One Hundred Years
of American Cartooning (October 17, 2002)
No list of the top cartooning achievements of the 20th century would be complete without genuflecting in the direction of editorial cartoonists and magazine cartoonists. The former because they are the traditional touchstones of social respectability for cartooning; the latter because they represent the most traveled avenue of access to professional status for the cartoonist. Moreover, the magazine cartoon—the single-panel gag cartoon—came to maturity during this century; we can scarcely speak, then, of the cartooning history of the last one hundred years without mentioning gag cartoons.
In a country like ours where a Puritan heritage lies just a scratch beneath the surface everywhere, cartooning has always seemed a somewhat frivolous enterprise. To the Puritan within all of us, nothing is worthwhile unless it is serious. And to the average citizen, cartooning makes a grab at seriousness only when it gets to the editorial page of the newspaper. There, any practitioner seeking respectability invokes the name of the profession’s patron saint, Thomas Nast, who proved the social and political value of cartooning by driving the corrupt Boss Tweed from power in New York City in the mid-1800s.
While nearly all editorial cartoonists nod deferentially toward Nast, few are so baldfaced about their influence as Doug Marlette. Asked once if his art had ever attained any real societal significance, Marlette reflected for a moment and then deadpanned, “Yes. I ended the Vietnam War.”
The fundamental seriousness of the editorial cartoon’s function in American life is demonstrated for once and all by its location in the newspaper. These days, editorial cartoons are almost always published on the editorial page of the paper. In fact, when you flip through the paper, you know you’ve reached the editorial page when you see a big three- or four-column cartoon at the top of it. Thus, editorial cartoons act as flags identifying the most serious page in the paper—the publisher’s opinion page, where social change is effected, ships launched, and careers smashed. Only the staid (not to say stodgy) New York Times has an editorial page without an editorial cartoon. (Editorial cartoons in the Times appear on the facing, or “op-ed,” page.)
It wasn’t always thus. At first, editorial cartoons appeared on the paper’s front page, its most entertaining page. The front page is the page designed to attract the attention of prospective buyers by screaming headlines at them from the newsstand. Headlines and an editorial cartoon. In this case, the editorial cartoon’s presence on the front page was testimony to the economic importance of cartooning: cartoons helped sell papers.
The legendary crank, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was apparently the first to realize the marketing value of the editorial cartoon. He founded the New York Evening Telegram in 1867, publishing it on pink paper and headlining gory murders and sexual exploits on its front page. But on Friday—every Friday—he ran a big editorial cartoon on the front page. The Telegram thus became the first American newspaper to regularly publish editorial cartoons.
Although editorial cartoonists as a class might aspire to ending the Vietnam War and other such humanitarian feats, on a daily basis, they aim more towards simply stimulating or focussing the public debate on issues affecting the general weal. And they do so in a somewhat unabashed fashion.
There’s nothing subtle about an editorial cartoon. As Marlette observed, “A cartoon cannot say, ‘On the other hand,’ and it cannot defend itself. It is a frontal assault, a slam dunk, a cluster bomb.”
While the impact of the bomb exploding may not re-structure society, it can nonetheless contribute to change. The most effective cartoons in this regard are those couched with opinions already held by some segments of society. The cartoon contributes to, or enhances, the general atmosphere or climate of opinion, and the point of view espoused may by this means come to prevail.
At the very least, as Chief Justice William Rehnquist noted in February 1988 (when ruling that Jerry Falwell could not collect damages for a cartoon that Hustler published): “From the view of history, it is clear that our political discourse would have been considerably poorer without [cartoons].”
As a general rule, the cartoons that actually achieve change in any measurable way are those that concentrate on local matters. (And here we hasten to note that Nast’s campaign against William M. Tweed was a local crusade, not national.) That editorial cartoonists these days increasingly do not attend much to local issues is cause for some low decibel alarm; the reasons lie in the economies of national syndication, and that is a subject for a subsequent installment of this column.
At the moment, however, my purpose is to identify a dozen or so editorial cartoonists whose work represents the best of the profession’s achievement in the century just now lurching to a conclusion.
The criteria for selection are hardly scientific. I looked for artistic accomplishment rather than social impact. And by “artistic” I don’t mean just pretty pictures or skillful technique. The cartoonists I anoint in the next paragraphs are those who were most influential on the profession. They were pacesetters; others imitated them. And they also demonstrated repeatedly a command of their medium, welding word and picture in telling metaphor and persuasive image.
I don’t expect that everyone will agree with my roster of great editorial cartoonists of the twentieth century. And in fact, I had a deuce of a time reducing the number to an even dozen. My difficulty is amply manifest in the names I mention here that I considered but finally didn’t include among the top twelve. By way of providing an easily discovered way of distinguishing the latter from the former, I’ve numbered the top twelve. The numbering puts the cartoonists in chronological (that is, historical) order; it does not indicate their relative standing or merit.
Although I’ve tried to pin-point with each cartoonist the basis of his selection, my annotations are, alas, only cryptic indications of these cartoonists’ attainments.
