartanian: That’s probably where I first saw your work, now, come to think of it.

Eli Valley: Israel Man and Diaspora Boy, I think originally published there. The Incredible Hulk I think was there, originally. That was nice. And then eventually I was able to get into The Forward.

Hrag Vartanian: Nice.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: And The Forward, of course, sort of had I guess a certain cache in that they’d been publishing not only Jewish writers, Jewish American writers, but also comics at the time, too, for a few decades, no?

Eli Valley: Yeah, they published some of the greats, Ben Catcher.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right.

Eli Valley: Art Spiegelman.

Hrag Vartanian: Yep. That’s right.

Eli Valley: Yeah, yeah. The Forward …

Hrag Vartanian: That’s a nice lineage to be part of.

Eli Valley: Yes, it is. And I had wanted to for a while, but I’m not really sure what the reason was. I think the person who eventually started Tablet was the arts editor at the time. And she kept humoring me whenever I kept submitting stuff. In retrospect, you can sort of understand that it wasn’t a good fit. And only once she left and there was this sort of in-between, sort of instability zone, was I able to find a way to get my stuff in there. Initially, someone there asked me to write a book review. And I said, “Can I actually draw a book review?” And then that’s what led to other stuff.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, that’s awesome.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. I didn’t know that. And for those of you who don’t know, The Forward has a very strong, progressive heritage here in New York. It’s been publishing for over a century. And nowadays it’s a little different, it’s veered off maybe part of that mission, at least what people considered that mission, but has really helped the careers of a lot of writers in entering the publishing world. So I just want to give that context for people who may not know that.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Because [The] Forward has a big presence in New York, but I don’t know how much it has outside of New York, sometimes.

Eli Valley: Well, yeah. I think we should also say that Forward was a Yiddish newspaper a hundred years ago.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right. Yep.

Eli Valley: And it was an institution. It was one of the primary vehicles by which Jewish immigrants in America would acclimate to American society, via the Bintel Brief column and other pieces in The Forward or columns in The Forward. And then it was renewed as an English language paper in, I think, 1990, with a neo-conservative bent originally, but then it became less so. And again with its progressive roots. But then things just started tumbling and now it’s not even a newspaper. It’s online only.

Hrag Vartanian: Hey, online is not so bad. [laughs]

Eli Valley: I’m just saying, in contrast to …

Hrag Vartanian: Yes. Seems to be a lot more Opinion than there used to be in The Forward. But that’s just neither here nor there.

Eli Valley: There’s a lot of clickbait going on now and a lot of pieces to rile people up, for that purpose.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. And so, okay. So now you’re in New York, you’re doing comics again. How did you know that this was your calling, comics was your calling? How were you supporting yourself? What were you gravitating towards? Did you see yourself as part of a tradition?

Eli Valley: Oh, absolutely. The last part I can answer. I mean, I don’t understand the other questions. I mean, supporting myself? I still had the day job. But the tradition, yes. I definitely saw myself as part of a tradition, from the …

Hrag Vartanian: What was that tradition?

Eli Valley: Well, the tradition was both the Yiddish comics in terms of Jewish communal … because again, these were in The Forward, my comics in The Forward were Jewish communal criticism, self-criticism, et cetera. And so the Yiddish antecedents were quite inspiring, as well as the mid-century Yiddish comics, known as Mad, the Mad comics …

Hrag Vartanian: Which you consider very important, which I agree with you. I think they’re incredibly important.

Eli Valley: Yes. Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: So do you want to talk about why?

Eli Valley: Because, I say this a lot, but they held a funhouse mirror up to the sacred icons of American culture.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: And also, from a Jewish perspective, it was made by children of immigrants who refused to let go of Yiddish. In the first issue, they have a story called “Ganefs,” which is Yiddish for “crooks,” “thieves.” They threw in Yiddish throughout. And also just the way it was drawn, Bill Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, they were packing the panels with so many figures and so many little details and little asides, that it became sort of like, you’re eavesdropping on a family in the tenements, basically.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay.

Eli Valley: I mean, obviously it’s …

Hrag Vartanian: No, no, I love it.

Eli Valley: Okay.

Hrag Vartanian: I actually wanted to hear you describe it because I think it really helps us also understand why you see it’s so important, as part of this lineage, right?

Eli Valley: Yes. Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: I think that’s why.

Eli Valley: And also, they were politically pretty bold as well, in terms of anti-McCarthyism at the time.

Hrag Vartanian: And had such a wide appeal.

Eli Valley: And anti-racism.

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. And had such a wide appeal and not necessarily the demographics you expected to be reading anti-racism comics.

Eli Valley: Yes. Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: You know what I mean? Which is really interesting.

Eli Valley: And anti-corporate, as well. I mean, mocking Walt Disney, just mercilessly.

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right.

Eli Valley: Yeah, so that kind of thing.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So now some of the other part of this lineage that you see yourself part of, after Mad … Do you want to talk a little bit about some of the other artists that you feel an affinity towards?

Eli Valley: In general?

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. That you see direct precedents in your work, or you think about, whether it’s Art Spiegelman or others.

Eli Valley: Yes. Well, Art Spiegelman, for sure. But outside of the American milieu, Weimar, [German] artists, Grosz, Dix, many of whom were ostracized and made illegal, via the degenerate name. I mean, that alone is inspiring. But anti-fascist art in general.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So now fast forward, what led to the creation of Diaspora Boy, as a publication?

