Brow Beat

An Interview With the Cartoonist Behind the Only Meme Worthy of Our Current Train Wreck

Cartoonist Ward Sutton notices his Sickos cartoon staring at him through the window.
Ward Sutton, left, with his creation. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo and illustration by Ward Sutton.

At some point in the past four years, the deranged nature of our current reality probably broke a little piece of you, to the point that you started taking a perverse pleasure in certain events. Maybe it was schadenfreude when Donald Trump supporters were literally praying for Joe Biden’s win to be overturned at their local election office. Maybe it was tense excitement when conservative operators told Trump voters to boycott the crucial Georgia Senate race. Or maybe it was the bizarre joy of an especially wild college football game. Whatever the situation is, there’s one meme that’s lately been able to capture such feelings quite well: a drawing of a wide-eyed, stubbly man wearing a shirt that reads “SICKOS” who leans up against a window while chortling evilly: “Yes … ha ha ha … YES!”

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Over the past few years, but especially the past few months, this drawing has popped up as a reaction meme on Twitter and in message forums as a means of expressing a sick pleasure for the sick happenings of the day. The Sickos Guy is a creation of Stan Kelly, cartoonist at the Onion—who is really the creation of the veteran cartoonist Ward Sutton. Since 2006, Sutton’s been drawing cartoons from the POV of a disgruntled, unsubtle crank annoyed at the politically correct liberals and, yes, sickos destroying the American way of life. Who are the sickos, you may ask? Well, according to the man himself:

Sickos threaten our precious way of life at every turn: No-good teens waiting around darkened corners with their rap music and video games; maniacal store managers refusing to take coupons from honest customers; and, of course, Michelle Obama pushing her “healthy lifestyle” initiatives on innocent citizens.

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Sickos Guy appeared in 2015, in a panel Sutton/Kelly illustrated for the Onion envisioning a horrible dystopia where drugs are legalized—cop shows are now canceled because there are no more drugs to bust, and honest viewers, innocent kids, and the Statue of Liberty herself are distraught. Meanwhile, sickos look on and laugh their sicko laugh. Since then, the sickos stand-in has appeared again from time to time, always in delight at the horrible results of the future liberals want. I spoke with Ward Sutton about the rise of the “sickos” meme, the conflation of web comics and memes, and the state of cartooning in the digital age. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nitish Pahwa: What has it felt like watching the sickos meme explode? Do you remember when you first saw it, or where you were first alerted to it?

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Ward Sutton: I’ve seen it pop up once in a while, mostly because if somebody used that little excerpt of the sicko guy in a comment or a tweet or something, they would reply with a tag of me in it and so then I would see it. And sometimes, if something was posted that was Kelly-related, people might use the meme to respond to something Kelly had already done. So for a period of time, I was aware that people were grabbing that. There have been other times where the weeping Statue of Liberty or other elements of Kelly’s cartoons were treated similarly.

But what really got me to take notice was Halloween. There were two people online who posted these incredible photos that they had set up of themselves, posed and dressed like the character, with word balloons written in Kelly’s handwriting that say “Yes … ha ha ha … yes!” And I saw these and I was just completely blown away. I couldn’t believe somebody would go to that degree to really commit to the gag. One person even put makeup on her face to try to make her look like the way Kelly draws the character, and made a fake window that has the hatched lines Kelly used to draw the window.

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I sent these pictures to the editor that I work with at the Onion and we said, maybe we should do some official Onion T-shirts that are based on this, because it seems like it’s kind of taking on a life of its own. And then I started to pick up more and more cases where this was happening. A friend of mine who’s an economics professor sent me a message, “It’s everywhere.” And there was some completely dry tweet with some economic gobbledygook and the writer of the tweet said, This is me reading this brochure.

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That’s funny you mention the economics tweet because I recently saw someone post a chart about Portugal’s 10-year yield and post the meme right next to that.

Oh my gosh! It just delights me. Every time I see one of them, I can’t really believe it.

Were there specific liberal archetypes of people that Kelly had thought of to represent the sickos? Is there a particular reason the sickos are drawn that way?

Kelly has a very black-and-white view of the world. The color black, if you look through the cartoons, is most often symbolizing something bad. So he’s definitely got the sicko wearing a black shirt as though he’s a bad guy. Similar with black hair—Kelly likes to play up features like facial stubble, which he believes is grubby and something that only a nefarious person would have. And of course, bangs. He has all these subtle tricks of the trade to try to communicate to readers that this is someone to be afraid of.