To begin, then: (1) John T. McCutcheon (1870-1949), who drew for the Chicago Tribune for almost all of the first half of the century, is here not for his longevity (which he cited as the sole reason for his unofficial title as “dean of American editorial cartoonists”) but for his having invented the “human interest” editorial cartoon. (Or, if he didn’t invent it, he popularized it.) The first of these appeared in the spring of 1902: dubbed “The Boy in Springtime,” it depicted the kind of kid McCutcheon (and thousands of others in the midwest) had been, a carefree youth going fishing on the first day of warm weather. It was neither topical nor political, but in its portrayal of a simple human condition it suggested another direction that editorial cartoons could go in.
Recognizing purposes for both serious and humorous editorial cartoons, McCutcheon said he “always enjoyed drawing a type of cartoon which might be considered a sort of pictorial breakfast food. It had the cardinal asset of making the beginning of the day sunnier.” Such cartoons set no prairies afire, McCutcheon admitted; instead, “their excuse lay in the belief that a happy man is capable of a more constructive day’s work than a glum one.”
McCutcheon felt he could deliver stinging cartoon rebukes when “some evil” demanded it, but he believed it was “better to reach out a friendly pictorial hand to the delinquent than to assail him with criticism and denunciation.”
And once McCutcheon broke ground in this human dimension, others followed him. Working for the midwestern newspaper with perhaps the largest circulation in the region, McCutcheon is also here to represent whole legions of regional editorial cartoonists who achieved fame in their cities or states without benefit of syndication—Billy Ireland, James Donahey, and numerous others.
With Robert Minor, (2) Boardman Robinson (1876-1952) established the grease crayon as a potent implement for drawing editorial cartoons. Approximating the soft-line multi-shade effect of lithography, the technique was immediately adopted by such other cartoonists as Rollin Kirby, Clive Weed, and Oscar Cesare. Robinson went to Russia in 1915 with John Reed to view the Revolution, having left a remunerative position with the New York Tribune. When he returned, he taught at the Art Students League in New York, influencing another generation of cartoonists—Edmund Duffy, for instance.
(3) Rollin Kirby (1875-1952) at the New York World was probably the most influential editorial cartoonist of the 1920s, his creation of the funereal Mr. Dry, the black-clad crepe-draped symbol of Prohibition, setting the style for the way of depicting the decade’s villain and any other lip-pursing “anti-” crusader, of which there were many during the turbulent Jazz Age. Kirby was also the first editorial cartoonist to win three Pulitzer Prizes (all in the 1920s).
(4) Jay N. Darling (1876-1962) signed his cartoons “D’ing” at first, abbreviating his last name. By the time he achieved his fame at the Des Moines Register in the century’s first decade, he’d dropped the apostrophe, and Ding stood alone. Although he worked in New York briefly, the experience confirmed his affection for the midwest, and he returned to Des Moines, where he stayed for the rest of his life even after accepting in 1916 a syndication deal with the New York Herald Tribune. He became thereby one of the first to be nationally distributed—and famous from coast to coast—but he did it from the middle of Iowa.
Ding drew with a brush but he drew very, very large, and the resulting pictures usually looked as if he had penned them into existence. The line was hectic and vitally alive, and it suited perfectly the bent Ding frequently indulged for pictorial hilarity, rendering his figures in such explosive motion that the cartoons seemed to quiver with laughter. In this penchant for humor in his cartoons, Ding was nearly unique in the first decades of the century.
Succeeding Robert Minor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1913, (5) Daniel R. Fitzpatrick (1891-1969) became a power in the Mississippi Valley, like Minor, drawing with a grease crayon, but Fitz applied the weapon in a dour shrouded style that cast a pall of gloom over his subjects. Fitzpartrick’s work was never funny, but his visual metaphors were powerful and uncompromising. “I was always for the underdog,” he maintained.
(6) Bill Mauldin (1921- ) created those scruffy World War II “dogfaces,” Willie and Joe, with whom Mauldin successfully captured the spirit of those times as no other cartoonist did (except, perhaps, Milton Caniff in Terry and the Pirates). Willie and Joe weren’t just amusing, although they were usually that; they were also editorializing about the war and the solider’s life in it. Mauldin, whether he knew it or not, was serving an apprenticeship in the medium that would, before long, claim him for a career. Returning to civilian life with the first of his two Pulitzers (1945) under his arm, Mauldin eventually inherited Fitzpatrick’s chair at the Post-Dispatch, where he continued in the unflinching manner of his predecessor. Later after he’d joined the Chicago Sun-Times, Mauldin drew one of his most famous cartoons—the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, head in his hands, grieving at the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Friday, November 22, 1963.
Mauldin had left the office that day at noon, his work for the week completed. When he heard of the tragedy in Dallas, he went back to his drawingboard. “I was amazed at how upset I was,” he wrote later. “What to draw? Grief, sorrow, tears weren’t enough for this event. There had to be monumental shock. Monument—shock—a cartoon idea is nothing more-or-less than free association. Assassination. Civil rights. There was only one statue for this.” He drew the picture faster than he usually did, finishing in about an hour. “I almost threw it away because I couldn’t get the hair right. No matter what I did with it, it looked more like Kennedy hair than Lincoln hair. This might confuse some people who weren’t familiar with the statue. Then I decided that if they didn’t know the statue, they wouldn’t get the cartoon anyway.”
The first edition of the paper hit the street just before 5 p.m. with Mauldin’s cartoon on the back page; later, he learned that most Chicago news dealers sold the paper with that side up. The device of this cartoon would be imitated again and again in the years to come as we shuddered through tragedy after tragedy with the deaths and assassinations of national figures.
