Kent Worcester reviews The Great Anti-War Cartoons by Craig Yoe

Posted by on February 13th, 2010 at 11:32 AM

The Great Anti-War Cartoons. Edited by Craig Yoe, introduction by Muhammad Yunus. 190 pages: some color, mostly b&w. $24.99. Fantagraphics. ISBN 978-1-606991503.

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“The cartoonist makes people see things!” In a different context, this phrase might refer to the way cartoonists can conjure up fantastic settings with a few pen lines or brush strokes. In this 1918 cartoon by James Montgomery Flagg, these words have a less beguiling resonance, as a military officer is startled to find his own skull mocking him in the mirror. War is death, in other words. Far from being stranded behind a drawing board, the cartoonist depicted in this single-panel image is a commanding moralist who is able to force those in charge to see past their own illusions. Here, the phrase “the cartoonist makes people see things!” is another way of invoking the old Quaker dictum of speaking truth to power.

By placing Flagg’s delightful cartoon at the opening of his new book, editor Craig Yoe gives the reader a catchphrase that helps make sense of the entire undertaking. Rather than exploring the cultural history of antiwar cartooning – who were these cartoonists? what kinds of political and social views shaped their work? how did readers respond to their visual sallies? and so on – Yoe has decided to spotlight the cartoons themselves. Most collections of political and editorial cartoons tend to be crammed with pictures and historically-minded text. This volume eschews long essays in favor of generous image reproduction.

Instead of squeezing as many cartoons as he could in the available space, Yoe has arranged the book in the manner of a well-run art museum or gallery. The images are clean and the presentation stately. Many of the pages feature a single cartoon and a brief caption. No one who looks at this book will need a magnifying glass, or is likely to complain about the stamp-sized reproductions that often mar books of this type. It is difficult to think of another recent collection of political cartoons that is as good looking, or art-friendly.

Many of the cartoons featured in this book were drawn by Americans or Europeans in the first decades of the twentieth century. Some of the better-known cartoonists whose work fits this description include C.D. Batchelor, Edmund Duffy, Hugo Gellert, Robert Minor, Robert Osborne and Art Young. The unparalleled violence of the two world wars inspired an outpouring of pointed graphic commentary, of course, while the emergence of the modern newspaper ensured that skilled image-makers could quickly reach a mass audience. At the same time, quite a few pre-20th century painters and illustrators are represented in these pages, including Honore Daumier, Francisco Goya, Thomas Nast, Johann Heinrich Rambert, Sir John Tenniel and David Vinckeboons, the seventeenth-century Dutch painter and printmaker.

A few contemporary figures show up as well, such as Ron Cobb, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman and Art Spiegelman, whose 1967 drawing of two military recruiters kissing (beneath a sign that reads, “Make Love, Not War!”) anticipates subsequent controversies over gays in the military. While many of the cartoonists highlighted herein are reasonably well known, Yoe has definitely reached beyond the familiar names and has rescued a fair number of obscure figures. He’s also dug up some lovely cartoons by artists who are not generally remembered for their political work, such as Billy DeBeck, Reuben “Rube” Goldberg and the great Syd Hoff. He somehow managed to overlook the 1940s cartoons of Jesse Cohen (“Carlo”) that mainly appeared in the pages of Labor Action. But that’s an oversight others have made as well.

Most of the book’s images are in black-and-white, which makes sense given the constraints imposed on the newspapers and magazines that first published this kind of work. Yoe has nevertheless included a color section that features work by painterly types such as John T. McCutchen, Bruno Schulz, and the stunning Louis Raemaekers, whose fiery one-panel polemics seethe with a hard-won hatred of modern warfare.

When I first spotted The Great Anti-War Cartoons in my local bookstore, I wondered whether it would be a little heavy, not so much in terms of subject matter but in terms of visual style. The cover illustration, for example, by the Los Angeles Times cartoonist Bruce Russell, is a little dreary for my tastes – bombs dropping out of a giant skull; thanks, I get it – and I have never been a fan of the murky charcoal look that many early twentieth century illustrators favored. The illustration on the back cover, by Oscar E. Cesare, which depicts a mother holding up her baby in the midst of battle (“Cease Firing!”), has a similarly didactic, belabored look. Thankfully, there is a great deal of stylistic variation inside the book itself, and the “grey skies” approach favored by many illustrators of a certain era does not predominate. Consider, for example, the range of visual expression presupposed by the inclusion of both George Grosz…

…and Robert Crumb:

And rather than giving us one of Art Young’s innumerable dour-faced cartoons, Yeo has picked out an image that can almost be described as light-hearted:

Despite my initial misgivings, I am delighted to report that The Great Anti-War Cartoons offers an impressive showcase of political cartooning. Many of its contributors have never had their work reprinted with as much care. Even the most well-informed reader will stumble across pieces they have never seen or names they have never heard of. The mini-essays that open the book are a little perfunctory. The education is in the selections themselves.

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