Book Review: Puck: What Fools These Mortals Be!: Political Cartooning at its Finest

Political cartoons have been around since the early 1700s though they didn’t really come into their own until the later part of the 18th Century with the advent of the French Revolution. It took Punch, a weekly British magazine to firmly establish the medium as something that could have a real impact on the culture and political landscape. Now at the beginning of the 21st with newspapers, editorials, and the comics pages disappearing all together it’s difficult to understand what great influence the political cartoonist wielded.

But wield it, they did. In 1884, at the height of its power, Puck reached a subscription rate of 125,000, a fairly astonishing rate for a weekly magazine at the time. It held great influence over public debate and presidential politics, helping put Grover Cleveland into the White House that same year.

The magazine ran from 1877 until 1918. It was founded and edited by Joseph Keppler. For its first decade, Keppler maintained it as a fairly hardcore political magazine where it gained most of its popularity in influence. After his death, the magazine changed ownership several times. In the process it changed into a more topical humor magazine, losing much of its political focus and slowly it audience. The Hearst Empire bought it in 1917 and it finally folded in September of 1918.

Looking at the magazine now, it’s easy to get lost and bored in the politics and satire from over a hundred years ago. Most of the players and ideologies are lost to the modern reader. Unless you have a Ph.D in history or American politics, you’re not likely to know who half of the characters are. But what’s striking about it is the vibrancy and the magnitude of detail in the artwork.

Look at the comic strips in your local paper or magazine and you’ll notice how very tiny they are. Its hard to make out the broad strokes much less the details. For years the comics pages have been pushed farther and farther into the back pages of the daily newspapers, and shrunk in size so much that one needs a magnifying glass just to read the punch line. In Puck, the illustrations are huge, often taking up entire pages. They are full of bright color and immaculate details. I might not get the joke, but I sure am taken in by its artistry.

Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard West have lavishly collected a great many of the cartoons from Puck‘s entire history and included them in this wonderful new book about the history of the magazine. The book lovingly reprints hundreds of the full color illustrations from Puck, giving details as to who drew the art, the date it was published and a little commentary to each individual piece. There are also several essays discussing the magazines history and its political as well as cultural influence.

Now this is where things get difficult for this reviewer. There is little doubt that Puck was a highly popular and influential magazine. Its history has been well documented and President Cleveland himself noted it help in getting him elected. This book is well put together with full color illustrations and the essays are well written and informative. All of these things get high praise from me.

But then there is the admission that most of it dwells outside of my own interests and background. Thumbing through the comics, I find myself struggling to get it. Even with the help of the commentary, most of the illustrations are quite indecipherable and esoteric to the modern reader. The art really is quite beautiful and the essays are very much insightful, but I must admit to myself this is not a well I’ll likely be coming back to. I can’t imagine an average reader, even fans of the comics pages or editorial comics will be binge-reading all 300-plus pages.

That being said this is a wonderfully crafted book that should be well praised and will no doubt be an incredible resource for those interested in the medium’s history and development. The Library of American Comics has once again beautifully restored and preserved an important part of our literary history.

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Mat Brewster

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