- - Monday, October 27, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE!: THE STORY OF PUCK, AMERICA’S FIRST AND MOST INFLUENTIAL MAGAZINE OF COLOR POLITICAL CARTOONS

By Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West

Library of American Comics/IDW Publishing, $59.99, 328 pages

Creating a memorable cartoon, be it a single illustration, comic strip, comic book or animated feature, is an enormous achievement. Creating a memorable editorial, or political, cartoon is the equivalent of drinking from the nectar of the gods.

Editorial cartooning is an exceedingly difficult discipline. It takes a clever mind and a talented pen to poke fun (and holes) in politics, history, economics and other current events. From original innovators such as William Hogarth, James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and Thomas Nast, to groundbreaking humor and satire magazines such as Punch, Fun, Yankee Doodle and Frank Leslie’s Budget of Fun, this genre quickly developed into a popular and viable entity.

Yet it was the legendary American humor magazine, Puck, that helped turn political cartooning into a fine art form in this country.

The founders, Austrian-born cartoonist Joseph Keppler and German-born printer Adolph Schwartzmann, had both worked for Leslie, the prominent U.S. illustrator-publisher. (Keppler had also tried to start his own publications, including a short-lived early version of Puck.) In September 1876, the first issue of Puck Illustrirtes Humoristiches Wochenblatt, which was geared toward German-Americans in their mother tongue, was launched. An English language version followed in March 1877.

For the next four decades, Puck entertained and enlightened readers with striking political commentary and, as time went along, pure satire. The famous Puck Building, which is still standing in New York City, housed the unique lithograph press that produced full-color images like no other publication in its day.

Surprisingly, there has never been a significant effort to collect the magazine’s treasure trove of cartoon art since it folded in 1918. Until now, that is.

Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West, two of America’s most knowledgeable experts of political cartoons, have combined their talents to produce a stunning tribute to the fallen cherub. Their new book, “What Fools These Mortals Be!,” is a glorious compilation of some of the magazine’s best cartoons of a distinctly (wait for it) puckish nature. IDW Publishing, along with Dean Mullaney’s Library of American Comics, have produced yet another brilliant volume that deserves to be lovingly displayed on bookshelves and coffee tables.

Bill Watterson, creator of the legendary comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” wrote in the foreword that the cartoons “are lavishly drawn … Some are bold and graphic, some are exaggerated and cartoony, and others are richly illustrative.” He hopes “the Puck cartoons reprinted in this beautiful book will remind us of the power, scope and artistic possibilities we’ve long neglected.”

Indeed, these cartoons represent a long-forgotten period when full pages of color art could captivate an audience. Many of the era’s great cartoonists, including Keppler, Eugene Zimmerman, Louis Dalrymple, James Albert Wales, Hy Mayer, J.S. Pughe and Rose O’Neill, contributed to this great magazine. The colors are vivid, the illustrations are detailed, the facial and body expressions are pronounced and the political commentary is immediately clear.

The book provides an impressive examination of Puck’s positions on politics, economics and social issues. The follies of government, business and labor, foreign relations, religion and other topics were tackled on a regular basis. No stone would be left unturned by the sprightly cartoonists.

What were Puck’s politics? Mr. Kahn and Mr. West write, “[t]hroughout the decades, Puck was a supporter of the Democratic Party” and promoted virtually all of its presidential candidates “except when the nominee was William Jennings Bryan, whom Puck could not stomach.” They were especially fierce defenders of Grover Cleveland, one of the last Bourbon (or conservative) Democrats.

When Keppler died in 1894, followed by editor H.C. Bunner in 1896, the publication’s political viewpoint changed. Schwartzmann “consolidated control … and tilted the magazine rightward, espousing conservative economic and foreign-policy positions.” Upon his death in 1904, his son (and Keppler’s son) took over, kept it on the political right, and then adjusted it once more. By 1905, “Puck returned to its progressive roots, embracing socialist themes about economic inequity and the evils of the trusts.”

Puck may have enjoyed making a mockery out of the Republican Party in its time. It’s fair to say, however, that many modern conservatives won’t be disturbed by this constant source of political lampooning. They may even find themselves agreeing with the mischievous cherub’s popular saying, which makes up the title of this wonderful book.

Or, to put it another way, what fools these political mortals be.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.


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