An Ongoing Collaborative Art Project
"This Is The Worst" began as an appropriated-art cartoon I published in my minicomic "The Pain--When Will It End?" in 1999. I have since posted it online and opened it up to my readers. All are free to use the "This Is the Worst" word balloon:
to alter public-domain images of their choosing. I will be the final arbiter of quality and taste. Submissions should be sent to:
I have been well pleased by the quality of submissions to the "This Is The Worst" project (which I'm persisting in calling a "project" rather than a "contest" even though my friend Carolyn insists: "It is a contest because the prize is being chosen to appear on your website.") They span a range of horrors from the mundane to the cosmic, the dull to the grotesque, and each has its own defensible claim to being The Worst. Thanks to everyone who's submitted images so far. Please keept them coming. I know all Pain readers join me in fervently believing: The Worst is yet to come!
And now let us plunge without further delay into the carnival of horrors.
Submitted by Jeremy Witt
Jeremy opines: "I also think it works when the speech bubble is over the octopus."
Submitted by Sarah Kitchell
Above two submitted by Giulia Q
"I wonder if the look of desperation is an intended effect," says Giulia. I love both of these--the tw characters falling endlessly through a white limbo, the Void itself--but my favorite is the second one. I may love this second only to the penguin flailing between the ice-cliff and the maw of the orca best of all This is the Worsts. To me this man embodies the whole plight of homo sapiens since we switched from foraging and hunting to agriculture and started down the long, doomed road to industrialization and the "information economy" and fucked ourselves forever.
Submitted by Erick P. Gordon
This, for younger readers, is the aftermath of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. I like the truncation of our phrase into a final, definitive, we-have-our-winner pronouncement, like: "fail."
Submitted by Lorenzo Estébanez. Original painting: Dante & Virgil In Hell, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
Submitted by Katherine Wirick. Photograph of th Firt International Dada Fair in Berlin, 1920; thought balloon emanates from Margarete Herzfelde, sister-in-law of collagist John Heartfeld. Katherine writes: "At the instant of that photograph, the less-than-thrilled Mrs. Herzfelde was in a room with at least three, in my estimation, actual geniuses (Heartfield, Grosz, and Hannah Höch)." Compare with the below:
Submitted by Gary Stephens
Gary writes: "It's easy to look back through the lens of history and say, 'I would have recognized their genius! I wouldn't have sat glumly behind them, pounding my drum kit! I would at least have tried to look happy! or perhaps engaged!' But when things aren't right, there's nothing you can do ... except think to yourself, 'Truly, this is the worst.' Bless you, Pete Best."
I'd been hoping to pair this with an old photo one of my friends has in his possession, another example of the miserable-person-trapped-in-situation-in-which-everyone-else-is-exuberant genre of TITW--in this case someone's boyfriend looking despondent on a sofa while everyone else gleefully plays "Hungry Hungry Hippo"--but alas, it hasn't turned up yet.
Above six submitted by Joe Kern. We all must ride the Happy Train.
Submitted by Markos Strofyllas
It makes a nice segue from that surly little girl in her ill-suited bonnet being made to ride a carnival ride to this dog, made captive and humiliated by its masters, mutely suffering whatever dignities it has to endure, a silent pleas in its eyes, like with the a hostage being made to dress up in pretty ladies' clothes by Somali Pirates.
Submitted by Jackie Pietro
We're ghettoizing all the cute dog photos in this one section and then we'll have no more of it.
Submitted by Carolyn Ewald
Submitted by Jesse Fuchs.
Submitted by Ed Koffey
"After you finish the 567 million kilometre journey, autonomously hover over the surface of Mars and deposit the rover gently on the surface, you'll detach and fly off to land elsewhere"
Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII, 1870. Submitted by Sam Finer.
Sam writes: "This painting depicts the Cadaver Synod, one of my favorite what-the-fuck moments in history. Pope Formosus was accused of perjury in 897. He also happened to be dead. Shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia:
Oh, Christians! Keep doing that crazy thing you do so well."
Above three submitted by Jesse Kinkead
All Jesse has to say is: "I'm sorry."