Three-time Pulitzer winner (7) Herbert L. Block (1909-2001) at the Washington Post knit together a number of historical graphic threads in his work. As a preamble, we should note that he admired Edmund Duffy, whose anti-KKK and other cartoons of unbridled savagery for the Baltimore Sun earned him not only a niche in the history of the medium but three Pulitzers. Duffy drew with a grease crayon in somewhat the manner of Kirby (and, hence, of Robinson), and Herblock’s early work seems visually kindred. By the 1950s, however, the Herblock style of drawing had mutated into something that incorporated the more comic aspects of Vaughn Shoemaker’s energetic and lively linework in Chicago (which, in turn, evoked Ding) to set a new national fashion.
Herblock rose to the fore during the McCarthy Era, coining the term “McCarthyism,” and sustained his place in the national firmament through the Nixon Years, depicting Nixon with a disreputable five-o’clock shadow. Herblock, who waged his liberal battle from the Post for over a half-century, was effectively the conscience of the paper. But he spoke his own thoughts, and no one at the Post had the power to silence him.
(8) Pat Oliphant (1935- ), the Australian who took over Paul Conrad’s spot at the Denver Post in 1964, injected the first genuinely new blood into the medium. His cartoons were sharply pointed and hugely funny, both at the same time. He drew with a juicy brush and his cartoons were horizontal, not vertical. Before too long, he was being imitated from sea to shining sea. He is, without question or quibble, the second half of the century’s most influential editorial cartoonist (he prefers “political cartoonist because the alternative title suggests that he somehow shares an editor’s point-of-view). Oddly, as a testament to the discernment of the Pulitzer committee, Oliphant has won the Prize only once, in 1967.
Meanwhile, (9) Jules Feiffer (1929- ) in his cartoons in the Village Voice (beginning in the mid-1950s) used a narrative sequence of pictures in which, through revealing monologues, the denizens of the artsy classes in Greenwich Village exposed themselves as essentially hypocritical or self-delusional. Following both his own instincts and the political ferment of the Village, Feiffer was soon examining the landscape of public affairs, skewering politicians as deftly as he did modern dance enthusiasts and the would-be philosophers of Washington Square’s demi-monde. And editorial cartoonists soon began using multi-panel cartoons occasionally, too, imparting psychological insight to their views of public issues.
When (10) Paul Conrad (1924- ) left the Denver Post, he went to the Los Angeles Times and became the sledge-hammer of the West. Resisting even the slightest temptation to inject comedy into his work, Conrad carried on in the flinty, unyielding Fitzpatrick tradition. Unequaled in the invention of visual metaphor, Conrad’s powerful use of imagery achieved a particularly memorable brilliance during the Watergate scandal. He is one of only five editorial cartoonists to win three Pulitzer Prizes.
Then along came (1l) Jeff MacNelly (1947-2000) at the Richmond News Leader. When he won a Pulitzer in 1972 (the first of his three) after only two years on the job, it proved that even a young cartoonist at a relatively small daily newspaper could cop the Prize. Drawing in somewhat the manner of Oliphant at first, MacNelly was soon the second most imitated of American editorial cartoonists. And when he launched a daily comic strip, Shoe, in 1977, he set another pace that was followed by Brian Bassett (Adam), Mike Peters (Mother Goose and Grim), Doug Marlette (Kudzu), Jack Ohman (Mixed Media), Jim Borgman (Zits), and several other editorial cartoonists who doubled on the funnies pages with daily strips.
But not everyone drew like OliNelly. In fact, recently a veritable flock of cartoonists like (12) Tom Toles (c. 1951- ) draw in whimsical, distinctly individual styles—Signe Wilkinson, Ann Telnaes, Tony Auth, Jack Ohman, Jeff Danziger, Ted Rall—making their arguments as powerfully as their colleagues do drawing in more traditional styles. Toles is on this list as much to represent these eccentric drawing styles as for any other reason (and not, necessarily, because he was hired by the Washington Post as its staff cartoonist after Herblock died). Toles’ cartoons, unrelenting though they sometimes are, are no more so than, say, Danziger’s or Telnaes’.
I haven’t mentioned, yet, a number of my favorite cartoonists (Steve Benson, Etta Hulme, Don Wright, Mike Luckovich, and Milt Priggee, he of the inimitable nimble brush; and I don’t want to forget the ineffable L.D. Warren, whose precise and flowing line was the envy of everyone who beheld it, or Draper Hill, whose puckish deployment of historical and literary allusion makes him one of the medium’s most daring practitioners; there, now I’ve mentioned them)—mostly because the kind of assessment I’ve committed here takes time. More of it has to pass us by.
The perspective required for a career evaluation needs the distance of history, and history is about the past, not the present. Except for Toles (who represents a category here rather than himself), the most recently arriving cartoonist named above is MacNelly, who arrived 28 years ago, so we’ve had a little past and a little perspective to muster judgement in. We need another dozen years or so before we can determine who might cast his or her shadow the length of the last quarter of the century much as McCutcheon and Ding and Kirby did during the first quarter.
We face a somewhat different dilemma with magazine cartoonists. The time has already passed. Although the magazine cartoon may fairly be said to have arrived at maturity in this century, the genre has been weakened considerably in the last thirty-forty years by the disappearance of the “general interest” magazines that provided the greatest showcase for single-panel gag cartoons.