Eli Valley: Well, I mean, I think a number of factors led to it, including the ADL telling The Forward that I mustn’t be published there anymore and losing …

Hrag Vartanian: Ooh, juicy. Okay. So let’s hear this story.

Eli Valley: Well, I mean, it’s in Diaspora Boy, too.

Hrag Vartanian: Yep, but I want people to hear it, people that don’t know your work.

Eli Valley: Oh, okay.

Hrag Vartanian: So this is introducing you to a whole new group of people.

Eli Valley: Right. Well, basically I made fun of Abe Foxman one too many times. And I drew him as an antisemite, it’s actually relevant today, who was furious at Jews who were critical of Israel, who didn’t consider Israel part of their identity. And he called them filthy Jews. I was subverting and sort of inverting the classic definitions that we assume about antisemitism. And I was saying this guy’s an antisemite because he despises a sizeable percentage of American Jews. As a result, he told the people in the ADL not to speak to Forward reporters, and they pulled their ads.

Hrag Vartanian: Wow.

Eli Valley: And so I didn’t have a clean break because The Forward, I was told, didn’t want to have a paper trail of kowtowing to Abe Foxman, but ..

Hrag Vartanian: No one’s going to write a postcard and say, “Please stop publishing.”

Eli Valley: Yes. But I was told via other people there that I should stop sending in pitches. And they did publish me here and there over the course of the next few months, but the sign was clear and it was over. I’m trying to think, this is post-Forward, pre-Trump. And I wanted to sort of put together the works that I had been working on for the previous 10 years. And Diaspora Boy, it gave a totality to all the work, because it brought it together via the initial mockery of disdain for diaspora Jews, which is endemic to Zionist culture.

Hrag Vartanian: So, what did that feel like, Eli? I mean, I can’t imagine. Forward was probably part of your life growing up. There are all these renowned cartoonists that have been part of it, the publication. What did that feel like? I mean, that seems like a pretty strong rejection.

Eli Valley: Oh yeah. It was devastating at the time, but the good thing was, everyone with a moral center and comedic sensibility was on my side. And so, I definitely didn’t feel like I was being thrown out from the community, because the people that the community was catering to were not for me, anyway. So, I had defenders. Often they were silent defenders, but they …

Hrag Vartanian: As they often are.

Eli Valley: Yes, of course. They all wanted to keep their jobs when they were at The Forward.

Hrag Vartanian: Same thing happens here. It’s like, we’ll say something really strong and it’s like people in the back go, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re saying it.” I was like, could you say that in public? But of course, no one does.

Eli Valley: Yeah. But I don’t actually remember the emotions at the time so well now. It’s a very hot room right now, so I’ll get really overheated if I try and relive it.

Hrag Vartanian: So it’s still a lot of strong feelings.

Eli Valley: Yeah. But no, I don’t really have strong feelings now.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it.

Eli Valley: I would have to dig them up again, basically.

Hrag Vartanian: Gotcha.

Eli Valley: But I know for a fact that I was not in a good way when it ended. It’s like the … What do you call it? Alcatraz scene, the guy, he’s not allowed to paint anymore so it chops off his own hand, right?

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. [laughs]

Eli Valley: No, I wasn’t considering doing that, but it was like removing the means of self-expression, it felt cataclysmic at the time.

Hrag Vartanian: What year was that, that that happened? Was it 2016?

Eli Valley: No, no. I need to look.

Hrag Vartanian: Earlier?

Eli Valley: I think it was like 2013.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, it’s that early.

Eli Valley: The end of 2013. And then I had a couple more comics printed in 2014 and so …

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, so it was around that time.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: So now, what did you do after that? What did that push you to do?

Eli Valley: Honestly, I would need to go back and look at my work. But at some point in there, I was working on memoir comics. And I think I wanted to do more memoir comics at a time, but I don’t know if that was particularly within that chronology, you know?

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So after you stopped publishing with The Forward, I’m going to rewrite history and say you left The Forward.

Eli Valley: Okay.

Hrag Vartanian: So what did you start doing then? I mean, for some creative people, you think that kind of rejection can really play with your head a little bit, right? What did you end up doing?

Eli Valley: Well, actually, I was pitching my same kind of comics elsewhere. So I was doing some stuff sometimes for The Nation, sometimes for the New Republic, Gawker, whoever would publish me, basically. And I was trying to accumulate a steady stream of freelance gigs, I guess.

Hrag Vartanian: So then, how were you sustaining yourself? I mean, you were doing day jobs still?

Eli Valley: Yeah, still a day job.

Hrag Vartanian: What kind of day jobs. Do you mind sharing?

Eli Valley: Well, again, it was the same job. It was a Jewish foundation. I was working at a Jewish foundation.

Hrag Vartanian: So you’re doing clerical work mostly?

Eli Valley: No, no. Again, I started clerical work.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. Okay.

Eli Valley: But then …

Hrag Vartanian: I’m glad you corrected me. Go ahead.

Eli Valley: Sorry, I don’t mean to.

Hrag Vartanian: I don’t mind.

Eli Valley: Yeah, basically I started doing clerical work, but then they needed somebody who could write and edit. And so I was editing their in-house journal. And I was doing that for quite a while, until I think two years ago.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow. Okay. That recent.

Eli Valley: Yeah. And so, it was a very secure thing to have in New York. I had health insurance. I was able to save some money during it, while also drawing comics. And for whatever reason, I was drawing comics that were extremely critical of Jewish communal stuff and never got fired for it. I really lucked out, in that regard.

Hrag Vartanian: So what were the people around you … I mean people you went to Jewish summer camp with, I mean school, your family, what were they saying about your comics? Because sometimes our families and the people closest to us can sometimes be our fiercest critics.

