Giving Graphic Offense

Caricaturist Charles Philipon’s sketch of King Louis-Philippe as a pear, 1831.
Caricaturist Charles Philipon’s sketch of King Louis-Philippe as a pear, 1831.

Most people who worked at The Nation in 1984 would probably not have disagreed with the proposition that Henry Kissinger had, metaphorically, screwed the entire world. But when then-editor Victor Navasky wanted to run a cartoon depicting him doing just that, he faced a newsroom revolt. The drawing was by David Levine, best known as the longtime contributor of caricatures to the New York Review of Books, and it depicted the former secretary of state naked and thrusting atop a woman with a globe for a head, his beady eyes peeking out ecstatically through his trademark glasses. An American flag was draped over his behind, and the globe woman’s fingers dug into the bedsheets. Twenty-five Nation staffers signed a petition damning the image as sexist and contrary to the magazine’s values—the only such petition Navasky received during his thirty-year tenure there. The Art of Controversy can be read as his systematic attempt, decades later, to figure out why a cartoon, of all things, had prompted such a visceral reaction.

A century or so before Navasky’s Kissinger contretemps, another New York magazine editor had faced a cartoon problem. As the 1872 election started to take shape, some prominent reform-minded Republican senators began to distance themselves from President Grant, threatening to split the party. George William Curtis, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, was in a delicate position: He wanted to help preserve Republican unity, but he also supported the ideas of some of the reformers—and was personal friends with many of them into the bargain. He believed the situation called for calm and rational discussion among Republican-leaning intellectuals. Unfortunately for him, as Fiona Deans Halloran describes in her new biography, Thomas Nast, Curtis also employed America’s most famous political cartoonist, who enjoyed full license from the magazine’s publishers to draw whatever he wanted. Since Thomas Nast loved and idolized Grant, he naturally wanted to draw cartoons that made Grant’s enemies look ridiculous, and he did it with gusto. Curtis pleaded with Nast to hold back because, as they both knew, cartoons—“so much more powerful and unmanageable than writing”—could effectively dynamite any hope of rational discourse. In other words, the question that Navasky would find so exasperating—why should a cartoon provoke such outrage?—was something that Curtis took as a given.

In his survey of the genre, Navasky wants to know why cartoons are so effective at conveying political messages—an understandable quandary for someone who had edited a political magazine. As a self-proclaimed “word person,” he’s admittedly working outside of his element, but he attempts to tackle the problem in the style of his word-focused tribe. He devotes fifty pages here to approaching the subject from several theoretical angles. Are we moved by the editorial content of cartoons? By the images themselves? By the way the combination plays on the biology of our brains? He concludes with ten numbered propositions that are meant to serve as a guide through the meat of the book, which is a survey of artists, most (but not all) of whom he admires, and most (but not all) of whom are considered political cartoonists.

This early dissection of the subject can be pretty abstract, but it does yield one concrete and intriguing interpretation of the power of the political cartoon: the idea that caricatures overload our facial-recognition circuitry and thus seem more face-like than actual faces. Such images “amplify the differences” between their target and the average person, exaggerating the features our brains latch on to in order to distinguish some individual countenance from everyone else’s. Thus Obama’s increasingly prominent ears on editorial pages across the country, thus Jimmy Carter’s teeth, thus Nixon’s . . . well, thus most things about Nixon’s face, as he was a caricaturist’s playground. “His nose told you he would bomb Cambodia,” cartoonist Doug Marlette once said.

It would be tidy if there were a moment in the history of art that we could point to as the birth of caricature; in reality, it’s been discovered again and again, in many times and places. Navasky does try to find early examples: Bernini’s seventeenth-century sketch of Pope Innocent XI looking like a skeletal alien creature; James Gillray’s 1798 “Doublers of Character,” which is essentially a primer for making various facial types more grotesque.

But the joys of caricature are something that individual artists all remake anew, and one of the great pleasures of Halloran’s biography is watching Nast go from being a mere artist to a political-cartooning superstar. In the process, we also get a more concrete look at what cartooning meant for Nast—not just as art, but as a means of wielding political influence and making money. Nast started work at the age of fifteen as an illustrator for various weekly New York newspapers. This meant, in the days before photographs could be reproduced in newsprint, that he roamed the streets of New York, drawing the scenic and the newsworthy to help fill the pages of publications that were purchased as much for the art as for the writing. It was common, Halloran notes, for subscribers to decorate their walls with prints cut out of the papers.