In short, after the 1970s, magazine cartoonists became such a rare breed that we can scarcely discern any significant figures in the last couple decades. For the first fifty years, however, there are scores of candidates.
Doing cartoons for magazines was once a well-traveled route into the business. You could do it from your kitchen table: draw up a dozen cartoons and mail them off by the batch to prospective magazine buyers. You did as many as you had time for, and you usually held down a paying job during daylight hours. Hundreds of would-be cartoonists took this route. And over the years of magazine cartooning’s “golden age,” they produced thousands of cartoons. We’re concerned here, however, with the cartoonists who lasted, who made a living at it.
The selection criteria are the same as those I exercised for editorial cartoonists—with one addition. Volume of work. In one or two instances, the chief qualification was the very profusion of published cartoons. Otherwise, I looked for milestones—cartoonists whose work influenced the development of the medium or exploited the nature of the medium most fully.
In this country, magazine cartooning is cartooning in its original state. Editorial cartoonists achieved recognition and power in magazines first, not newspapers. The success of such weekly humor magazines as Life, Puck, and Judge inspired newspapers to the ultimate form of flattery. The Sunday colored supplements in which were born such comic characters as the Yellow Kid, the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, Buster Brown, and Little Nemo were concocted in direct imitation of these weekly comic magazines (or “comics,” as they were sometimes called with unwitting prescience). The daily newspaper comic strip was a logical outgrowth of the Sunday pages. And the comic book started as a vehicle for reprinting newspaper comic strips, both Sundays and dailies.
While cartooning was evolving in various directions in newspapers during the first three decades of the century, it was also changing in the magazines of its origins. By the 1920s, magazines had proliferated across the land, multiplying the historic venue for cartoonists. With the increased number of outlets and practitioners, the form mutated slightly and matured into the modern single-panel gag cartoon—as we shall shortly see.
Again, in this listing, I’ve numbered the top twelve in chronological order, naming them roughly in the order of their appearance on the scene.
The dominant magazine cartoonist in the first decades of the century was undoubtedly
(1) Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944), the most celebrated of the magazine cartoonists who drew in the illustrative manner that prevailed through most of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Not only did he invent the Gibson Girl, whose face and form set the fashion for female beauty for twenty-some years, but Gibson’s flourishing pen inspired imitation by such notables as James Montgomery Flagg. As the humor magazine Life began to falter following the 1918 death of its founder, James A. Mitchell, Gibson bought the magazine and continued the traditions of 19th century cartooning into the next decade.
Among the things he perpetuated was the “he-she” style of single-panel cartoon comedy in which the caption consists of a playscript-style dialogue, or a series of verbal exchanges, between persons depicted in an illustration surmounting the verbiage.
Gibson’s star descended, however, as the hems of skirts rose in America. His decorous, almost matronly, ladies were no match for the exuberant leggy flappers of (2) John Held, Jr. (1889-1958), whose cartoons with their fragile lines and skillful spotting of solid blacks established both lifestyle and fashion for actual flappers and their beaux of the roaring twenties. Russell Patterson was almost as influential; and of his would-be imitators, doubtless Jefferson Machamer was the most prolific.
Magazine cartooning began to change with the success of The New Yorker, founded in 1925 by a one-time hobo newspaperman named Harold Ross. It was at Ross’s magazine that the single-speaker caption emerged under the influence of (3) Rea Irving (1881-1972 ), Ross’s art director in the magazine’s formative years, and (4) Peter Arno (1904-1968 ), probably the magazine’s most successful practitioner of the new form.
Irving presided over the weekly “art meetings” at which the magazine’s cartoons were selected, and he slowly educated Ross in the finer points of art and cartooning. Thus, it was Irving’s taste that determined the look and thrust of the magazine’s pacesetting cartoons.
Ross was a notoriously fussy editor, and among his complaints were cartoons in which he couldn’t quickly determine which of the characters depicted were speaking the lines of dialogue that rattled off under the picture. His chronic objection disappeared if there was only one speaker. But his eccentric demand for a single speaker disguised his real campaign: weary of the worn-out “he-she” dialogue style of cartoon, Ross was on the look-out for “idea drawings”—those in which, as he dimly understood it, the words and the pictures were interdependent, neither making complete sense without the other. In short, he was looking for and thereby fostering the modern, single-speaker captioned magazine cartoon.
Single-speaker captions had appeared elsewhere but irregularly. Cartoonists discovered the enhanced comedic impact that such cartoons produced and generated more of them as time went on. But at The New Yorker, the occasional practice became the prevailing mode—thanks, probably, to Ross’s quirk as well as his prescience about how much funnier these puzzling pictures were: the captions “explained” the pictures and vice versa, and understanding came suddenly, in a flash, which released the laughter of comprehension and appreciation at the trick.
As other humor magazines—Life, Judge, College Humor—stumbled in the twenties and failed in the thirties, The New Yorker survived. It even thrived. And since it was the successful survivor, the style of its cartoons soon predominated everywhere, and with that, the modern magazine cartoon achieved its maturity.
