Caricature Assassination

The Art of Ill Will sketches the lively history of American political cartooning

If the Boston Massacre were to take place today, someone would no doubt capture the event on a cell-phone camera and upload the images online within minutes. Lacking such tools, the silversmith Paul Revere took the established technology of 1770—copper engraving—and in a few weeks churned out prints depicting the attack. They sold briskly, fueled Yankee rebellion, and established a link between cartooning and American politics before the country had been formally created.

Even if hand-drawn cartoons no longer have any role in transmitting news events, the integration of cartoons into American politics is striking, and continues today in a variety of forms. The Art of Ill Will, which takes its title from a quotation from longtime Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, traces that history from the 18th century to the near-present, complete with full-page reproductions of more than 100 cartoons.

In some ways, the cartoon makes an odd political weapon. The clearest and most passionate cartoons usually make aesthetic sacrifices in the name of doctrine; in Revere's case, his sky was colored blue even though the shootings took place at night, and for unexplained reasons he depicted one of the slain—a black man named Crispus Attucks—as white.

Horton hears an internal conspiracy? A low moment for Dr. Seuss.
Courtesy NYU Press
Horton hears an internal conspiracy? A low moment for Dr. Seuss.

Details

The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons
By Donald Dewey
New York University Press, 251 pp., $34.95

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Unlike most political columns, which fuse author and opinion, the best political cartoons derive their power from an ironic slipperiness; it's impossible to determine whether the cartoonist holds the view being expressed, or whether that view is in fact the lampoon's target. And indeed, while a few heroes in Dewey's history had steadfast principles that got them fired, the economics of cartooning more often meant that scribblers found themselves working all booths at the political bazaar. For some, this was as much an aesthetic principle as a financial one. Walt McDougall, a cartoonist from the 19th and early 20th century, wrote that a cartoonist should have "that curious elasticity of mind that permits him to make cartoons for either party without doing violence to his own opinion."

If that sounds like a recipe for timid, soulless cartooning, well, that's one of Dewey's chief complaints. Other factors that have dulled the teeth of the American political cartoon include the necessity of bending to publishers' views, the decline of daily newspapers, and the development of electronic media, which encourage different forms of satire—who needs Nast when you've got Colbert?

Dewey also does not shrink from presenting cartooning's darker side—its persistent promulgation of ethnic and racial stereotypes (the very word comes from printing plates used to make newspapers in the 19th century). Even relatively progressive cartoonists can sink to ethnic slur: Theodor Geisel (a/k/a/ Dr. Seuss) provides one of the book's deepest cringes with a 1942 image depicting thousands of Japanese men being given packets of dynamite as they await a signal from the homeland to attack America. The cartoon was published just hours before the government rounded up Japanese-Americans for internment.

Still, much of the enjoyment of a political cartoon depends on whose ox is being gored, and it's refreshing to see satires of early-20th-century American imperialism, and the degree to which cartoonists held Joe McCarthy in contempt. Equally engaging is watching cartoons evolve from a clunky reliance on text and dialogue balloons, to more streamlined single-captioned panels, to the biting narratives of Feiffer or Ted Rall.

Dewey makes a strong case that the political cartoon has played a uniquely formative role in American history, but his quick dismissal of non-U.S. contexts occasionally leads to omission, such as when he deems the 1897 debut of Rudolph Dirks's The Katzenjammer Kids to be the "first strip to employ a series of panels to tell a story." That ignores the well- established fact that the strip was inspired by Max und Moritz, a series of German cartoon books published before Dirks was born. Also, Dewey laments the decline of cartoonists' influence in the U.S., blaming electronic media, without bothering to look at countries like Japan, where animation for grown-ups thrives alongside more "modern" forms of communication.

It's also unfortunate that Dewey clings so strongly to the twinned histories of cartoons and paper publications. At the end of his introduction, he writes: "Happily for many cartoonists caught up in newsroom conflicts, they have been able to maintain contact with the public through personal and group websites; but even their high-ranked Google name value doesn't offer the same exposure for potential impact that print does." Online cartooning may be in its infancy, but it doesn't take much imagination to envision a 30-second animated Doonesbury-style cartoon distributed via YouTube that could reach a worldwide audience much larger than, say, Herblock ever had through The Washington Post.

But these are quibbles: The true stars of this book are the cartoons themselves. During a period when an entire government seems drawn by a satirist, it's instructive to look back at a history of politics reduced to two dimensions.

 
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