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I don’t know that he necessarily sees this person as liberal or conservative per se, but I know Kelly believes that the modern way that men might go a little unshaven, that is wrong and that’s something to be critical of.

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What are your feelings on that part of the illustration being separated from the rest of the panel, without the context of what was originally the drug legalization thing?

It’s kind of an ongoing device that Kelly uses, people looking in through windows and reacting. It’s emblematic of his general paranoia about the world at large, of people always looking in on you, that the sickos are out there ready to threaten you.

Even though it’s being used without the context of any specific full cartoon, I do really like that it’s utilized in the manner that Kelly intended it. The documentary about the cartoonist of Pepe the Frog, which was co-opted by the alt-right and completely changed—I would think, as a cartoonist, that would be really distressing. But in this case, I’m just delighted, the fact that this element in the cartoon grabbed people enough that they are now using it as their own expression.

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This is a pretty common trend in web comics these days. The “This Is Fine” dog, “Let People Enjoy Things,” “You Participate in Society”—all of those have been similarly repurposed on Twitter, on social media in general. What are your thoughts on that general development in web comics/memes?

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I read a piece in New York magazine about the “This Is Fine” meme and how the author felt like it totally got out of his hands and people started commercializing it, and he had to try to figure out how to combat that or reclaim the character. My sense from that was he was totally blindsided and didn’t see this coming. I think Matt Bors has written about the “I Am Very Intelligent” one—I think he was sort of spellbound at the way that took off.

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Memes in general are competing with cartoons now. Something happens in the afternoon, the president can say or do something and people can make a meme in minutes and just have it out there and have it go viral, whereas a cartoonist has to pitch an idea, spend time drawing it, and get it out there. But for me, I’ve been delighted to see the way the sickos meme has gotten out there.

You’ve started to see people selling “Sickos” T-shirts on TeePublic. How does it feel to see other people try to grift off it?

That, to me, is sort of a bummer. I can understand how and why it happens. I’d prefer it didn’t, but I also realize it’s kind of part of the reality in 2020.

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You’ve drawn for the Onion and the Nib and more, but also for the Boston Globe and the Village Voice. What do you think of the ways the internet and the rise of web comics have shifted cartooning?

I think it’s been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I feel like my work can get out there so much more. Years ago my cartoon would appear in the Boston Globe and if you didn’t live in Boston, you wouldn’t have even known it happened. Now there’s a much wider audience when I post it on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and my own site. That’s really exciting.

At the same time, there’s a lot of people out there who don’t really see much difference between a cartoon and a meme. It’s just something you grab and you share if you want, maybe you even change it and put some your own mark on it somehow. And you wonder if the value is lessened.

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I’ll be honest with you, my rates for creating cartoons have gone down. And the number of venues for pitching and selling have dwindled somewhat. So it’s a little distressing. I have more ideas than I have people whom I can sell them to, or who will buy them. With the Onion, it’s nice to have some consistency. But it’s a challenging career. There’s a lot of pitching of ideas and frustration with communication and rejection.

But I did want to mention, since we’re talking about Kelly, there have been some pretty crazy things that have happened around him. Somebody wrote their master’s thesis on Kelly and they sent it to me and I was just so blown away. One couple had a Kelly-themed wedding—

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Wow!

They sent me a photo and labeled themselves “sophisticated newlyweds.” I think they were possibly drinking Kelly’s trademark whiskey sours. It’s crazy to have those kinds of things happen—you realize the way something you did affects somebody else’s life.

Sickos Guy reappeared recently in a cartoon about canceling Christmas. Was that directly inspired by the resurgence of the meme?

It definitely was. We thought Kelly would definitely try to both play off his own sense of self-promotion but then actually promote the shirts too.

Take me inside the mind of Kelly. What is Kelly thinking these days?

I would say Kelly, even though he prides himself on being an authority, does not actually keep up with politics, even as much as probably the average person. This has been a hugely political year, with the election and all the acrimony, but he doesn’t really comment on it that much. He doesn’t necessarily take sides. It’s sort of because he’s a little out of tune with it. He’s definitely in tune with the pandemic because it’s putting a crimp on his own personal lifestyle, but I’ve never really wanted him to be just a flat-out crazy right-winger. I think it’s more about being a lazy American who is able to enjoy all the luxuries we’ve got, relative to a lot of places in the world, without being very thoughtful about it.

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