Painting by Jon McNaughton
Submitted by Rob Patton
A sort of Travesties of American Icons diptych. Jon McNaughton's non-religious/political work is sheer Thomas Kinkade kitsch but whose allegorical paintings have a spooky sort of Jack Chick pamphlet/illustrated Bahagavad Gita-like conviction. Hard to imagine Ben Franklin, lecher par excellence, at ease in this setting. The less said about Lincoln Vampire Hunter the better.
Submitted by Lorenzo Estébanez
Lorenzo captions this: "Vladimir Putin--the man who couldn't love." I like how utterly puzzled and nonplussed Putin looks, as if saying, "What is this oddly-shaped object I am looking at? What is the meaning of this thing?", like a Papua New Guinea tribesman experimentally bopping an Iphone on a rock. I'm reminded of an old fairy tale in which a witch is turned into a lump of mud when she asusmes the guise of a bird and a pure-hearted young girl is mistkanely kind to her, because witches cannot bear love.
Submitted by "Riptide Monzarc," a.k.a. Seth; appropriated from one of my own cartoons, "Arguments for Inteligent Design"
Seth: "The chosen panel typifies the 'Best/Worst' dichotomy pointed out by Alexis Turner in the Icarus painting almost perfectly; I do not presume that my shoddy re-working is an improvement upon the original (in fact, I wish I were a competent enough artist to have kept the two human captions in tact, merely altering the eaten oyster's thought bubble, but alas, my skills were unequal to the task)."
Submitted by Alexis Turner/painting by Carlo Saraceni
Yet another version of the Fall of Icarus. "No matter how horrible something is, there's always someone around who gets intense pleasure from witnessing the pain of others and immediately has to gleefully tell every person he knows," writes Alexis. "In point of fact, I noticed these people in almost all your original pieces for the series. Fuckers."
Submitted by Bruce Banerdt
A 2001-like, millennia-spanning match cut here from Icarus to the Challenger, another impetuous flier who fell to the sea. "This is the worst on so many levels," writes Bruce, our submitter. "For the people involved (and by that I mean the seven people on the shuttle; most people I know have an inflated sense of what it means to be involved), for all of us watching, for the space program, for the people responsible (may they burn in a special hell) and for the naïve spirit of adventure that forgets that things are adventures precisely because they could actually go horribly wrong (otherwise it would just be Adventureland®)." Bruce goes on to elucidate some really depressing facts about the Challenger explosion that I won't be reproducing in this black-humorous context, lest it bum you all out too much to appreciate the Christian Avengers mural below.
Submitted by Joel Carson
"I'm unsure about the others," writes Joel, "but I'm certain that Jesus, The Hulk and Wolverine would be less than thrilled in this setting. It may be that this is less humorous than just unsubtly, painfully wrong." I have to agree that piety is not an expression that sits particularly well on Hulk's face. Hulk more of an animist. At least Thor is not included in this scene, which would introduce a lot of vexing theological complications and only further affront the devotees of Asatru, to whose rough-hewn doghouse I'm already consigned after "Science vs. Norse Mythology."
Submitted by Milo George
Kind of an enigmatic submission, but I like the idea of everyone having a horrible time, and of course who can say no to a talking ass? And such a pert one. This reminds me of a very old cartoon of mine, showing a raucous New Year's Eve party, everyone draunkenly babbling, grinning, eating cnapes and blowing noisemakers, with one guy crying out of the midst of the crowd like a drowning man: "I'M HAVING A TERRIBLE TIME!"
Submitted by Claire Walker
Okay this might really be the worst. No way does that not hurt, not to mention the social awkwardness. I wrote Claire: "O sweet Jesus drowning little kittens in Hell no." She replied: "You're welcome."
Submitted by Jackie Pietro
Jackie writes: "I snapped this photo last year on the A train. I call him the Subway Warrior. It should be noted that this fine gentleman sat just like his sitting in the moment I captured him -- fully erect and ready to respond from the time he got on the train at 59th St all the way up until my exit 175th. It should also be noted that it wasn't a particularly hot day, nor was there any other apparent reason for his toplessness, as far as I am aware." It's hard to believe (this is rhetorical--I ride the NYC subways and I do belive it) that this picture was not posed, so perfect is the other guy's uneasy demeanor. He is the model New Yorker in his casual avoidance of eye contact or even acknowledgement of the bizarre and discomfiting thing right in front of his face.