Eli Valley: Yeah. Well, I mean, I don’t really hang out with people I went to Camp Ramah with, when I was 12 or 10. My milieu in New York, it happened to be, some of the people were Jewish people who had similar upbringings as me, and they loved the work. I was actually doing it partly for my small circle of friends at the time, the circle of friends of this background, I would send them scripts. I would send them ideas. Now I do all my comics, I’m just basically in this cocoon. I just draw it and then I throw it out there. And I really love that. But back then, it was really a bit symbiotic with my friends at the time. I would run scripts by them, run ideas by them. And a lot of them were also working in Jewish communal institutions. And they were also, like me, a bit not happy with the state of Jewish communal institutions, you know?

Hrag Vartanian: Totally.

Eli Valley: So, it was a very nice period. I don’t know what’s going on now in terms of younger people working in the Jewish world. I mean, because the Jewish world hasn’t changed. It’s only become more … In fact, it’s probably gotten worse in some regard. Because back when I was doing it, this is like 2007, 2008, and then a few years after, there was a huge push in the Jewish community for the next big thing that will captivate the American Jewish youth.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: It always had to be, it couldn’t be anti-Zionist. Whether or not it was focused on Israel, that’s another matter. And so those things were often a source of parody for me and my friends. I don’t even know. These days, they don’t seem to be that, unless I’m just totally out of it, which is also possible, but I don’t really think there are that many of those initiatives anymore. They seem to be increasingly driven by Israel stuff. But maybe, again, it’s just what I’m seeing from the outside.

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. It’s possible. The other thing is, I do think there is an element of, those conversations are being included in other organizations in a way, perhaps. I don’t know. Do you think that’s part of it?

Eli Valley: What do you mean?

Hrag Vartanian: Like do a lot of the different …

Eli Valley: Like that they’ve co-opted the criticism?

Hrag Vartanian: No, I don’t think co-oped. That’s not what I mean. I mean in terms of, maybe when you’re talking about these different initiatives, a lot of the progressive spaces, there are always Jewish organizers, or they’re talking about different topics that might be of interest to young Jewish progressives or something. I’m just saying maybe they’re not necessarily independent organizations anymore. I’m just wondering if that’s the case.

Eli Valley: Right. But no, I honestly think that there was a lot of money from mega funders …

Hrag Vartanian: Got it.

Eli Valley: In the early aughts and mid-aughts, in reaction to population studies saying that intermarriage was on the rise.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, right. There we are.

Eli Valley: And they were throwing money at anything that they thought would appeal to younger Jews to stay within the Jewish community. That was really it. I just don’t know if that money is being thrown anymore, because these mega funders wanted ROI, return on investment.

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right.

Eli Valley: And they wanted to know that there’s an uptick in in-marriages, et cetera, like that. And I was making fun of that in my comics for The Forward, which was great. I don’t know if …

Hrag Vartanian: I see what you’re saying.

Eli Valley: They might have lost attention. They might have given up.

Hrag Vartanian: They’re not getting the ROI, so they’ve moved on to something else.

Eli Valley: Yeah. Yeah. No, seriously. I think that’s literally it, but there might be other factors as well.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. Okay. That makes sense. Okay. So now, let’s fast forward slightly to the Trump era. I say that because I think in many ways it propelled you into the mainstream in a way that you were probably not expecting. I mean, the Trump administration in so many ways was a Venn diagram of all the evils in the world, times all the … I don’t know what. For many reasons, there were so many issues that came up around the Trump administration. And those of us who were critical of it saw it very much of this, I don’t know if some negative issues can be intersectional, but the Trump administration was the intersectional version of whatever that was.

Eli Valley: Yeah. Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: So what [were] your first reactions? How did the Trump administration evolve for you? I’d love to hear a little bit about that.

Eli Valley: Well, I had actually wanted, I think, to move beyond political comics. I don’t want to say beyond, but away from political comics.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: I felt that I had said what I wanted to say about Jewish communal and Zionist issues and themes. And I wanted to explore other areas. And I didn’t think Trump would win. I was drawing a couple comics prior to the election mocking him because it was the dominant American cultural item, and it drew me to it. But I didn’t think he would win. And when he did win, I did consider it a catastrophe. I know other people would be more cynical about it and say actually it wasn’t much of a divergence from American history at all. But I mean, both things can be true. He can embody American historical forces and also be a divergent figure.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right.

Eli Valley: And so that drew me back into political comics, which I hadn’t really planned on doing. And also, clearly different from my Jewish work, because just stylistically, the Jewish work for The Forward especially was broad-sheet format, a large 12- or 15-panel comic that often is an allegory or just this fictional universe, that I love doing. But because of the news cycle and because of the visceral impact of what was happening, I preferred doing single panels, which I had actually previously considered to be a dead genre, just reacting to or illustrating the news. I generally hate the single frame.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, artists. Artists love to call something dead and then just revitalize it, right?

Eli Valley: Oh, really? That’s funny. But it wasn’t deliberate. It was sort of like it was the best means of expression of the outrage.

Hrag Vartanian: So what was the first time that you really were like, “Okay, I need to draw this and get it out into the world?” Whether it’s through Twitter or something else. When was the first time that your rage was so intense that you’re like, “This needs to get out in the world.” And then the first time you got this kind of vitriol, that unfortunately we’ve seen …

Eli Valley: Are you referring to under Trump?

Hrag Vartanian: Under Trump, yes.