Arno’s boldly rendered, full-page cartoons epitomized the new style of single-speaker captioned cartoon. In his cartoons, the picture made no sense ever without the caption; the caption, no sense without the picture; but together, they made a new kind of sense, their combined meaning springing into a joke like a surprise party.
Less than a decade after the launch of The New Yorker, Esquire debuted, and (5) E. Sims Campbell (1906-1971 ) came out of Harlem obscurity as the chief gag-writer for the magazine’s cartoons, including the airbrush pin-up paintings of George Petty as well as Campbell’s own famous harem cartoons. Campbell thereby helped to establish not only Esquire but the pin-up. Moreover, he created the cartoon mascot for the magazine, the bug-eyed roue called Esky.
A friend had told Campbell early in his career that if he specialized in rendering the curvaceous gender, he’d always find work. Campbell obviously took the advice to heart. His cartoons appeared in magazines other than Esquire, but his specialty was beautiful women, and beginning in 1943, he did them in a syndicated newspaper panel cartoon called Chorus Cuties. Esquire, meanwhile, having discovered in their 25th anniversary album of cartoons that Campbell had been present in every issue for a quarter of the century, set about making sure that every subsequent issue also contained a Campbell cartoon and did so until he died.
Perhaps the most manically inventive of the verbal-visual blending style of gag cartoonists was (6) Virgil Partch (1916-1984), the fabulous VIP (or, at True magazine, “the Vipper”). In fact, I have suspected for a long time (without having actually researched it much) that VIP may have been the second dropped shoe of which Arno was the first—turning the modern mag cartoon into that perfect verbal-visual blend that finally transcended the he-she style of the earlier decades. If VIP didn’t accomplish that, exactly, he surely demonstrated beyond quibble that a good single-panel cartoon needed more than just a witty caption. Few, if any, of his cartoons can be understood without seeing the picture as well as reading the words.
Among the most prolific of the magazine cartoonists during the heyday of the genre (roughly, the 1940s and 1950s) were (7) Robert Day (1900- ) and (8) Chon Day (1907- ). You saw their work everywhere—Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, True, Look, The New Yorker, American Magazine, Saturday Review of Literature, and so on and on. Chon Day (who was christened Chauncey Addison) was born in New Jersey and never strayed far to find a career in making the rounds every Wednesday to magazine editors’ offices in New York (where such offices abounded in this “golden age”). His mature style was distinguished by a simple tremulous line and open, uncluttered pictures, devoid of all shading save a gray tone. Robert Day, on the other hand, developed no distinctive style and, in fact, often worked in different styles. He came to the New York scene by way of California, where he was born. Workhorses Day and Day (they aren’t related) are here to signal all those who probably made a living at magazine cartooning, whose prodigious output was evidenced on the pages of most magazines of the period.
The New Yorker cartoonist most published in the magazine was Alan Dunn, whose total was 1,906, but his work didn’t appear elsewhere as frequently. Those whose work appeared most often in the nation’s other magazines include: Ralph Fuller (from early in the 1900s until the 1930s, when he started doing a comic strip, Oaky Doaks), the great T. S. Sullivant, whose anthropomorphic animals and impertinent Biblical characters had such great charm in the pages of the old Life and Judge humor magazines; and then there were Ned Hilton and Nate Collier, whose signatures appeared on cartoons in magazines for decades; and Stan Fine, Syd Hoff, B. Tobey, Ted Key, Reamer Keller, Carl Rose.
Appearing perhaps less frequently are some that remain my favorites—John Gallagher, who drew memorable flat-footed lanky bulb-nosed characters; Tom Henderson, always a far-out visual-verbal blend with big-nosed bald guys and plump women; Paul Webb, who did those picturesquely lazy hillbillies in Esquire; Richard Taylor, who produced heavy-lidded ladies and gents in The New Yorker and elsewhere; Sam Cobean, who died too young but who established “the naked eye” of Cobean; Gluyas Williams, he of the crisp solid blacks, simple linework; George Booth, whose spastic comic characters matched those of George Price, another New Yorker cartoonist of comparable insanity.
I loved Slug and Butch, Larry Reynolds’ burglars in Collier’s; the manic kids from the pens of Stanley and Jan Berenstain; Ed Nofsiger’s animals—a real zoo keeper, that Nofsiger; Abner Dean’s naked people and Robert Osborn, whose stylistic influence shaped UPA animation for a decade. And Burr Shafer’s bold brush stroke in Saturday Review cartoons.
Prolific though all these cartoonists were—and despite the great affection I hold them all in—they didn’t shape the medium as much as those whose names I’ve numbered, fore and aft.
Of the New Yorker cartoonists, perhaps (9) Charles Addams (1912-1988) had most influence outside the magazine. He first achieved notoriety with the publication (in The New Yorker for January 13, 1940) of a cartoon showing the parallel tracks of a skier leading directly up to a tree and then going around it, one track on either side. No caption. Addams admitted that he never quite understood the cartoon himself, but he was delighted that a Nebraska mental institution used the drawing to test the mental age of its patients. "Under a fifteen-year level, they can't tell what's wrong," Addams said.
Addams specialized in a bizarre brand of comedy founded upon the inexplicable in nature and the anti-social in mankind. Holding up for examination all sorts of morbid and vaguely sinister curiosities, his cartoons evince the repressed violence that lurks within normal people everywhere. Writer Wolcott Gibbs saw Addams' cartoons as "essentially a denial of all spiritual and physical evolution in the human race." Addams maintained that he arrived at his aberrant ideas simply by observing people.
