Know Thy History: Puck

The modern political cartoon has its roots in two realms: ugliness and illiteracy. The “ugliness” comes from the caricature portion. The one and only Leonardo Da Vinci, star to Assassins Creed and legendary Ninja Turtle, is credited with the earliest known use of caricatures. The great artist and inventor would often hire models with deformities to study, exactly, what the difference was between that and beauty.

The other major pioneer behind political cartoons is famed Reformer Martin Luther. There were two factors in his use of cartoons: first, that people of his time couldn’t really read, and second, that the printing press (and, especially, woodcuts) made it much easier to communicate ideas to the people at large. So when Luther wanted to expose the evils behind indulgences, he drew a cartoon where Jesus was driving out moneychangers, while the next panel showed the Pope acting as a moneychanger. You didn’t have to be a Rhodes scholar — or even a graduate of the First Grade — to get to the meat and potatoes of what Luther was trying to say here.

The tradition of political cartoons continued proudly in the United States. Benjamin Franklin is credited with creating the first American cartoon, with his infamous “Join, or Die” showing a cut up snake, each segment representing a different state (or group of states). The cartoon would become one of the major propaganda pieces used by the Revolutionaries to turn public sentiments towards independence.

The apex of American political cartoons, though, would arrive more than a hundred years later. The famed Thomas Nast would start the ball rolling. His are large footsteps to follow, considering he took on Tammany Hall, popularized the elephant and the jackass as symbols of the two political parties, and invented the modern conception of Santa.

However, there were men willing to step in in shoes. AMong them was Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, founder of the the magazine Puck.

Compared to his predecessors, Keppler was far more artistically accomplished. It’s understandable: Franklin was off flying kites in electrical clouds and wooing French ladies on diplomatic trips, while Nast was forced to drop out of art school for financial reasons. Keppler, though, studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. The guy was a consummate artist, humorist, and performer. When not working on political cartoons, whe was touring with a a theatrical troupe as a comedian in Italy and restoring old paintings in monasteries.

His father moved to St. Louis to escape the European Revolutions of 1848. Keppler followed after. He tried his hand at some less artsy jobs — farming, running a general store, studying medicine. He also “fell in with a distinguised crowd of journalists, writers, and artists” — among those a reporter named Joseph Pulitzer.

When he met up with a fellow immigrant, Adolph Schwarzmann, they decided to start a German-language weekly entitled Puck in 1871. This version of the magazine would last about a year.

Four years later, both Keppler and Schwarzmann were in New York. Keppler was now working as a cartoonist at Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which provided woodcuts and Daguerrotypes of the day’s events before the age of photography. The two decided to give Puck another try. This time, it met with more success, and an English version of the magazine soon followed. As a result, Puck became the first commercially viable humor magazine in America.

It was cheap. Harper’s Weekly, the magazine that featured Thomas Nast’s often crude woodcuts, retailed for 35 cents. For one thin dime, Puck delivered incredible illustrations, jokes, puns, and some light fiction. The price point meant that while Harper’s was sorta for the one percent, Puck was for the people.

Another selling point of Puck: it was in color. Color was just creeping into the publishing world, and Keppler embraced it. He was obsessing in having the most eye-catching magazine on the stands. He experimented with various sorts of chromolithographs, infusing his illustrations with the sort of vibrancy that had previously not been possible.

Puck was published in the Gilded Age, the post-Civil War America where politics got messy.he Executive Branch under President Ulysses S. Grant was severely weakened by scandal after scandal affecting people in his office (many of whom were Army buddies). While it’s easy to say “throw the bums out,” the Grant presidency is an example of “be careful what you wish for.” The replacements turned out to be worse. Men like Roscoe Conklin, Simon Cameron, and Benjamin Butler would manipulate the President to increase their own wealth and power. Government offices were created to make life nicer for their own group of friends. The number of civil service employees ballooned, and the appointments were determined by a spoils system.

While the eligible Americans were still active politically and voting, the political landscape was getting impossible to parse.

Puck loved to imagine these characters of the political landscape in absurd situations. Ulysses S. Grant, for example, was depicted to be a little baby being force fed by his advisors, while potentially worthy men look worriedly from the window. Puck was often allegorical using symbols (and yes, those much hated labels) to get the point across. While these techniques would be abused by future generations of political cartoonists (hey, look, that wind is totally “Political Opinion“), Puck gets away with it because… well, because the art is fantastic.

Putting presidents and other political figures seemed to be a favorite go-to gag for Puck. Now, you can probably write essays on how femininity equalled political weakeness or on Puck‘s insightful commentary of how politics had degenerated into a shallow fashion show. I just think that seeing the moustachioed Chester A. Arthur in a dress is kinda hilarious.

Beyond politics, Puck also gives the reader an unintended glimpse into the culture of the Gilded Age. Political cartoons are meant to connect with the readers with concepts that are often beyond their comprehension (reading, politics, etc.), so they have to connect on a different level. The metaphors that Puck employs give us a great idea on the things that people would relate to. Things like … boxing. You may not care who Teddy Roosevelt was running against… but boxing? Heck, yeah! The Queensbury Rules were just being adopted in a previously outlawed sport, and boxing was all the rage at the turn of the century.

Besides, Teddy Roosevelt in a boxing ring? That needs to be my background wallpaper as of yesterday.

Keppler died in 1894, after a trip to the Chicago World Expo wreaked havoc on his health. The magazine soldiered on without him. While created in the Wild West era of highly partisan opinionated newspapers, Puck would eventually be bought out by the man who would represent the anti-thesis of that ideal: William Randolph Hearst. Puck would last two more years, and then cease publication. The political cartoons, though, offer us glimpses into the world of the Gilded Age that mere photographs could not.

Also, presidents in dresses. Say what you will, but that’s the sort of crazy stuff you couldn’t get away with these days.


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on November 15, 2012, in comics, Know Thy History, The Webcomic Overlook. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Ah, political cartoons. They can say more in a quick picture and a few words than a two page article ever can.

  2. I hate to be one of those people who waxes nostalgic for an era he didn’t even live through, but these political cartoons are so much better than the dreck that gets trotted out now. At least they made some attempts at letting the pictures make the point instead of putting labels on everything under the assumption that the general public is too dense to figure anything out.

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