Eli Valley: I would need to look at my … I mean, I would need to look.

Hrag Vartanian: So nothing memorable? I mean, it’s all right. It doesn’t have to be the very first, but was there anything so memorable? Or has it just been a barrage, that’s why you can’t remember?

Eli Valley: No, it’s just so much. I mean, each of them might be that. I think after the Pittsburgh massacre, drawing Trump with an assault rifle, saying that Democrats need to fix their antisemitism problem. I mean, that is an example, but it’s not the earliest one because that was …

Hrag Vartanian: But let’s talk about that one maybe, because that was such a hot-button topic that you took on. I mean, that moment, of course, for a lot of people who remember the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, where a far-right extremist went in and killed a number of Jewish Americans in the synagogue. Now, what was the response to that? Because you’ve been very vocal about the response of the Jewish American community around this. Can you talk a little bit about that and what was it about that, that became such a flash point for you?

Eli Valley: Well, it’s a large issue. And it’s actually, my feeling now is that the American Jewish community, the infrastructure and the communal leadership, is an Israel advocacy community. I mean, there are exceptions, the Federation doing work with seniors for instance, but in large part. Proof of this was when Trump became president, every single Jewish institution should have been absolutely melting down and marshaling all resources to combat what was happening. And instead, a minority were doing that, and other, certain organizations, a small component of their organization was working against Trump, but by and large, it was, “Let’s wait and see. He’s good to Israel.” The same communal leadership that had embraced and celebrated the vicious, murderous prime minister of Israel for a full decade. What kind of moral position were they in? They’d already shown their hand.

And so, after Pittsburgh, what was probably most nauseating was that Israel sent over a bunch of ministers, including Naftali Bennett, I guess the next prime minister over there, both downplaying American antisemitism on Trump, white supremacist antisemitism, and basically defending Trump. Naftali Bennett actually downplayed numbers of rise of [antisemitism]. He’s like, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.” In the immediate aftermath of Pittsburgh, you know? And whenever they will defend Trump, they’ll say, “He can’t be an antisemite.” They’ll say because of his daughter or son-in-law, grandchildren, and also because of Israel. They always bring up destroying the Iran deal and moving the embassy to Jerusalem, as if that shows that he is not an antisemite. You know?

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: hen we have the biggest antisemites, or some of the biggest antisemites in America, are the biggest Zionists in America.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, so let’s talk about that. Because I think for a lot of people, their heads are probably exploding because they don’t get the difference between Zionism and Jewishness, at least for some people. Now, why do you feel it’s important to call out Zionism?

Eli Valley: That’s a very open question.

Hrag Vartanian: It is an open question, and that way you can answer it any way you want, honestly, because I want you to just sort of have the ability to answer it the way you think is appropriate, knowing that a lot of people may not be very well versed on what Zionism actually is.

Eli Valley: Okay. Well, I just want to clarify, when I said some of the biggest anti-Semites, I’m referring to evangelical Zionism.

Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. And that’s a good clarification to be made.

Eli Valley: Yeah, yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Because Zionism in America started mostly as a Christian Zionism.

Eli Valley: Oh, I don’t know if it started, but right now it is numerically, I think both in terms of physical numbers, but also in terms of fundraising, CUFI, however they pronounce it, Christians United for Israel, is probably the largest Israel advocacy organization in the world, outside of Israel. And it’s an extremist Christian organization that is, they think, planting the seeds for …

Hrag Vartanian: The end times.

Eli Valley: The end times, yeah. And so you can be a …

Hrag Vartanian: Sounds like a fun bunch, right?

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: You’re planning for the end times. That sounds fun.

Eli Valley: Well, the head of CUFI said that Hitler was a hunter and God sent him.

Hrag Vartanian: Wow.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay.

Eli Valley: And then he tried to clarify and all that. They always tried to clarify.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: But you can be a vicious antisemite and a Zionist, you know?

Hrag Vartanian: Sure.

Eli Valley: And when I mentioned earlier, the Israeli flags in our synagogues, I mean the American Jewish community has for decades conflated Jewishness with Israel, with Zionism, while also rightfully saying that you cannot conflate the two, to the outside world, when they try and blame American Jews, diaspora Jews, for what Israel does. But we can’t have it both ways.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: And so …

Hrag Vartanian: So during this time, I mean, around the Pittsburgh shooting and others, you started entering mainstream media conversations. I mean, Meghan McCain was kind of going after you. There were a number of other people. Bari Weiss has been very vocal, who, I don’t know if everyone’s going to know who Bari Weiss is, but just as an explanation, [she] was an opinion editor, opinion writer. Would that be accurate? Who’s now become part of this substack-aratti and trying to kind of create their own name, after being let go at the New York Times. And anyway, complicated story. But now, why do you think that they focused on you? Do you know? Because it’s not like you were the only critic of that. Why was it that they felt like there was a certain political, frankly, maybe they were being political opportunists, but why would they focus on you and your images?

Eli Valley: I mean, I don’t know. I can’t speak for them.

Hrag Vartanian: Come on. You’ve thought about this.

Eli Valley: No, no.

Hrag Vartanian: You’ve thought about this.

Eli Valley: No, no, I haven’t.

Hrag Vartanian: No?

Eli Valley: I draw what I want to draw.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay.

Eli Valley: I’m not going to try and analyze why they’re coming after me. But I will say, Meghan McCain, I drew her. And so it’s not like she’s coming at me out of the blue.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: I don’t want to pretend that I’m some kind of …

Hrag Vartanian: Of course.