Submitted by Jesse Fuchs
"At this point you can just mentally insert the word balloon," wrote Jesse, who did not include the word balloon with this image of a bottlenose dolphin with an octopus attached to its "genital slit." (This is poppycock of course: everything is funnier with the word balloon inserted.) But then again, who are we to judge? Who is to say this is not some bottlenose dolphin's version of The Best? Take a look around the internet: you'll see all kinds of utterly NSFW images of people enduring what appear to be the most elaborately cruel Medieval tortures and humiliations who are, in fact, lost in ecstasies we can't imagine. Whatever floats yer boat, bottlenose dude! Come to think of it, maybe the word balloon should be emanating from the octopus.
Submitted by Phil Darnowsky
I do find this funny, but I suspect Elvis was actually pretty psyched to get his deputy DEA badge, the fact that he's slitty-eyed and obviously stoned out of his mind notwithstanding. And though Nixon may have thought, at the time, that this was the Worst, far Worse was yet to come. For both of them, actually.
Above three submitted by Jean-Francois Martel
Either because he is an attentive long-time reader or just because these subjects are so universally fascinating, J.F. seems to have honed in uncannily on two of my own pet obsessions/objects of world-historical pity: Nixon and Nietzsche. Here we see Richard Nixon, on the lip of a complete mental breakdown and now stoned out of his mind, totally zombified on tranqs, grotesquely aping triumph at the most hideous public nadir of his disgrace. Below him, Friedrich Nietzsche, post-complete mental breakdown: one of the most profound thinkers in philosophy pathetically reduced to a catatonic husk of himself, gradually decaying in the care of his domineering anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who would go on to misrepresent his philsophy and suck up to Hitler. You gotta wonder whether Nietzsche would've reconsidered the concept of amor fait if he could've known it would end like this. One hopes not, but it is pretty near The Worst.
The painting is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Breughel the Elder. I laughed out loud at the word balloon emerging from the tiny insignificant splash and flailing legs of Icarus.
Submitted by Andrew Weldon/ drawing by B. Kliban
An old favorite of mine, for obvious reasons. Now it is I who stride down the sidewalk escorted by a lingerie'd bimbo on each arm, coveted by girls who once spurned me, the blind and the destitute being unceremoniously booted out of my path. This is the best!
Submitted by Rupert Breheny
From "Garden of Earthly Delights" triptych by Heironymous Bosch. We'll be reprising the pig theme later on below. "This Is the Worst" is a bold claim for any one character to make in a Bosch painting, in which innumerable pallid little figures would seem to have equally valid claims to suffering The Worst torments imaginable. Granted, being macked upon by a pipe-smoking nun-pig while simultaneously prodded by the rapierlike beak of an antennaed dwarf-bird with a human foot hanging from its spikéd helmet when you're obviously trying to read is not an enviable situation at all, but then again the guy in the background seems like he could make every bit as good a case for having one's chest gnawed upon by an armored dog-beetle. And hey!, speaking of having one's chest gnawed on:
Submitted by Lorenzo Estébanez
Owch! That's "Saturn Devourng His Son," by Peter Paul Rubens, a precursor of the better-known version by Goya. "Unfortunately, Saturn's son in the Goya version is missing a head, so I went with Rubens," Lorenzo explains. Rubens's has better facial expressions for our purposes, anyway. (Goya's Cronos looks sort of mindless, as if he's eating his offspring helplessly, against his will, as if he's the one who should be uttering the inevitable word balloon.) Our readers are really classing it up this week.
Above three submitted by Gary Stephens
These three images are: 1.) Robert Capa's famous shot of the D-Day invasion at Omaha beach, definitely in the running for all-time Worst Day, 2.) Einstein holding forth at the Carnegie Institute of Technolog while some deposed former Mr. Smartypants grimaces, and 3.) ideological/legal antagonists Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the "monkey trial," whose verdict is still being debated among the illiterati a century later.
Submitted by "siarkofrut"
A little homage in honor of the release of Ridley Scott's Prometheus. Thoughtful of siarkofrut to recognize that although all our sympathies lie with John Hurt in this scene this may be rank speciesism, and that this may not have been all that pleasant for the larval alien either.
