Donald Dewey
The Art of Ill Will
New York University Press
251 pp/b&w
hardcover
978-0-8417-1985-5

I suppose the title should have warned me, but even so, the sourness of Donald Dewey’s *The Art of Ill Will* rather took me aback. I guess I had assumed that you wouldn’t edit a sizable monograph on the political cartoon unless you actually liked political cartoons. My mistake.

Far be it form me, though, to condemn Dewey for his dyspepsia. On the contrary, his 75-page introduction (more than a quarter of the book!) seems to me to be just about on target. Over the course of a detailed historical overview, he makes the case that editorial cartoons occupy an almost impossible cultural position, trying simultaneously to be propaganda, popular entertainment, and art. As propaganda, there is little evidence that they’ve ever succeeded on anything but the most limited terms: even in the 19th century, it’s hard to tell whether Thomas Nast actually had that much of an influence on anyone’s voting habits. As entertainment, editorial cartoons have been in decline for generations; as Dewey points out, political junkies these days turn to blogs or John Stewart for their laughs, not to cartoonists. And as art…well, Dewey points out “cartooning has never been expected to be ahead of the curve artistically, to pioneer an aesthetic vision.” In fact, after reading this book, one is led to the conclusion that the only thing editorial cartoons have been able to do consistently, reliably, and well, is to disseminate and popularize vile ethnic caricatures. From happy darkies carrying watermelons to slant-eyed duplicitous Japs, from oily Catholic priests to oily Muslim clerics, if its stereotype and prejudice you’re after, editorial cartoons know no peer.

Of course, there are plenty of great editorial cartoons, and Dewey reproduces a number of them. I was struck, in particular, by the work of Joseph Keppler, a contemporary of Nast’s whose drafting skills are, if anything, even more astounding than those of his more famous rival. I’d seen Keppler’s “The Modern Colossus of (Rail)Roads” before, but it’s still amazing; an almost photographic realism combined with a Little Nemoesque mastery of scale. I was glad to see several examples of Theodore (Dr. Seuss) Geisel’s work included as well; his giant Hitler water-snake is as fancifully endearing as any Grinch or Floobooberbabooberbub. I wish there’d been more examples of Oliver Harrington’s work; I’d (embarrassingly) never heard of him before, but the one picture included here, of a mob lynching a school bus, is rendered with absurd tactile viciousness — it’s a lovely choice for one of the few color reproductions. And I’m always happy to see anything by Robert Minor and Art Young (though, unfortunately, the cartoons Dewey chose for the later are far from being his best work.)

Despite such standouts, though, the overall effect of paging through the gallery here is more irritation than wonder. As just one example, a cartoon labeled “The Providential Detection”, showing Jefferson, an eagle, and several bales of mail, is almost completely charmless: stiff, ugly, and boring, its incompetent without any of the *brio* or imagination that you sometimes see in the work of untrained artists. Of course, when this cartoon was published in the 1800s, the U.S. was a cultural backwater, so it’s not a big surprise to see third-rate work. More modern entries, unfortunately, don’t have that excuse. Ted Rall’s meandering Terror Widows cartoon is an inevitable low point: I actually had to look at it twice to reassure myself that, no, the reproduction isn’t messed up, he just actually draws that badly. Gary Trudeau (who Dewey unaccountably praises for his distinctive graphics) is represented by several cartoons, including one of his trademark “lets draw the White House over and over because I’m just that damn lazy” efforts. And numerous Jules Feiffer cartoons display all the smug, feeble irony of a M.A.S.H. rerun; the man is the Alan Alda of political cartooning.

Feiffer’s numbing glibness is an extreme example of his profession’s cardinal weakness. When political polemic reaches the level of art, it tends to do so because the polemicist has thought things through. People like Hogarth or Bosch, or Bernard Shaw, or Mencken each had a vision of society which was nuanced and consistent, and which gave their verbal jabs depth and resonance. Shaw actually believed in socialism; Bosch actually believed in Christianity; Mencken actually believed in art. Most political cartoonists on the other hand, try to generate opinions without believing in anything in particular. They’re like decapitated chickens chasing after their own heads not because they hope to find any ideas there, but just for lack of anything better to do. As a result, you get a lot of scrabbling and spurting, but not a whole lot of insight — which in practice means a lot of pretentious gag cartoons with unusually obvious punch-lines. “The Americans sure whipped the British in the War of 1812!” “Jerry Falwell sure is slimy!” “They execute a lot of people in Texas!” How cutting.

Dewey’s presentation doesn’t help matters any. To every single cartoon he has appended a short note, explaining the meaning. For example, beside a picture which contrasts tony landlords leaving church with images of slum dwellers, we find this:

“Taylor’s “Our Religious Landlords and Their Rookery Tenants* (1895) mocked the hypocrisy of New York landlords who found an hour for piety every Sunday in between week-long indifference to the misery of their slum tenants.”

Admittedly, many of the cartoons are dated enough to require some sort of annotation. But Dewey’s indiscriminate and obsessive limning painfully emphasizes the fact that a dull joke is not improved by exegesis. At moments, Dewey himself seems to feel the futility of the whole exercise. In at least two cartoons (one by Paul Conrad, one by Bill Mauldin) , he drops the original caption entirely, rendering the putative joke incomprehensible. It’s as if Dewey said to himself, “Aw, hell, who really wants to look at this stuff anyway?”

No doubt the dropped captions were an accident. But still, the slip seems Freudian. *The Art of Ill Will* isn’t really all that interested in the cartoons; it’s built around the author’s Introduction, not around the pictures themselves. The book is a thesis, meant to provide information and raise interesting questions. It’s only because it’s marketed and priced as a coffee-table art book that it seems disappointing. Visually, Syd Hoff’s out of print 1976 *Editorial and Political Cartooning* is tons more enjoyable, simply because Hoff approached the work as a fanboy, reproducing the work of the artists he most admired, and ignoring everybody else. Dewey’s view of the medium’s achievements and weaknesses is probably closer to the truth— but, alas, as every editorial cartoonist should know, the truth isn’t very pretty.

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This essay first appeared in the Comics Journal.
 

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