Eli Valley: Blameless. Again, I don’t deserve blame either, but that I am totally sitting on an island somewhere and then she comes over in an airplane and starts hitting me.

Hrag Vartanian: But comic artists will draw a lot of people. Not everyone’s coming after you.

Eli Valley: Right. Well, we have shifted the definition of Judaism in America, where now to be a Jew means to be an evangelical Christian, and to be an antisemite means to criticize Israel or evangelical Christians. And I don’t know if … Meghan McCain isn’t evangelical, but she is a Christian Zionist. And criticizing her meant, and also mocking her for exploiting Jewish suffering for her Zionist ends, means that I was engaging in antisemitism. That was the sort of paradox of it all. So, I can’t speak to her motives, but when she said it was the most antisemitic thing she’d ever seen, she was revealing a lot about her entire movement.

Hrag Vartanian: Which, I couldn’t believe she said that. Because it’s like, you’re like, “Really? Out of all the things you’ve ever seen?”

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: It’s this comic about you, that’s making fun of you? Come on!

Eli Valley: Yeah. Oh, it’s great. It was one of those rare examples of the repercussions of the comic not only proving the comic, but taking the comic into a new dimension, which I like.

Hrag Vartanian: So what do you do with the fact … One of the things that you’ve been doing for a while now, but I think more recently it feels like you’ve been doing it more, is you don’t even make up lines anymore. You just sort of get quotes from the transcripts, of what these people are saying.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: And then add illustrations, essentially, or add drawings and artworks to accompany them.

Eli Valley: Yeah. I don’t always do that. Often I start off with a satirical quote, but then as I’m drawing, they come out with something even more offensive than what I’ve put into their mouths. It’s like, “Well then, you can’t satirize reality when reality is so obscene. And so I’m just going to take their words and put that.”

Hrag Vartanian: So what is that about? Because we have gone through the looking glass a little bit. I feel like even in, it’s not just in this, but in so many things where reality somehow surpasses the fiction, you know? How are you grappling with that? Do you find it more freeing as an artist, to be able to do? Do you find it more restrictive? I’d love to hear a little bit of that.

Eli Valley: Wait, do I find what more restrictive?

Hrag Vartanian: Just the sort of looking glass we’ve walked into, where these characters, I mean … often there’ll be a quote that comes out about Abe Foxman and you’ll bring up one of the old comics, which sounds almost like exactly what he said. And I’m like, “I don’t know. Is this a real quote? Is it not anymore? I’m not even sure.”

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Do you know? That happens.

Eli Valley: Well, yeah, it can be challenging when reality has outpaced satire, but it can also open new vistas for satire, both of the mimeograph variety, just copy/pasting what they said, or of the grotesquery variety, which I’ve also engaged in, in the past few years. And so, there are just new areas of satire to explore when these people are such over-the-top, venal buffoons.

Hrag Vartanian: So now let’s talk a little bit about your artistic style.

Eli Valley: Okay.

Hrag Vartanian: I’d love to hear about that. So now, who do you think are the direct influences in your style?

Eli Valley: Well, I mentioned Basil Wolverton. He did stuff for Mad and also Plop, it’s where I learned about him when I was little. Also Will Elder, for sure. There’s so many EC artists, not only from Mad, but also the shock suspense stories and crime suspense stories that I used to love and reprint editions when I was little, and also as an adult, everyone from Johnny Craig to Jack Kamen. I mean, I just list these names as I just remember. Ingels, Graham Ingels. Just remembering their signatures as I coast through my memory here. I think a lot of their black-and-white artwork was scintillating for me, but I would take it to sort of different direction with the grotesqueries.

Also, of course, Charles Burns in the 1980s and ’90s, his work was also influenced by both the pulpy horror comics in the ’50s, but also romance comics as well, of the same era. And he would take it into a new direction. And so, I think he was also an influence, in terms of ways to take the original pulpy material and move it to a different direction, or maybe the same direction, but a little more extreme.

Hrag Vartanian: So now, there’s something that your figures have kind of evolved into a little bit, this certain fleshiness that you’re known for in your figures.

Eli Valley: Right.

Hrag Vartanian: And that sometimes your critics kind of see as grotesqueries, but in kind of in a … I don’t know. They seem to have a very weird understanding of images, your critics often.

Eli Valley: Well, grotesquery is I don’t think necessarily a bad term. But are you saying …

Hrag Vartanian: I agree, but I think they see it in a very peculiar way, in a very negative way.

Eli Valley: Like body-shaming? Is that what you mean, or?

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I don’t know body-shaming. Some people called it … I mean, some of the people have said antisemitic tropes and …

Eli Valley: Oh, well that.

Hrag Vartanian: You know? This is what I mean, where people who should probably know better, because, you know, it is an image, which means it has many interpretations, which means that isn’t didactic. It is engaging in the history of art, right?

Eli Valley: Right.

Hrag Vartanian: Which is a big thing. What is it that fleshiness that, one, you’re interested in, two, that you think drives people crazy?

Eli Valley: It’s a hard thing to answer because I do think the accusations of antisemitism have nothing to do with the fleshiness, have everything to do with the content of the comic. And I’ve been called that prior to doing grotesqueries. And my last one is not particularly grotesque and does not show body horror at all. And I was called Der Stürmer for it, you know?

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow.

Eli Valley: From a number of people.

Hrag Vartanian: Do you want to explain what that is, for some people who don’t know?