Addams' sense of humor was so distinctive that an Addams cartoon could achieve its comic effect just by being an Addams cartoon. In one such production, a man is watching television and drinking from what seems to be an ordinary soft drink bottle. His wife, who has just returned home and is standing in the doorway to the room, has asked a question to which the man replies, "I got it out of the refrigerator. Why?" The mere fact that Addams concocted this cartoon suggests that the bottle must contain something more depraved than a soft drink.
His contribution to the century’s cartooning is outlined elsewhere in these pages. Here, let me make the added observation that macabre humor of the Addams sort can be found in the work today of Gahan Wilson (q.v.) and, for a while, in Gary Larson’s Far Side newspaper panel.
(10) Eldon Dedini (1921- ) is one of a very few cartoonists to appear regularly in both The New Yorker and Playboy, the last bastions of high-class cartooning; but just as significantly, he was an influence at Esquire in the forties. In 1946, while Dedini was working at Disney and freelancing magazine cartoons in his spare time, David Smart, publisher of Esquire, phoned him and offered to double his salary if he would work exclusively for the magazine, generating ideas for the other cartoonists as well as being featured himself. When the arrangement ended in 1950, Dedini started selling to The New Yorker. About 1960, he heard from another cartoonist who had just sold a cartoon to Playboy and had been advised by editor Hugh Hefner to apply color “in the Dedini style.” Said Dedini: “I figured that if they were going to teach people to work in my style, I’d better get in on some of it.” And so he did; most issues of the magazine feature a full page color Dedini cartoon.
In (11) Jack Cole (1918-1958) we have another sort of genius altogether. Before he was done, he had proved himself a surpassing master of three of cartooning’s forms—comic books, magazine cartoons, and newspaper comic strips. Had he quit cartooning after doing Plastic Man comic books, Cole’s place in the pantheon of cartoonists would be secure; but he also created a remarkably innovative newspaper comic strip in about 1958, just before he took his own life (in one of cartooning’s most exasperating mysteries: why did he do it?). And before that, he changed his drawing style from hard-edge linework to masterful watercolor in order to do full-page color cartoons for Playboy in that magazine’s first years, setting the pace for his fellow contributors for decades to come. His work, in fact, might well be the benchmark Playboy cartoon: ever after, the rendering of the full-page color cartoons has always measured up to purely painterly standards of excellence quite apart from their humorous content.
Finally, there’s (12) William Steig (1907- ), who began as a cartoonist then transformed himself into a satirical commentator by producing expressionist abstractions of homo sapiens and their preoccupations and then, in yet another turn, took up children’s book authorship. His earliest success was at The New Yorker with cartoons about precocious kids that ran under the heading “Small Fry.” His manner of drawing these was not particularly distinguished, but when he abandoned the more-or-less conventional cartoon style of rendering for a more expressive, primitive style, his humor was marked more by the pure whimsicality of its graphic manner than by punchline comedy. Even though others had done all this before him, Steig proves (again) that cartooning is a high art.
And that’s my double dozen.
It came as no surprise to me to realize that half of my roster is made up of New Yorker cartoonists: as I’ve said, Ross’s magazine set the pace for the modern magazine cartoon, so if we are collecting the names of those who most influenced the medium, many will have appeared in The New Yorker’s pages.
I’m a little bemused, however, by the prevalence in this listing of cartoonists whose claim to fame was drawing women—five of the twelve. Given my own penchant for a curving line, perhaps this outcome was predictable. But I hope not.
I hope, rather, that this result is a consequence of human nature in general and the history of magazine publishing in particular. One of the five is Gibson, after all, and although his Gibson Girl was a pin-up, he could scarcely be described as a “girlie cartoonist.”
Of the remaining four, one (Held) is noted for the over-all ambiance of his work not just for pertly sexy women in short skirts, and another (Dedini) is also a New Yorker cartoonist; and two (Campbell and Cole) are associated with the successful launching of different magazines, each of which provided amble berths for magazine cartoonists. For that reason alone, the magazines themselves deserve mention in this listing, and the only way to recognize them is to attach to them the names of cartoonists whose efforts helped assure their success.
Other magazines that published cartoons regularly were not as readily identified with the work of particular cartoonists as were Esquire and Playboy. Ted Key was a notable contributer to Saturday Evening Post with his Hazel cartoons, but neither Key nor Hazel can be said to have contributed in any substantial way to the success of the magazine. Campbell and Cole, on the other hand, were vital ingredients in the fortunes of their host journals.
Whether history’s fate or my forte is responsible, cartoonists who draw shapely women, as Campbell’s friend told him, are always in demand. So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see several of them on this list—particularly since the list itself spans a sexist century.
And since it was, indeed, a sexist century in which, for at least the first part, a woman’s place was in the home, it should not be surprising that my lists include no women cartoonists. It’s not because there weren’t any. There were. Among magazine cartoonists, for instance, Helen Hokinson is usually numbered with the top four New Yorker tooners—Arno, Addams, and Price; but just as I do not number Price (a personal favorite of mine) among the dozen most influential or inspired of magazine cartoonists of the century, I do not number the gentle Hoky.
