What Fools These Mortals Be: The Story of Puck, America’s First and Most Influential Magazine of Color Political Cartoons • 328 pages, IDW Publishing, $59.99 (Amazon, $40.64)
Once upon a time, mere mortal cartoonists held rockstar sway over American electoral politics via a wildly popular periodical that, early in its more than 40 year run. actually got their guy into the White House.
Let us now return to those halcyon days when men were men and cartoonists were gods.
These are your great-great grandfather’s political cartoons: dense, colorful and full of coded graphic allusions, mini-masterpieces as indecipherable to most modern day minds as The Daily Show’s Photoshopped on-screen graphics – arguably Puck’s progeny — would have been to our ancestors. But fret not, because all you really need to know to take a deep dive into this inky pool of polychromous political effulgence is that the message is always basically the same, most often aimed at men in power that the publishers deemed too big for their britches: Puck You!
“Cartoons are partly shaped by their publishing environment,” notes Bill Watterson rather dryly in the book’s Foreword, “and the artistry of cartoons expands in those rare times when it’s given some encouragement and open territory.”
Co-authors Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West do not overestimate Puck’s influence as a progressive publication born of game-changing advances in printing technology, and this lush IDW book in The Library of American Comics collection lays it all out in livid color undoubtedly brighter than the ephemeral pulp upon which these mighty influential political cartoons were originally printed.
Nowadays, the magazine is largely forgotten, though Puck himself – the magazine’s smirking mascot, borrowed from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – still stands sentinel above the entrance to The Puck Building in Manhattan, as if eager to skewer modern day gilded age guys and gals who flock there for fabulous parties in a space that once roared with lithographic presses… that is, if he wasn’t so busy looking at his own reflection in his gilded hand mirror.
The Story of Puck reprints – in color – the works of such iconic cartoonists as Joseph Keppler, F. Opper, John Held, Rose O’Neill, James Montgomery Flagg, Rube Goldberg, and many others. These cartoons require annotations for context, and the authors oblige, in exhausting academic detail, including a handy biographical index, but you don’t need to be a history geek to revel in these pages.
However, you will need to shell out about sixty bucks for a book that weighs in about the same as a small litho stone. Would’ve been good if this volume included some of the full-color ads that made the publication of the satirical cartoons possible. What fools these mortals be!