When he began working steadily for Harper’s Weekly in 1862, Nast also started using his illustrations as a more overt medium for his political opinions—especially when he turned his focus to the American Civil War. Nast’s rivals grumbled that he barely spent any time at the front and that his scenes of camp life were lifted from other artists; Halloran argues that this doesn’t matter so much because Nast was focusing on presenting the “emotional reality” of war for the Union side. This sounds like special pleading, but if you look at Nast’s work from the period, it’s clear, despite his realistic drawing style, that we’re not meant to view many of the scenes literally, containing as they do pathos, symbolic figures, and not-so-subtle political advocacy. Halloran calls these works “sentimental illustrations,” and Nast’s career-making contribution to this genre was a drawing called “Compromise with the South,” in which a bowed, crippled Northern soldier shakes hands with a smug Confederate over the grave of fallen Union heroes while an allegorical Columbia weeps. Because it lacks caricatures and looks more like the sentimental wartime scenes that came before it, Halloran is reluctant to label “Compromise with the South” a political cartoon on stylistic grounds, but it’s pretty recognizable as something very much like one. The Republican Party printed thousands of copies for use in Lincoln’s 1864 reelection campaign, and the image made Nast a national celebrity.

Over the next few years, Nast became the most famous political cartoonist anyone had ever seen, and his drawings really did become cartoons of a style that would not look far out of place on modern-day editorial pages and their Web equivalents. However, even Nast wasn’t a full-blown practitioner of the art, in the strict caricature-first sense: His heroes, like Lincoln and particularly Grant, remained the subject of his skillful realism; it’s his enemies who are saddled with the expected jowls and guts and spindly limbs and ludicrous antics. And fortunately for us, Nast had a slew of political enemies.

There’s another, more discomforting kind of caricature that jumps out at you from the excellent collection of illustrations Halloran has assembled: the ethnic stereotype. Nast was a strong proponent of the abolition of slavery and the extension of civil rights to freedmen; though he occasionally used minstrel-style caricatures, more often his African-American characters are realistic, even idealized. But the same could not be said of the Irish, whom Nast did not care for, to put it mildly. His depiction of the Irish as lantern-jawed subhumans with tattered clothes is particularly striking to the modern viewer because it makes use of a specific visual shorthand that’s fallen more or less completely out of our vocabulary. His cone-hatted, wispy-mustached figures are still entirely recognizable as racist depictions of Chinese people, but the twenty-first-century reader, looking at Nast’s 1868 campaign cartoon “Matched?,” probably couldn’t identify the sinister, leathery-faced man lurking near Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour as an Irishman, at least not without the benefit of an explanatory footnote.

Navasky, too, grapples with the robust tradition of racist cartooning in his overview. Following his own political leanings, he tends to depict political cartooning as an art form that is almost inherently radical and progressive, so the far uglier crop of racial and ethnic caricatures in his study serves as a necessary corrective. There are some hair-raising examples from Der Stürmer, a Nazi weekly notorious for its anti-Semitic cartoons; at the remove of the present day, some of the imagery is almost comically overloaded with contradictory invective. For instance, one drawing from Fips, the pen name of Der Stürmer’s in-house cartoonist Philipp Rupprecht, features an obese plutocrat with a dollar sign on his shirtfront, sitting atop a bloody globe and framed by a Star of David, a hammer and sickle, and the square and compass of Freemasonry. Having spent some time on the proposition that cartoons are a uniquely potent form of propaganda, Navasky seems almost disappointed to note that Der Stürmer’s graphic images did not come up at its publisher’s Nuremberg trial.

But, to get back to the Irish, Nast had plenty of opportunity to indulge in his particular prejudice when he joined in the crusade he’s most famous for today: the battle against Boss Tweed, the corrupt kingpin of New York’s Irish-dominated Democratic political machine. Tweed had a body and a beard made for caricature, and during 1870 and 1871, Nast drew him and his Tammany Hall allies again and again, in various increasingly surreal permutations. There are a couple of images from this period that almost everybody knows: “Who Stole the People’s Money?,” in which Tweed and his cronies stand in a circle, each pointing at the man to his right, and “The ‘Brains,’” in which Tweed stands with his hands in his pockets, recognizable in his bulk and his natty attire but with his head replaced by a sack of money. (The latter echoes “Le Poire,” a series of caricatures drawn a generation earlier in which Charles Philipon morphs King Louis-Philippe of France into the title fruit; at his trial for lèse-majesté, Philipon said, “Can I help it if His Majesty’s face is like a pear?”)