Barbara Shermund was prolific but not as prolific as, say, Ned Hilton or Stan Fine. Dorothy Mckay was a regular contributor to Esquire throughout its first decades, but her work there did not shape the cartoon history of the magazine as much as Campbell’s did. Alice Harvey (no relation) contributed regularly to the old Life in the twenties, but good as her work was, it was not in any pacesetting category (despite the stellar gleam of her last name).
It was not for lack of talent that signatures of female cartoonists do not show up very frequently in the nation’s magazine cartoons over most of the last one hundred years. The plain fact is that female cartoonists were not numerous in a sexist society because that society kept them busy in other roles—when it was not actively preventing them from becoming cartoonists, that is. And since most women were pretty well occupied in other (probably more important) activities, they didn’t do much cartooning except, probably, on a part-time basis. And on that basis, they were not likely to re-define the medium or marshal hosts of imitators.
In editorial cartooning, the situation was somewhat different but not much. Several women produced editorial cartoons in the closing years of the nineteenth century and in the opening years of the twentieth—mostly for women’s suffrage publications, which, although influential, were of limited circulation. Lou Rogers was perhaps the first American woman to do cartoons on suffrage. Others as productive include Nina Allender and Blanche Ames.
But my favorite representative of this breed is Edwina Dumm, who was doing editorial cartoons for a general circulation newspaper, the Columbus Monitor in Ohio, by 1916. In one of the most delicious of ironies, she was producing cartoons on political issues of the day before she could vote! Edwina eventually journeyed east to New York, where she was soon conducting one of the longest-lived syndicated newspaper comic strips, Capp Stubbs and Tippie, about (another irony) a veritable boy’s boy and his dog.
But until Etta Hulme wound up at the Fort Worth Star Telegram over twenty-five years ago, I don’t think there was a woman editorial cartoonist of any note on the staff of a daily newspaper anywhere in the country. (Hulme, by the way, while a staunch advocate of women’s issues, told me she doesn’t feel that she herself was particularly discriminated against at her paper because of her sex. But Kate Salley Pamer, once of the Greenville (SC) News, might have a different tale to tell.)
In any event, naming women on either of my top cartoonists lists will not make them top cartoonists, however much we might want them to be—however brilliantly they worked on the modest scale a sexist society afforded them. Numbering one of them here won’t make up for decades of second-class citizenship in either the society or the profession, a stunted status that denied them the opportunities which would have made possible achievement on a grander scale. And to name any woman to a slot on these rosters solely as a way of recognizing that women did work as cartoonists would be intellectually dishonest as well as condescending, neither of which I relish becoming.
So I’ll say no more about it (except to assert, unequivocally, that the next century’s listing will probably begin with Hulme and Wilkinson and Palmer and Telnaes, leading the charge of the gender onto the editorial pages of the nation’s papers).
By way of completing this roll call of the century’s great cartoonists, I want to pause for a few paragraphs to remember a man who established a considerable reputation in both editorial cartooning and magazine cartooning. Art Young.
He could be on either list. Or maybe on both. He’d be there with McCutcheon and Gibson: he was precisely contemporary with them: born in 1866, he died in 1943.
Young grew up in the midwest, worked on the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Tribune (briefly), went to New York and the Art Students League, then to Paris to study at the Academie Julien. Stricken with pleurisy, he returned home to convalesce, then back to Chicago in 1892 to work for the Inter Ocean, for which he produced the region’s first daily front-page editorial cartoon. Then that fall, Young participated in another historic event when he drew pictures for the Inter Ocean's Sunday supplement, the nation's first newspaper Sunday supplement to be printed in color. (Yes, I know: Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World is supposed to be the first to publish a Sunday supplement in color. But it wasn’t.)
By 1895, Young was drawing for the Denver Times in Colorado, and while there, he heard lectures by Christian Socialist minister Myron Reed and British labor leader Keir Hardie and began to question the social justice of the capitalism. In the fall of 1895, he went to New York where he freelanced cartoons to Puck, Judge, and Life. In 1902, Young returned to Wisconsin to lend his pen to Republican Progressive Robert La Follette's campaign to be re-elected governor. But by 1905, Young had rejected the Republican politics of his heritage (including "all bourgeois institutions") and had resolved never again to draw a cartoon whose ideas he didn't believe in.
In 1910, he realized that he belonged with the Socialists "in their fight to destroy capitalism"; late in the year, he joined others in launching The Masses, a radical magazine to which he regularly contributed (without pay) "pictorial shafts" against the symbols of the corrupt system—chiefly, financiers and politicians. In 1912, he accepted a remunerative assignment with another radical publication, Metropolitan Magazine, to produce in words and pictures a monthly review of governmental action in Washington, D.C., to which he made regular trips for the next six years while continuing his other work in New York. Said he of the assignment: “Congress is the best show in the country for a cartoonist.”
His mature drawing style was distinguished by its relative simplicity at a time when most of his colleagues embellished their work with extensive crosshatching. Working in bold line, Young created visual impact with solid black shapes contrasted against the open white areas of his pictures; sometimes, he shaded boldly with grease crayon.
He crusaded against sweatshops, firetrap tenements, child labor, racial segregation, and discrimination against women as well as the traditional industrial and political foes of Socialism. One of his most reprinted cartoons depicts two slum urchins staring up at the night sky, one declaring: "Chee, Annie—look at the stars, thick as bedbugs."