Submitted by CS
It may not be immediately clear what this image represents, which is probably for the best. It is, once again, the long-suffering pig, seen here hog-tied and dragged behind a boat on the Mekong River in Cambodia. "I guess pigs just have a lot of bad shit happen to them," Christian observes philosophcally. This photo commences what I'm afraid will be a series of indignities visited upon our pals in the animal kingdom. I was just reflecting on the inappropriateness and irony of the word brutal being used to denote cruelty when no animal can begin to compete with human beings for depraved sadistic genius. Sequence of illustrations to follow:
Submitted by Joel Carson
Submitted by Keely Rew
As wth Ruben' Saturn, the facial expression speaks volumes.
Submitted by Sarah Valeri
Sarah, an artist herself, would like it noted that she submitted this image before it went viral on the internet, appeared on TV, etc. We've come a long way from Bosch, but also kind of full circle. Is a helmeted dwarf-bird any more credible a denizen of Hell than a spread-eagled cross-eyed cat-copter?
Let me just say that the "This Is The Worst" project has improved my life immeasurably. Every morning a fresh bouquet of horrors arrives in my mailbox. At least one per day slays me. I have a book coming out in less than two weeks, which I can barely contemplate without suffering a sort of petit mal seizure of anxiety and dread. Meanwhile the projet I am most excited about in life is "This Is The Worst."
cover of a French translation of Ira Levin's novel This Perfect Day (rendered here as "Unbearable Happiness")
"Cool Machine" constructed by Shannon Ocean
"Golgotha" by Jan Breughel the Younger
Above Three Submitted by Paul Osimo
Possibly "This Is the Worst" serves as some sort of projection test. Paul's versions of The Worst all seem to involve mass institutionalized suffering, dehumanization through sheer numbers or repetition--everyone forced to conform through baldness and the standard-issue smocks of Dystopia, the little Lego men being bleached/stripped of their souls, Breughel's vast mob of lamenting/jeering/indifferent humanity on the road to Golgotha.
Submitted by Julia Miller
Julia writes: " I assume they dislike each other for many reasons, not the least of which is the other's hair. The Donald is insanely jealous of the Mitt's perfect coif, and no one can stand Trump's hair." The real "This is the worst" caption here is supplied by the viewer's own thought balloon. It is some consolation to reflect that fifty years from now nobody looking at this picture will have any idea who either of these people was.
Submitted by Matek Lewczuk
Matek received this poster from a friend in China; it's a re-issue of some vintage Mao-era propaganda. He writes: "I think the guy having a bad time may be Nixon." It usually is, but in this case a Chinese-speaking friend informs me the figure being smushed on the left is an "American Imperialist" and the one on the right is "Soviet Revisionism" (a pretty lame national arch-nemesis, if you ask me). At first I'd thought it might be Gerald Ford, but I'm relieved it's not. Ford deserved better.
WARNING: REALLY UNPLEASANT IMAGERY BELOW
Submitted by John D. Martin III
This, apparently, is the aftermath of what is now known as the Miami bath-salts zombie attack. This submission exemplifies the cultivated and discerning connoisseurship we have come to expect from anyone with a III after his name.
Submitted by Bonner Doemling
Bonner, a longtime reader, takes unfair advantage of my well-known loathing for William Wegman, world's most risk-averse living artist. Although among all my reasons for despising Wegman, I've never considered the daily humiliations to which he subjects his dogs. Now that I think about it, they must sometimes wonder dimly what it all means. There is something basically wrong about dressing animals up in little costumes; to do it as a career is truly low.
Submitted by J. Domino
I have nothing to say about this submission. It may be the single best thing in the world. A 21st-century response to Breughel's Icarus: mankind poised in the barest flailing instant between launching himself into the abyss and the great gaping maw of annihilation. That penguin is like: Fuuuck me.
Moments ago I was walking on West 42nd Street when I passed a woman who was saying to her friend: "This is the worst." The sky was bright; a light rain was falling, so light you didn't need an umbrells. Unless she was referring to some not-immediately-apparent situation, it was not the worst. But it cheered me up nonetheless. Every moment, no matter how mundane, is always The Worst for someone, somewhere.
Submitted by Paul Osimo
Here we see another high-profile individual in sadly reduced professional circumstances: decorated astro-droid R2-D2 glumly submitting to his degradation in the very crappiest of George Lucas's Star Wars sequels, The Phantom Menace. I'm not actually sure whether we are to infer that the word balloon in this panel is a.) a translation of R2's electronic bleeps and flatus or b.) the words of actor Kenny Baker, simmering away in the crockpot of the R2 costume and no doubt transforming its interior into a human-sized bong.
