During a perambulating phone interview, I asked Paul Krassner why, in 1958, he had christened his new satire magazine The Realist.
“I wanted to have a title that didn’t say ‘Funny Stories!’ ” he replied, adding with a laugh that he wanted readers to “discern for themselves whether something was real or fake.” As the Realist Cartoons collection from Fantagraphics reveals, it wasn’t just the magazine’s title that foretold the bogus news and fact-challenged politics of our own age. The 84-year-old Krassner (“The new 83!” he says sunnily) began his career as a satirist in 1955, when he sold an idea to MAD magazine — “What if comic-strip characters answered those little ads in the back of magazines?” The renowned comics artist Wally Wood illustrated Krassner’s vision of Little Orphan Annie mailing away for Maybelline products to decorate her blank eyes and Dagwood bulking up from a 98-pound weakling so Blondie wouldn’t be able to push him around anymore. (Although he then becomes so muscle-bound she kicks sand in his face as he lies helpless on the beach.) Krassner wanted to include Popeye’s skinny girlfriend, Olive Oyl, ordering a set of falsies, but MAD‘s editor balked. The magazine’s owner, Bill Gaines, told the young writer that such ideas were too adult; MAD had started out as a comic book, after all, and its circulation, still aimed at teenagers, was steadily climbing toward seven figures. When Krassner said he understood why Gaines didn’t want to change horses midstream, the publisher replied, “Not when the horse has a rocket up its ass.” That was the moment, Krassner says, when he conceived a satire magazine for adults. “I had no role models,” he writes in the foreword to the new book, “and no competition, just an open field mined with taboos waiting to be exploded.”
The Realist #1 featured a gag panel of God and his angels watching TV screens tracking the planets. As mushroom clouds erupt on Earth, the Almighty, chin in hand, mutters, “Well boys, back to the old drawing board.” By 1962, cartoonist Richard Guindon had drawn a nude as voluptuous as Ingres’s Grande Odalisque, but with a globe substituted for her bounteous posterior. A relatively fit dude wearing nothing but star-spangled boxer shorts cocks his thumb at his fat companion, who has a hammer and sickle tattooed on his biceps, and says, “It’s his turn now and then me again.” Half a century later, the only things that have changed are the respective physiques of the Russian leader and the incoming American president.
Other cartoons expose today’s alt-right as simply the most recent outbreak of America’s same-ol’ same-ol’ racism. A 1967 strip tackles the then undefined problem of Driving While Black with a used-car salesman who assures a customer inspecting a sedan, “This one was owned by an elderly Negro who drove it under the speed limit for fear of some cop ticketing him.” (Krassner was born in Brooklyn, and despite having lived in California since 1971, has never learned to drive. Some years ago he moved to Desert Hot Springs, in the southern part of the state, where, he told me, “I’ve learned how to use an air conditioner.”) A 1966 feature titled “The Big Bad Black Power Threat” pictures a ragtag group of folksingers and picketers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee facing off against Klansmen, neo-Nazis, chain-wielding hecklers, and well-armed policemen. The “Black arsenal to destroy Whitey with” consists of bricks and “No Deposit/No Return” bottles, a few of which are filled with gasoline. The cops are equipped with helmets, riot shields, guns, billy clubs, and “No-Scape Belts” for shackling protesters. To keep both sides up on their rhetoric, cartoonist J.C. Suares added a list of “Black Lit,” which includes Blues People, by LeRoi Jones, and Prejudice and Your Child, by Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, as well as literature for whites, such as God the Original Segregationist, by the Reverend Cary Daniel, and a now obscure tract that, judging by its title at least, would have been a big seller at last year’s Republican National Convention: The Most Persecuted Minority in the Nation — The Whites of the South.
Krassner welcomed all viewpoints in The Realist, including an interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party. In 1961 Krassner asked the white supremacist how he would handle those who crossed the party. “I believe in the Nazi methods of discipline,” was the ominous reply. When Krassner pressed him as to what that meant, Rockwell, who had a long-term plan to be elected president of the United States, responded with a vision that eerily echoes Donald Trump’s vengeful tweets: “Well, all I could do is take legal measures at this point, but in 1972 I will have the courts at my disposal and I shall see that examples are made. Nobody is going to trifle with us.”
An equal-opportunity publisher, Krassner later printed cartoons by John Patler, a disgruntled member of the party who, in 1967, had assassinated Rockwell. A cartoon published in The Realist in 1969 — Krassner couldn’t recall if he knew Patler was in prison for Rockwell’s murder when it was submitted — riffs on a 1960s ad campaign for a Brooklyn bread company that included various ethnic types and the slogan “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.” Patler’s version featured a portrait of Adolf Hitler.