In 1918 during World War I, Young lost his berth at Metropolitan because it was pro-war and he wasn’t. In the same year, the cartoonist and several Masses contributors were charged under the Espionage Act with "conspiracy to obstruct the [Army's] recruiting and enlistment" by objecting to the war. In one editorial cartoon labeled "Having Their Fling,” Young depicted an editor, capitalist, politician, and minister dancing with joyful abandon to the music played by an orchestra of canon and other weapons under the direction of Satan. Called to the witness stand and asked why he drew anti-war cartoons, Young responded with simple eloquence, "For the public good." The trial ended in a hung jury, a circumstance repeated at a second trial.
The Masses had been suppressed in 1917, and over the next several years, Young and several Masses alumni attempted to revive it under other names. Young helped found Good Morning, a weekly with a radical sense of humor. Within five months of its debut, Young had become editor and publisher—and the chief contributor of both words and pictures—in which capacities he continued until the jovial little magazine expired in October 1921.
Throughout the decade, Young contributed to several other publications, including Life, The New Yorker, and The Nation; and his cartoons were fixtures in the pages of The New Masses, born in 1926. Although most of his magazine cartoons were not, strictly speaking, editorial cartoons, they nonetheless betrayed a satirical bent that had social reform as its object. Young successfully combined both comedy and editorializing.
By the way—but not at all incidentally—among the most adept at combining comedy and political crusading was Ollie Harrington, one of the five greatest Black practitioners of the artform and one of the most powerful of all American cartoonists, regardless of race.
George Herriman is doubtless the most sublime artist in this quintet, his lyric Krazy Kat having ascended to metaphysical poetry. Matt Baker is probably the best draftsman in this company, particularly in rendering the beautiful women with which he populated his funnybook pages. Jackie Ormes, like Harrington, was a crusader cartoonist, particularly in Torchy Brown strips. And we’ve already met E. Sims Campbell. Harrington was never as financially successful as any of these—nor as visible on a national scale. But he was a heroic figure in the history of cartooning.
In the 1930s, he was living in Harlem, immersed in the storied cultural Renaissance, and getting cartoons published in the leading Black newspapers in the region. At the end of 1935 in a panel cartoon called Dark Laughter, Harrington introduced a heavy-set bald Black man who soon took over the feature. This was Bootsie, and Harrington would draw him for the next thirty years. In 1942, Harrington was doing editorial cartoons for Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s weekly newspaper, The People’s Voice. For the Courier in Pittsburgh, he created a Caniff-like adventure strip, Jive Gray. After World War II, Harrington joined the staff of the NAACP and was highly critical of U.S. Justice Department’s failure to convict anyone accused of lynching or other crimes of racial hatred.
Then in 1950, fearing that he would be caught up in the anti-communist nets of McCarthyism for his criticism of the government, Harrington left the country and went to Paris, intending to stay only “until this thing blows over.” By chance, when the Berlin wall went up in 1961, Harrington was in East Berlin, meeting with a publisher. He was trapped. For the next thirty years, he lived and worked in East Germany, continuing to send cartoons to papers in the U.S.—sulphurous political cartoons attacking institutionalized racism, mindless imperialism, self-serving politicians, poverty, homelessness, and bloated capitalists, all drawn in a gritty, ragged-line coarse-hatched style perfectly suited to the raw and painful bitterness of his ironic assault.
By the early 1990s, Harrington was able to return to the U.S., but he continued to make his home in Berlin, where he died in 1995. His impact in American cartooning is profound but focussed. One time I asked Black cartoonist Brumsic Brandon, Jr., whose Luther comic strip that started in 1968 was one of the first efforts with Blacks as protagonists, who his role models were. “Ollie Harrington,” he said. And he said no more.
Art Young, too, had an influence that was powerful but not widely felt. By the 1930s, plagued by the infirmities of old age, he was producing much less work, and he was occasionally supported financially by his friends. A portly and rumpled figure with wispy white hair and a shiney red “light comedy nose” (his description), Young was a familiar sight in Greenwich Village, strolling the streets with his walking stick.
At his death, the New York Times noted editorially that "he was a lovable soul in spite of his sometimes heterodox opinions" in the advocacy of which "he had sacrificed the chance to accumulate a fair share of this world's goods." That he was a kindly, thoughtful man, selfless and sincere, with simple but firmly held convictions is borne out by every page of his two autobiographies. Observing that "in his crusading, he was in deadly earnest," the Times called him "a good American" whose calm voice "will be missed."
Still true today, I’d say.
Art Young and Ollie Harrington were perhaps not giants of cartooning by reason of their having shaped the medium or influenced generations of their colleagues. But they belong with any summary of the century’s cartooning achievements nonetheless because they were great cartoonists. And they were great cartoonists because they had great hearts, and they lived and drew by their beliefs.
For other greats—the cartoonists who shaped the comic strip and those who did the same with the long form, the comic book—you’ll need to dip into one or two of my books, The Art of the Funnies for the former, The Art of the Comic Book for the latter. Analytical histories of the medium in these two forms, the books are previewed (and mercilessly plugged) elsewhere at this website; to get there, click here. And stay ’tooned.
The foregoing essay is a slightly modified recycling of a Comicopia
column published several years ago in The Comics Journal.