Eli Valley: Der Stürmer is Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi rag filled with antisemitic, caricature and invective. And people who say that about my art have less than zero understanding of art history, Jewish history, Yiddish comics. And they probably don’t even know Der Stürmer too well either, but it’s just their reflexive reaction in order to stifle all criticism of Israel.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: But in terms of like the actual grotesqueries … Wait, what was the question again about that?

Hrag Vartanian: Well, first of all, where is it coming from? Do you know … Because there’s a certain fleshiness, right?

Eli Valley: Yeah. Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: And I would disagree with you on one point. I think some people kind of use that fleshiness as a way of feeding into their own images of what antisemitism [is] or this idea of showing the body in this almost … It almost feels like it’s melting sometimes, right? Do you know?

Eli Valley: Yeah. But I do think it did arise largely from Trump himself, from my drawings of Trump himself.

Hrag Vartanian: He’s a fleshy guy.

Eli Valley: He’s a fleshy guy, but also he’s a guy who is obsessed with surface, what he considers, beauty, which is often crassness, but surface shine.

Hrag Vartanian: Veneer.

Eli Valley: Yeah, veneer. And obviously I was taking that apart, but also I was just showing the, not to get too full of myself here, but sort of the ongoing collapse of our institutions, of our society, via the form of Trump constantly metastasizing into this new form of horrors, you know?

Hrag Vartanian: So, but why do you think it drives people … At least the criticism I’ve seen online, people kind of fixate on it a little bit.

Eli Valley: Actually, I get criticism from so many different directions that I didn’t think of that one in particular.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay.

Eli Valley: You’re saying of the body horror grotesqueries?

Hrag Vartanian: The body horror, this fleshiness. And I don’t know, maybe because … I like what you’re saying in that, it sort of makes sense, particularly in this certain kind of right-wing mediascape, where image is a lot. Everything, in a way, right?

Eli Valley: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Hrag Vartanian: There is so much in this kind of … I mean, we just have to turn on Fox News and count the number of blonde women, right? Do you know, this sort of … Where I feel like those images really hit at something very deep for people, that are image-conscious. Now, what do you see that as part of a … Because I feel like you’re also part of an artistic tradition with that.

Eli Valley: Well, yeah. I mean, Otto Dix after the first World War was drawing body horror of soldiers and skeletons that had experienced the horrors.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. And war-mongers and war criminals.

Eli Valley: Oh, also. That’s right.

Hrag Vartanian: Yes. Yes. So now, I want to talk a little bit more about the end of the Trump administration, a little bit of what you learned during those years. Because I think you’re a rare artist who engages with these political ideas on a big platform, with a big voice, that actually gives direct content. Unlike most contemporary artists who make works in very rarefied spaces that somebody might write a mean review [of], but honestly, no one cares, outside of a certain circle. Tips for artists that engage at the level you do with politics? If you were to tell Eli Valley five years ago, “Eli, the next five years are going to be really interesting.” What advice would you give yourself?

Eli Valley: Yeah, those kind of questions are hard for me to answer. The only answer …

Hrag Vartanian: Well, that’s why you ask them.

Eli Valley: No, I mean, they’re hard to have any words for, because they’re so open-ended. Like, advice to myself? It’s like …

Hrag Vartanian: Would you set up the filters on your social media faster? Would you not be on social media so much? Would you be concentrating more on books? I mean, I don’t know. I would love to hear. You sound like a man with no regrets, which I kind of like, too. Okay. So now let’s talk a little bit about your work as an artist. You’re a working artist here in New York. What’s it like to make a living doing the comic work you do?

Eli Valley: Yeah. I think it’s interesting because I don’t really make a living. I had the day job, the day job ended, and now I have Patreon, which is my primary source of income.

Hrag Vartanian: So people can look up your Patreon to support your work.

Eli Valley: Right, and I appreciate that. But it’s not self-sustaining at this point. It’s basically Patreon combined with pandemic relief at this point, is keeping me going. And aside from that, what I’ve been planning on doing is, I put away money during the 20 years at the day job. I mean, roughly. I was there for so long and I was putting away money, and basically now is the time to be spending it. But I mean, it’s not sustainable. People are like, “Oh wow, you’re so successful.” I don’t know what variable they’re looking at, but certainly not the ability to sustain myself via the art.

Hrag Vartanian: Well, they’re probably looking at the fact that your images are everywhere. You’re becoming a household name. Do you know? For a lot of people, that’s a barometer of success.

Eli Valley: Oh, by the way, I’m not negating that. I’m just saying it …

Hrag Vartanian: It doesn’t feel like it sometimes when you got to pay your bills. That’s what you’re saying. [both laugh]

Eli Valley: Exactly. Yes. Maybe I don’t know how to monetize it. I’m actually very bad at sending my stuff off to the printer. People are like, “Oh, can I get a print of this?” I’m like, “Yes.” And I’m just really bad, I don’t know if this is part of your area of interest, but the more mundane aspects of being a working artist are difficult for me. My website, I had some issues with the website in terms of images per page. And I would need to do this whole overhaul. And I’m like, fuck it. So I haven’t updated my website in two years, you know? So, that kind of thing.

Hrag Vartanian: Well, people can follow you on Twitter.

Eli Valley: Yeah. And the Instagram is actually …

Hrag Vartanian: And Instagram.

Eli Valley: The easiest way to get a good view of what I’ve been doing.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So now, did the book help? Do the books help? No? No?

Eli Valley: Very, very, very minor. I mean, very minor, like almost nothing, just very minor.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. Which sounds pretty true of most artists that make books. Okay, so that’s a check. So now, the Patreon is helping out, some of the relief. What would be a perfect way to sustain your living?

