What Fools These Mortals Be! A collection of 19th century humor cartoons
Bill Watterson on what legendary satirical magazine Puck tells us about change and opportunity.
Today, as the mass media atomizes, newspapers struggle, and political cartoonists lose their jobs, it’s strange to look at 19th Century publications like Puck, where a political cartoon could take up the entire cover or a two-page centerspread inside. The artistic possibilities and visual impact of that kind of space are revelations.
Even in its own day, the lithograph drawings of Joseph Keppler were a world away from the crosshatched wood engravings of Thomas Nast’s cartoons of just a few years earlier. The new lithography technology permitted sensuous lines, an immense range of halftones, and—what must have been absolutely eye-popping in those days—full color.
This article is reproduced from What Fools These Mortals Be: The Story of Puck, by Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West, published by the Library of American Comics.
The cartoonists of Puck were clearly excited by the opportunities and their cartoons are lavishly drawn. Some are bold and graphic, some are exaggerated and cartoony, and others are richly illustrative. The commentary is equally varied, ranging from silly, to satiric, to outraged. In these early days of cartooning, the weekly humor magazine gave cartoons real prominence, and cartoonists immediately began pushing every limit of the art form. Decades later, comic strip cartoonists did the same thing in the daily newspapers. Cartoons are partly shaped by their publishing environment, and the artistry of cartoons expands in those rare times when it’s given some encouragement and open territory.
The Internet seems to reduce everything to niche markets of dubious profitability, and it remains to be seen if political cartoons will ever thrive again, but we are again at the threshold of a new publishing technology, and cartoonists can now draw any kind of cartoon, in any kind of medium, in any style. The open territory for artistic expansion is here again. Perhaps the Puck cartoons reprinted in this beautiful book will remind us of the power, scope, and artistic possibilities we’ve long neglected.
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