Cartooning as an art form, especially that of the political bent, achieved renewed prominence earlier this year. While there may be many a fan-boy argument about the differences in comics versus graphic novels, both by now have evolved into a very different animal from the cartoon. Cartoons can be political (just ask the French), or silly, child-friendly or even come in a three-panel form that makes a single girl go “AACK!”, but they are at their best when they address the thoughts and fears we have each and every day.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and commemorating the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the Cartoon Museum, located in Bloomsbury, London, is showing Heckling Hitler: World War Two in Cartoons & Comics. A small but fascinating exhibit shows how the second World War unfolded through the eyes of British cartoonists like Leslie Illingworth and David Lowe.
This exhibition of over 120 original drawings and printed materials concentrates mainly on newspaper and magazine cartoons from WWII and includes works not only by some of Britain’s most famous political and general cartoonists, but recovered scraps from prisoners of war; some original drawings show pencilled-in first attempts and editor’s notes in the margins, you can see where the artists changed their minds. Audiences can watch the war progress on paper, from scathing takedowns of Neville Chamberlain prior to 1940, to spoofs of “Mr. Hitler” wearing swastika-printed footsie pajamas, through the increasing lionization of Churchill to the arrival of “the Yanks”, shown as hulking, toothy creatures and described as “overpaid, oversexed and over here”.
Whether ringing alarm bells as the British government talked appeasement with Germany, rallying the troops to prepare for the coming battles, or encouraging people to keep “smiling through” nightly bombings, cartoons and posters in newspapers, and those produced for the Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Information, reminded the public that whether adult or child, the only way to defeat “Jerry” was to stick together and always look on the bright side of life.
The Art of the Cartoon
While access to exhibits such as this is a benefit of living in the UK, one of the downsides is missing out on events featuring quintessentially American artists that don’t make the jump overseas. I have been a fan of cartoonist Roz Chast after discovering her work as a bookish high school senior with an odd sense of humor, a subscription to The New Yorker and a taste for scribbly little drawings of people wearing cat-eyed glasses (a fashion choice that also served me well with fandom of “The Far Side” and the B-52s).
Chast, who can capture life’s smallest moments in exquisite detail, has been appearing at selected, mostly university, dates across the States promoting her latest book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, less a collection of cartoons and more a painfully funny memoir of the last months spent together with her aged parents. Perhaps not an ideal Father’s Day present, but a “if-you-don’t-laugh, you’ll-cry” book for the grownup child in all of us.
This book is not political, and in fact Chast’s career has seen her only occasionally poke a stick at any of the headline names she could have been lampooning. “I’m not a political cartoonist,” she told The New Yorker this year, “but I do feel that it’s better to vote than to not vote, and that it’s better to be at least somewhat informed about what’s going on.” The weird and wonderful people that have populated her cartoons for the last thirty years are much more proletarian: worried teachers, friendly postmen, and now sweet and grumpy parents at the end of their lives.
The next generations of artists capturing the common man are popping up everywhere, putting their thoughts onto paper and building an audience. One of these is New Cross (southeast London) artist Sam Cooper. Similar to Chast in his look at the quirky side of the mundane, Cooper takes things he sees in his day to day life and “jiggles them into a new dimension”. His cites Belgian artist Brecht Vandenbroucke as one of his influences, but the clean and dreamy drawing style may remind you of the collective work of the animators of “Yellow Submarine”. Cooper, now showing at Clapham Picture House through late June, says he doesn’t shy away from the political, but doesn’t look to incite irritation in his audience.
“As seen with recent events, a cartoon that is deliberately offensive about something like belief can lead to alienation, anger and terrible actions of retaliation – actions which of course I do not condone in any way at all,” Cooper told Pop Culture Beast. “There is the need for artists to consider carefully whether being offensive is really required for the point they’re trying to make. In my opinion, one of the most important things in this world is to be good to each other.”
Point well taken. Roz Chast and the valiant cartoonists on display in Heckling Hitler would probably agree.
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A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.