A number of cartoons in the book confirm that America’s gun fetishists have long been with us, whether a 1965 gag panel of a middle-aged man telling his younger girlfriend, “I’ve got to go out now, honey, and fire a few rounds. My wife always sniffs the barrel when I tell her I’ve been to Minute Man practice,” or a 1998 parody of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea with an assault rifle.
The Realist was first published from 1958 to 1974 as a newsprint magazine, usually two-dozen or so pages in length. Then, “when Reagan came alive,” as Krassner puts it, he revived the publication as a Xeroxed, DIY, subscriber-based eight-page newsletter, from 1985 to 2001. Circulation peaked at around 100,000 paid copies, in 1967 (the cover price was 35 cents), although Krassner claims industry experts told him The Realist had an extremely high “pass along” rate, and may have reached over a million readers. This was partly based on single copies making the rounds of entire college dormitories, as well as the many issues stolen from libraries, since such outrages as the “Disneyland Memorial Orgy” — Wally Wood’s fantasia of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, the Seven Dwarfs, and other beloved characters finally acting on their basest lusts after Uncle Walt’s death — tamped down the number of folks who wanted copies delivered to their actual domiciles. After a distributor in Baltimore removed the Disney centerspread from every copy, Krassner offered to send free copies of the offending pages to anyone in Charm City who desired them.
Perennially popular, posters of Wood’s salacious masterpiece have adorned dorm rooms for decades, and a full-color version is available on Krassner’s website. Krassner used proceeds from this and other Realist posters — “FUCK COMMUNISM!” was a big seller, since any conservative who complained about the language could be accused of being a commie sympathizer — to support various causes, including sending an investigative reporter to Vietnam and bailing out a civil rights worker who had been arrested for voter registration work in Mississippi. Krassner didn’t take a salary for his work, but made money doing freelance writing and, when fans of The Realist invited him to college campuses, stand-up comedy “in the guise of a lecture.” With a laugh, he added that he would also do routines at anti–Vietnam War rallies: “I was the Bob Hope of peace,” he said, referring to the Hollywood comedian who, for fifty years, entertained U.S. troops in combat zones around the world.
Throughout its various incarnations, The Realist proved a clearinghouse for cartoons rejected by mainstream outlets, becoming in a sense the first version of the New Yorker‘s Rejection Collections. A perfect example opens the book: In the foreword, Krassner writes that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was a “horrendous violation of basic semantic principles, such as ‘The menu is not the meal’ and ‘The map is not the territory.’ ” A short time after the killings, he and cartoonist Mort Gerberg came up with a cartoon of masked suicide bombers carrying signs reading, “I am Charlie Manson.” No one was surprised when the New Yorker turned down this darkly hilarious conflation of fundamentalist nihilism with America’s go-to mass murderer.
“I was well aware that I probably couldn’t publish The Realist in any other country,” Krassner notes in the foreword. “This was the paradox of America.” Still, a number of the gags are simply lol funny, such as a 1997 panel of a spot-lit emcee opening an envelope and announcing, “The winner of the psychic of the year award is….” as everyone in the audience is joined by a single thought balloon reading, “Ooh! I hope it’s me!”
A number of strips redline the trippy meter, such as Ed Badajos’s 1971 phantasmagoria of a bizarre Last Supper busted by the cops, followed by panels of Jesus and his harlequin-like devotees grinding through the capricious gears of justice. Ken Kesey, co-editor of that particular issue, exclaimed to readers that they were witnessing a “fantastic saga of Modern Man in Search of a Soul, any soul at all!” Krassner followed with, “It made me say ‘Far out!’ for the first time.”
The Realist came of age during a cultural revolution that saw voting restrictions struck down by federal legislation and women win the right to safe, legal abortions. But now, Krassner told me, those and other advances are in grave danger: “It’s all devolution. I never knew that marijuana would be legalized in my lifetime, and now they’re trying to make it go back. The same thing with same-sex marriage….Now they’re trying to get rid of that!”
Anyone who thinks this is hyperbole need only turn to a 1996 cartoon of Republican presidential wannabe Pat Buchanan singing “Home on the Reich,” a wingnut wish-list that the Trump team is promising to finally fulfill: “Señor José sets his compass North for the Rio Grande/Let’s build a fence from coast to coast then chase ’em down with hounds!!…CHORUS: Let’s load ’em into cattle cars and send ’em outa town!…There’s lots of homosexuals whose partners do abound….[CHORUS]….When those liberal libertines who drag our culture down plead for Choice and Gun Control, ignore that weak-willed sound!…Be sure to stand your ground [CHORUS].”
Alas, there are no cartoons of Trump in these 300 pages, but, as Krassner, momentarily somber, said to me over the phone, “His inhumanity is in there.”
The Realist Cartoons
By Ethan Persoff and Paul Krassner
300 pp., $44.99