Eli Valley: Perfect way?

Hrag Vartanian: In your ideal world, what would that look like?

Eli Valley: Getting some giant grant and getting that grant all the time, whenever it runs out. I mean, that’s the ideal, right? I mean, right?

Hrag Vartanian: The grant, well, I mean, everyone’s different.

Eli Valley: Pardon me?

Hrag Vartanian: Everyone’s different. So I’d just love to hear what you would consider …

Eli Valley: You know, having …

Hrag Vartanian: So the foundations that are listening, Eli’s looking for grants.

Eli Valley: I’ve never gotten any.

Hrag Vartanian: That surprises me, actually.

Eli Valley: Well, I don’t apply for grants. I don’t even know the whole process. It just sounds enervating. And also from a person who can’t even update his website, I don’t know how good I’d be at that. I don’t apply for the prizes either. Someone told me, “Oh, you should try for this one.” Or the Pulitzer or whatever. Look, you need to be associated with a newspaper for those things. You need to actually have a media organization at your back, which I don’t.

One of the things I love about what I’m doing now is, I don’t have to beg editors to publish me. That’s the other thing. People are like, “Oh wow, you’re so acclaimed.” Or whatever. Nobody contacts me and says … I mean, really, really rarely. Really rarely will someone contact me and say, “Hey, can you draw for me? We would love to feature your work.” No one does. It’s like, “Well, if I’m really at that level you’re talking about, where are these phone calls?” They’re literally nonexistent, or almost nonexistent. But I love the absolute, total creative freedom of being able to not have to pitch something, pitch a visual, which is so hard to do anyway, and just put it from my consciousness into the world and then have it live in the world. But it’s not very sustainable.

Hrag Vartanian: [That] amazes me because you really are part of the everyday conversation for many of us, whether it’s on social media or elsewhere. I know when something happens, I’ll often be looking for your comics. Do you know? “I wonder what Eli’s going to say?” You know? And I think maybe this is why people think you’re so successful, right? You sort of have an out-sized presence, in terms of the way you might feel how successful you are, but in reality, I think you’re part of the visual lexicon and the visual culture that we see daily.

Eli Valley: Right. And by the way, it’s a very capitalist thing to associate one’s success with one’s monetary income, obviously. But on the other hand, you have to eat.

Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely.

Eli Valley: And you have to live. And so …

Hrag Vartanian: I mean, it’s not like you’re saying I want to make a million. You’re just like, I want to be able to pay my bills.

Eli Valley: Yep, yes.

Hrag Vartanian: I don’t think that’s so capitalist, really.

Eli Valley: Yeah. Yeah. So, what I want to say about Patreon is, I really work hard on the essays that I put in there. And I don’t know if anyone reads them even, and it’s kind of frustrating. I’m giving all these intricate back stories and these images from history.

Hrag Vartanian: And sometimes images that you’re still working on.

Eli Valley: Yes, works in progress as well. And I just can’t … Because Patreon doesn’t give you a way to discern … It’s actually a really broken interface, we can say.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: So I don’t know how many people are looking at it, if they get it by email, if they’re only looking at a via email. But just gauging by who like likes it or something, it’s just like three or four per post. And so I just think that people aren’t really looking at them and they’re giving me the Patreon funds just to support me, which is very nice. But it’s just a little frustrating. Partly because my mom, the other day, she’s like, “Can I forward your recent Patreon post on the pogroms, that comic from last week, to my friends?” You know, for some group that she’s doing, to talk about Israel today. And I’m like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “When you post it to Twitter, people click on it and they can’t access it unless they become a Patreon.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the hope, is they would become a Patreon.” Or patron, whatever. And she’s like, “Yeah, but people need to read this because it’s giving so much background to what is happening that they just aren’t aware of.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, but if I just post it out there as a blog post, then I’m afraid that my current Patreons will be like, well, what am I paying for if he’s just giving this out for free?” So I don’t really know what the solution is to that.

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I’ll say, I’m one of your donors.

Eli Valley: Thank you.

Hrag Vartanian: I give you a little fee every month.

Eli Valley: Thank you.

Hrag Vartanian: And I wouldn’t care if you gave it out for free.

Eli Valley: Do you read them, currently?

Hrag Vartanian: I do read them.

Eli Valley: Oh, you do.

Hrag Vartanian: But I don’t get to read every one of them.

Eli Valley: Okay.

Hrag Vartanian: It usually depends on what time of day I get it and if I’m in the midst of so much work. You know what I mean?

Eli Valley: Right.

Hrag Vartanian: Or not.

Eli Valley: No, I mean, I appreciate that from your perspective. I just don’t know if that is the common perspective.

Hrag Vartanian: You should ask them.

Eli Valley: I know, maybe I should. But then it’s like, no one’s going to reply because that’s the whole point. That’s what I’m complaining about. But also, the other thing that concerns me is, we didn’t get into this, but I do have a feeling of sort of having said … I made my point basically about the Trump era. And this whole thing that’s happening in Israel and Gaza now has been galvanizing because it’s touched me in a way that drawing theoretically about filibuster reform doesn’t touch me.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Eli Valley: Okay? And I would like to be working more on, once again, narrative fiction type stuff, art fiction, graphic novel type thing. I don’t know how to do that and keep my Patreons, because the graphic novel project would take probably five years. And certainly, while I’m doing the actual art of the graphic novel, I can give working updates. But if I’m not going to be as present online or giving commentary comics every week or two, I don’t know if the Patreons will be like, “Oh, he’s on vacation.” And so then they’ll …

Hrag Vartanian: I don’t think anybody would care.