But there was more to the battle than just these drawings; Halloran captures the intensity of the period, in which Nast churned out cartoon after cartoon, sometimes as many as seven per weekly issue. This prolific output mirrors both Nast’s efforts to keep up with the frenetic pace of breaking developments in the Tweed corruption case, and the cartoonist’s reformist penchant for relentlessly hammering home his favored tropes: “What are you going to do about it?” the reader is asked in captions, over and over again. The process resembles nothing so much as modern-day political blogging. One might forgive a biographer for exaggerating the extent to which her subject’s art brought down the tyrant; the event that precipitated Tweed’s fall was not a particularly biting caricature, but the Tammany-controlled police’s inability to stop street brawling between Catholic and Protestant Irish New Yorkers—an administrative failure that finally stirred the state’s political elite to stop turning a blind eye to his corruption. Still, when Tweed, on the lam in Spain, was finally captured and arrested, it was because he was spotted by someone who recognized him from Nast’s cartoons.

The Nast-versus-Tweed smackdown is really several different kinds of story: It’s a powerful public case study of the unique power of art, and a saga of Gilded Age politics. But it’s also a story about publishing. A Republican-leaning magazine with a reform-minded editor and a pugnacious cartoonist with an anti-Irish streak decided to take on a corrupt, Irish-backed Democratic machine, and the campaign allowed Harper’s to compete for attention with the New York Times, which was doing much of the original reporting on the details of Tweed’s corruption ring. But the interests of Nast and his editor, George Curtis, were not always so aligned. In their clash over the 1872 election, Nast ultimately prevailed, mostly because the Harper family, which owned the paper, backed his independence.

But Curtis never forgot the challenge to his authority, and remained convinced that editorials, no matter how strongly worded, could maintain civility and even be retracted, whereas a cartoon was harsh and indelible. The solution to this problem was to assert control. When the next generation of the Harper family took over management of the magazine, Curtis convinced them to give him final say on all editorial content—including Nast’s cartoons. Nast was tamed, and while he kept publishing drawings, few were as memorable as the ones he produced in the 1860s and 1870s, and he shied away from fights that were meaningful to him, like those over the retreat from Reconstruction. (When contemporary media commentators expressed surprise that Nast didn’t take on the issue, he clipped out their articles and put them in his scrapbook.)

Navasky’s numbered propositions explicating the visceral appeal of editorial images reveal a similar belief in cartoons’ power—and where Curtis was wary, Navasky seems almost in awe. A caricature “can become a totem and as such is uncontrollable”; “the so-called primitives who thought images were in some sense alive and had magical powers may have been right.”

And: “Images (especially when they are cartoons) are second-class citizens in the land of words, and that ought not to be the case.” This is a fine and respectful attitude for a word person to take. But sometimes Navasky seems to think that cartoons deserve a privileged place that prose does not. In some ways, this editorial reverence arises from certain practical realities: It’s hard for prose-oriented editors to tweak minor aspects of a cartoon the way they can with a column or article, so they’re faced with the choice to take it as it is or leave it. When he was confronting the revolt over Levine’s Kissinger cartoon, Navasky worried that rejecting the drawing would carry the “whiff of censorship.” Four years later, when the magazine ran an Edward Sorel image that also raised internal and external complaints of sexism, cartoonist Jules Feiffer said that an artist of Sorel’s caliber “shouldn’t have to pass an ideological means test to get in The Nation’s pages.”

But this more permissive approach to visual content certainly won’t let editors off the hook: Readers typically won’t parse out the different processes involved in accepting or publishing prose or images, and so both kinds of content will ultimately reflect back on a publication. Either keep a tight leash on your cartoonists, or accept the backlash against the imagery as part of your own cost of doing business. It’s no additional consolation, of course, that the visually inspired backlash will be all the more awkward because refuting an argument in cartoon form just tends to make you look silly and frustrated and wishing the whole thing had never happened in the first place. “Stop them damned pictures,” runs the famous quotation from Boss Tweed. “I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read, but damned they can see pictures!” It’s a great line, and the only problem with it is that he probably didn’t really say it. But that hardly matters, because we primarily remember Tweed through the lens of them damned pictures. Nast got the final say, even in the words that history put into Tweed’s mouth.

Josh Fruhlinger is the creator of the Comics Curmudgeon website, and his writing has appeared on The Awl and Wonkette. He lives in Baltimore.