Submitted by Jesse Fuchs
Jesse writes: "I especially like the balloon's Jimmy Corriganesque effect on Anderson Cooper." I was also reminded of some of the paintings of Francis Bacon. I myself would not have recognized Mr. Cooper. That is quite a large cat. The more I look at this photo the more I think that yes, perhaps this is the worst: gorged to Harkonnenesque proportions and then dragged helplessly, glassy-eyed, paws asplay, in all your hilarious grotesquerie, onto national television to be held up and displayed like a record-setting bigmouth bass by some pinstriped, superannuated prettyboy for the entire human race to gawk at and delight in. But then I see something like the below and am forced to reconsider:
Submitted by Carolyn Ewald
"Those are live pigs," writes Carolyn, who is involved in Animal Rescue. "Isn't that horrible?" The answer is: yes it is. Somehow through sheer repetition the image transcends the specific to become metaphoric, universal, an image of humanity trapped and suffering en masse but in isolation, like the paintings of George Tooker. I'm also thinking of a line from the black climactic speech in Cormac McCarthy's play The Sunset Limited:
"...if that pain were actually collective instead of simply reiterative the sheer weight of it would drag the world from the walls of the universe and send it crashing and burning through whatever night it might yet be capable of engendering until it was not even ash."
My old friend Carolyn and I got into a kind of "This Is The Worst" flame war when I sent her this old photo of herself:
and she immediately retaliated by sending me this photograph, apparently of me:
I swear I have no memory of this fucking hat.
I was put in mind of my old "This Is the Worst" series when my friend Jesse, whom I picture sitting awake 24/7 at the nerve center of some dark HQ ceaselessly scanning the breadth and depths of the internet for bizarre and amusing items to forward to his friends, sent me a blog post that featured a number of 19th-century illustrations (whose zoological accuracy and fairness is by no means up-to-date) of various allegedly ferocious animals attacking/devouring/sexually harassing hapless human victims. His subject heading was: "This Is the Worst." I have duly inserted the appropriate word balloons.
It appears I have matured not one whit since 1999 when I desecrated Luyken's engravings with my puerile scrawls because it was all I could do not to weep with laughter in the public library as I inserted the "This is the worst" balloon into drawings of the Carnivorous Plant, the lascivious Orang Outan, the Saw-Fish.
1999: The Original "This Is The Worst" Series
I am currently on a writing retreat at my Undisclosed Location during a brief idyll before my summer book tour begins (see Pain news, below). I'm taking the opportunity to ransack the old Pain minicomics archive for forgotten treasures like this series. A precursor to my breakthrough "Famous Atrocity Photos with Humorous Word Balloons" series (see "The Cartoonist's Other Projects"), "This Is the Worst" is a mixed-media appropriation of preexisting art, in this case a series of ghastly engravings by one Jan Luyken (1649-1712) from a book called Drama of the Martyrs, whose introduction was written by my own uncle, a Mennonite pastor. I was first exposed to this book at age 12 when it was included among our bus's browsing material during a church tour of Europe that focused on various historical sites where our ancestors had been torn on the rack, drowned in barrels, and hung up to die of exposure in cages on the spires of cathedrals. Somewhere in there I demanded my parents take me to the Louvre, but mostly it was an unrelentingly morally instructive story of faith and superhuman decorum in the face of unspeakable tortures. I found this book queasily fascinating. I did not envision myself retaining the expression of pious placidity seen on most of these martyr's faces as I was flayed alive or devoured by lice.
I suppose you could now argue it was a low point in both my religious sensitivity and personal spiritual development when I used these engravings as fodder for witless humor with the "This Is the Worst" series. And yet over the years the thought of these cartoons has brought me solace. Whenever I've lain awake worrying over rewrites, loneliness, or the goddamn taxes, any time I've been laid low by heartbreak, hangover, or the flu, I always had available the consolation that it was not as if I were being roasted alive in a copper steer. Which all kidding aside truly has got to be The absolute fucking Worst.You put me inside a red-hot copper steer for like one second--in fact, all you really need to do is threaten to put me inside a copper steer, just mention that they're preheating the steer--and I will instantly and fervently convert to any batshit religion or ideology you want, even Christianity.