Eli Valley: Well, I don’t know. That’s your perspective, but …

Hrag Vartanian: It’s my perspective.

Eli Valley: It is a concern because I do notice, if I have not posted something in a couple weeks or something, I do see that the Patreons will go down a bit.

Hrag Vartanian: Interesting.

Eli Valley: Yeah. I mean, not always.

Hrag Vartanian: Sure.

Eli Valley: Well, you know what, also? Sometimes they go down immediately after I post something to Patreon. It’s like, what did I say? Seriously? It’s like I think they forget they’re being billed, and then they get an alert. “Oh, Eli Valley posted something. Oh shit. I’m actually paying him still?” I think that’s what happens. So, it’s a concern actually. I do feel sort of a pressure there.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s an interesting pressure. So now, do you feel like museums have been welcoming to your art? Do you feel like galleries have? I mean, I’m just curious. Not at all?

Eli Valley: No. I mean, I’ve never pitched. I don’t know how you pitch a museum or a gallery, but I have never heard from any of them, except for maybe years ago, some very startup places like, “Oh, can we put your stuff up?” But that’s the exception.

Hrag Vartanian: No, but I’m thinking even with all the political art shows that we’re seeing now.

Eli Valley: Are we? I don’t know if we’re seeing them.

Hrag Vartanian: But you’re not …

Eli Valley: No one has contacted me.

Hrag Vartanian: No one has ever approached you.

Eli Valley: No, not a single …

Hrag Vartanian: That’s not a good sign, meaning for the art world, because you’re such a part of the visual culture. It’s kind of surprising.

Eli Valley: Well, what can I say? It’s their prerogative and I can’t speak for them. I have no idea why.

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I’m a critic so I can say it. So, that sucks. [laughs]

Eli Valley: It does disturb me thinking, because it would be nice to at least be in Jewish museums, but I’m getting the impression, not that I’ve tried to, I don’t know how you even do that, but they never contacted me either. But I just assume that it’s all based on donors and what they’re afraid donors will react to.

Hrag Vartanian: Possibly. Possibly.

Eli Valley: And so.

Hrag Vartanian: Or maybe people don’t know that you’d be open to that. So maybe now this open up people’s minds. Who knows.

Eli Valley: Also in terms of academics, there’s maybe one, two, or three people in the country who have reached out to me.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, so it’s starting.

Eli Valley: No, no, no. When I say that, over the course of the past 10 years.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay.

Eli Valley: There’s one in particular, in Temple, who, she’s invited me to the Philadelphia Jewish Museum, to multiple panels there actually. And I’m only thinking of that because it’s wonderful that she does that, but also, the fact is, she’s the only person in the country that does that. I mean, there’s also one person here, one person there who will have me talk to their class or something. But in terms of putting me among academics or in a gallery-type, institutional framework, I think that’s the only person. And I’m saying it not to …

Hrag Vartanian: Very interesting.

Eli Valley: Well, I guess I am complaining, but I’m just saying it just giving you the objective reality of what it is. It’s like, you’re talking about galleries and museums. There’s literally one person who will have me talk at the Philly Jewish Museum, for instance.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. So now, how do you see your work evolving? What are some of the ambitious things you’d like to do that you haven’t been able to do yet?

Eli Valley: Well, I have been writing notes for a narrative, which really excites me. But it’s so funny because I get really into it, and then something compels me in the news cycle to draw. Obviously this Israel-Palestine thing for the past month, it’s been I think about a month now, has really taken my attention from other stuff. But so, repeatedly, I get into this, write all these notes, and then I have to get drawn away. And so, that’s annoying. But I want to be focused on this. I also want to put out a collection of my Trump-era work, and working on something for that as well. But it’s been a slow process just because of my own …

Hrag Vartanian: I’m sure that’ll be taught at Liberty University.

Eli Valley: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: That I’m sure of. Well, great, Eli. I think this was a really interesting conversation. I hope it gives people an opportunity to explore your work and get to know what you’re working on, and hopefully follow you on social media and see what you have to deal with every day. I can’t imagine how you sort of deflect all this stuff you deal with.

Eli Valley: I should say, getting the remarks that I’m a self-hating Jew and kapo all that kind of shit, again, for the past three weeks, when it had subsided a bit, when I was doing more other work, or I was getting stuff from other spheres for a while. It’s almost like an old relative is coming back. And so, it’s very familiar and …

Hrag Vartanian: Your racist uncle who shows up at Seder.

Eli Valley: Yeah, kind of actually. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s been an interesting phenomenon, the past month or so. It’s like, “Oh, there you are. I was wondering where you were.” That kind of thing. From hundreds of people.

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I’m glad you have a more light thought about that, because I know that it can be very weighing down for a lot of people. But you seem to have really been able to bring in these different aspects, and that’s definitely speaking to people through your work, through your ideas, through your drawing, through your sense of humor, frankly. I know I’m not going to be the only one that says that I appreciate that.

Eli Valley: Thank you.

Hrag Vartanian: Thank you for allowing us to sort of see the world through your eyes.

Eli Valley: Thank you. And I appreciate your appreciation. Thanks for having me here.

Hrag Vartanian: Awesome. Great.

The music this episode is “A Mineral Love” by Bibio, and it’s courtesy Warp Records. I’m Hrag Vartanian, the Editor-in-Chief and Co-founder of Hyperallergic. Thanks for listening, and see you soon.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.