Saturday, September 30, 2017

America in Cartoons: A Book Report

In place of my usual Smorgasback Saturday rummaging through my own old cartoons or the century-old cartoons of others, I herewith present a book report on the latest addition to my bookshelf.

Perusing the remaindered books cart at Barnes & Noble recently, I discovered two copies of America in Cartoons: A History in Pictures, edited by Tony Husband. I'd never seen the book on the regular shelves; but then, I don't visit the bookstore quite as often as I used to, so perhaps I had missed it. At any rate, I bought the 192-page hardcover tome for under $6.00.

Husband is a British cartoonist whose work has appeared in Private Eye, The Spectator, and Punch. The bulk of his work is humorous, but he has published more serious cartoon books about dealing with his father's dementia and with his son's drug addiction. His compilations of other people's topical cartoons include books on propaganda, dictators, and the 20th Century; I already had his book on cartoons of World War II*.

There is a nice selection of cartoons in America in Cartoons, but if there is one glaring fault, it is that they all appear to be downloaded off the internet. I do the same here, but I do my best to clean up the images so that they are legible. And that's only for viewing on a 96 pixel-per-inch screen; the print quality for a book needs to be considerably greater.

That's especially true of the oldest cartoons in this book. Reading the tiny, italicized, vertical dialogue in the typical cartoon drawn in the early years of the Republic is difficult enough without each letter being reprinted as six or seven dots. The intricately detailed crowds and crosshatching of Winsor McCay's cartoons a century later become fuzzy, fading into the gray background suffered by many of the book's illustrations.

Using the internet as source material also leads to some curious crediting in the appendix. The artists are credited by name in the text of the book, but while for example the book includes several cartoons by Daniel Fitzpatrick and Bill Mauldin from their days at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the cartoons are credited in the appendix to the State Historical Society of Missouri. Herblock's cartoons are credited to the Library of Congress.

I appreciate that space is limited, but it seems strange to me that there is no mention of Watergate or Bill Clinton's impeachment in this book, which was published in 2015 and closes with a fairly generic Bill Bramhall cartoon (credited to Getty Images) of Barack Obama. Watergate in particular marked the glory days of 20th Century American editorial cartooning and illustration, whether you think the actual scandal was of lasting importance or not.

That said, there is a nice mix of cartoons about politics and war on the one hand and everyday life on the other. Entertainment and pop culture often get overlooked in collections of historical cartoons, and I enjoyed running across them in Husband's book. And I'm happy to see the 600-thread-count, precisely composed editorial cartoons of Winsor McCay, which often get passed over in favor of his equally amazing Sunday comic pages. I just wish these copies were worthy of the originals.

For all I know, they might look just fine on your iPad or Kindle. There are people like me who will eat this stuff up anyway just for the chance to see some classic cartoons that we haven't seen before. If you're one of us, check out the remaindered books cart at your local bookstore, or watch for it to show up used on-line.

I just wouldn't pay the full £9.99 list price plus shipping and handling.


* Which I also found in the remaindered books cart, apparently.

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