The Political Cartoons of Puck

Reader, lover of artistry, history, creativity, and genius, indulge with me for a moment while I talk about Puck.

This is a kind of part two to a post I wrote earlier about Billy Ireland

Puck was a magazine, the first successful one of it’s time, to produce (mostly political) satire cartoons. It is much more than the black and white sketches we see today in The New Yorker (not to delegitimize those gems). Cartoonists for the magazine provided full colorful, detailed, illustrative prints. An opening of most introductory American History book (shoutout to the American Paegant!) will contain images of the most famous illustrations, like:

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John D. Rockefeller depicted as a Robber Baron
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Teddy Roosevelt looking standing patronizingly over the Constitution

 

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One of many illustrations that used the octopus as a representation of negative forces
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A depiction of James Blaine, the opponent of Grover Cleveland during the 1884 election which Puck had a large influence in

What made this magazine so different and influential? It wasn’t the first collection of political cartoons and caricatures. It was just much more successful than the last few. I don’t know enough to say why. I know that Puck was more influenced by European political cartoonists than previous American cartoonists, and that some of the best, most famous cartoonists in American history produced for Puck.

I can tell you what I saw when I got to look at collection of cartoons from Puck. Deep, astute symbolism like no other. Humor (although we, living in a different time, don’t understand it at first) that is deeply poignant. A quick glance won’t give you all of the secrets of that particular print. An examination helps us understand why certain colors were used, why certain objects were placed where they were, why a face was distorted into that particular structure. Each image was filled with so much intention. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen, and it wasn’t like anything I realized could have been accomplished then. I laughed, thankfully because I remember some the 19th century political situation from history classes, and because it was all so original.

Later in the magazine’s existence some of the cartoons were less political and more comical. Cartoons told a story. But I will admit I didn’t get a great look at their later works that were displayed. I was way too mesmerized by the earlier works. The way it was arranged in the gallery was so perfect. I walked along and saw the influence of their work. The outrage and finger pointing at some politicians and tycoons, and their satire of the games going on in Washington. I watched the results of those fights that Puck had depicted and what the reaction of the magazine was. I saw their commentary on presidents and popular opinions, and whether or not what they campaigned for succeeded.

Today, I have a bit of a personal love for political comedy. In fact, often, I feel like, with our current distored media situration, the real truth comes from the mouths of the likes of John Oliver, Jon Stewart, Colbert, Kimmel, Chris Rock, Tina, Amy, all of SNL, Aziz, Key and Peele, Youtubers like Vlogbrothers and even Bad Lip Reading, The god-damned Onion and why do I keep going when I can go on for so long? Basically, what I’m saying is, these political comedians do today what Puck did expertly decades ago: cut through all the current shit. As a writer, as an artist, and as a person, this is what I want to be able to do. It hard to find a niche/subject to dedicate myself to. I’m not saying every painter has to have one, but isn’t it, in some way, amazing to? I try to create art that is relevant to my life and experiences, so now, I wonder if I am capable of commenting on current society the way that Puck did (actually, I know I’m capable of it, I just now got the idea of finally trying).

One thing I also thought while looking through all those cartoons is “wow, if only Puck were around to illustrate the current shitshow that is the election of 2016.” Of course we have humorists and cartoonists and even more mediums to make fun of things than we did back then, yet I felt like Puck would have been able to do it in a way no one else right now is doing so. At the same time,I’m reminded that the current shitshow isn’t current at all–it’s always been there.

I mentioned in my earlier post that I saw all these things during a visit to a cartoon museum for a class and that I had to pick two pieces to write a response to. Here a response to a Puck piece I chose. It’s crazy that here I am posting an image below but I saw the real thing (!!!) in a museum. Let me tell you, these cartoons are pretty big. Anyway, if you’re interested in my analysis of a single piece, you can read on below for what I wrote for class. The image is a bit darker than depicted below.

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A caption underneath this print reads: Professor Sam of the Department of Physics: STOP! LOOK! LISTEN! Gentleman, we are about to witness what really happens when an irrestible force meets an immovable body. It was created by Joseph Keppler Jr. on Puck Vol 72, No 1830, which was published on March 27, 1912.

At the bottom is a small man in a cap and gown with a table behind him–presumably Professor Sam. He addressing the viewer. His arm is held up up like a teaching and his robe is blowing in the wind. The landscape shows a relatively clear day over an orbital horizon that shows beaches, oceans sand, mountains, and trees all at once (presumably, the subjects of this image are standing on top of America). The only freestanding building is the capital building, a small silhouette on the left side horizon. Next to it, sits President Taft–annoyed, fat, dumb, and dark looking. He is sitting on top of the white house and crushing it. Running at Taft from the right comes an angry and very animated T. Roosevelt. He has strong arms and legs that are in motion, and his hands are in fists. He is floating as he runs, which is suggested by the lines and bolts, at the speed of light. As I remember from history class, Taft was seen as passive compared to the last president, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt and Taft had a feud and although Taft did call himself progressive, Roosevelt was much more aggressive in his stances and ran against Taft again during Taft’s re-election. Teddy Roosevelt has always been seen as a tough guy fighter willing to stand up for Americans. Clearly, the artist agreed with this sentiment. This was published during the 1912 Presidential election. It looks as though Taft is going to be pushed off from where he is sitting (as president on the White House). This image struck me because I remembered the historical context and because of the diverse and striking symbolism. We are reminded of the diverse landscape of America. Although the day seems clear, the color palette leans more dark and cool, reflecting the sentiment of current society. The physics professor is a silly additive and is probably used because during this time, there was a lot of discovery happening in the field of physics. It is intentional that the presidents are portrayed as giants. It took me a moment to even notice the professor, who seems like he is trying to explain some great natural phenomena. The detail in the faces of Taft and Roosevelt are amazing and the shadows on Taft’s body and on the White House are very ominous looking. Looking through the Puck cartoons made me think that although our current political climate in Washington seems crazy now, it is nothing particularly new. The same comedic storms were happening then too, and it’s only a shame we don’t have Puck around today to comment on the current election.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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