At this contentious political moment, I thought it would be interesting to consider comics as political protest. The tradition of the editorial cartoon has long been a place for political commentary, but narrative comics have been somewhat more circumspect. Most appearances are benign, as when Richard Nixon shows up to ask the Fantastic Four for help, or parodying, like Frank Miller’s Max Headroom-esque Reagan in The Dark Knight Returns. But there are good examples of overt political speech in the comics page, as in Harold Gray’s Daddy Warbucks denouncing FDR’s New Deal as socialist interference. However, a moment that stands out is when Walt Kelly took on Senator McCarthy and nativism via the funny animals of the Okeefenokee Swamp in Pogo.
The storyline begins in 1953 with the introduction of Mole McAroney who arrives in the swamp seeking to root out what is and isn’t “American” and which creatures of the swamp are “native” or “migratory.” These were Disney-style funny animal strips, but Kelly’s myopic germophobe Mole couldn’t have been mistaken for mere comedy. He advocates in one strip the burning of a book that does not agree with his worldview. Even couched in the established visual world of Pogo, the politics in question would have been unmistakable, but it was the subsequent introduction of Simple J Malarkey, a character directly lampooning, and resembling, recently re-elected Senator Joseph McCarthy, that truly created controversy.
Despite some attempts at censorship, the strip was popular, so it endured. In a 2003 article for the Journal of American Culture, “Subversion in the Swamp: Pogo and the Folk in the McCarthy Era,” Eric Dussere writes: “Kelly’s subversive activities were made possible through his invocation of peculiarly American mythologies about ‘‘the folk,’’ through a representation of leftist politics as good old American common sense.” His skill as a gag cartoonist and storyteller didn’t hurt, as the strips are formally amusing and internally cohesive. Any child could follow along, and laugh at, the stories without the first idea of current events, though that is surely what made them so subversive. Of course these “leftist politics” were simply a repudiation of McCarthyism, a position that is hardly considered radical today. Part of what stands out to me now is that Pogo was so unique in calling out obvious miscarriages of justice. But the comics page by the 1950’s had developed into an anodyne form of entertainment, so much so that Kelly’s allegories periodically landed Pogo on the editorial page, just as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury would several decades later. But despite occasional banishment to the editorial page, Kelly returned to political stories over the strip’s remaining 2 decades, satirizing J Edgar Hoover and Spiro Agnew, among others.
The Mole McAroney/Simple J Malarkey storyline could be a good way to discuss satire and political rhetoric in a historical context that has implications for, but does not directly address, some of our current issues. Kelly also has the formal chops to be worth studying on his artistic merits; the strips are expertly fashioned, providing potential lessons in caricature, basic cartooning, lettering, dialogue, composition, serial narrative, and visual storytelling.
Here is a link to a blog with readable scans of the strips: http://dallapoza.blogspot.com/2009/07/1.html
The LOC has these, among numerous original Pogo pages. They are searchable in the database but not viewable online, presumably due to copyright restrictions, so alternate sources may be needed for classroom use. Fantagraphics Books has republished these strips recently in Pogo vol. 3: Evidence to the Contrary, which is widely available.
The LOC record for one page from this story:
[Pogo]. "Good gracious, Mr. Malarkey, I had no idea you were nearby" – LOC # 2016682558 - https://www.loc.gov/item/2016682558/
You can see some pages of Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four #103 here: http://www.giantsizemarvel.com/2009/02/thing-tuesdays-ben-grimm-and-richard.html
“Hooverism in the Funnies”, Neuberger, Richard L. July 1934. New Republic, Vol. 79 Issue 1023, July 1934. p234
“Subversion in the Swamp: Pogo and the Folk in the McCarthy Era”. Erik Dussere. Journal of American Culture. Vol. 26, #1. March 2003, pp134-141.
An installation at the Milwaukee Art Museum uses historical fiction, as well as extensive primary source research, to gain a deeper understanding of Early America. The exhibition was put together by Sarah Carter, curator and director of research at the Chipstone Foundation, in partnership with the Milwaukee Art Museum. Chipstone’s mission is to promote and enhance knowledge of American material culture (emphasizing the decorative arts) by scholars, students and the general public. They have been dedicated to providing primary source material by giving access to their extensive collection of objects at museums, through courses at the University of Wisconsin, and digitally, on the web. I should note that when I started out as a librarian, my first job was putting together a digital library for material culture at the University of Wisconsin, funded by Chipstone, and back in grad school at UW, I worked on an exhibition of items from the Chipstone Collection.
Mrs. M----‘s Cabinet is nothing like the label-heavy, glass-vitrine laden show my fellow art history grad students and I worked on. Instead, it is a complete environment of layered meanings and interpretations. To begin with, it is presented as a group of artifacts amassed by the ghost of a 19th century collector, whose enthusiasm for ceramics began when she was a child “mud larking” along the James River in Virginia. What we see at the exhibition are ceramics, and other objects related to Early America, whether made or used in America, or objects that provide the historical context for those items. The ceramics and furniture in the exhibition are historic, not reproductions. However, they are presented in a room that was specially created for the exhibition, in the style of a very fashionable, extravagant 19th century interior. Mrs. M--- herself is an invention, an invention based on careful reading of primary sources, but fictional nonetheless. The exhibit challenges the ideas of what America was like in the early days of the Republic, and changes the focus from a colony completely focused on Great Britain, to a more global, cosmopolitan settlement, claiming land already “discovered” and occupied by indigenous cultures. It also challenges the idea of what a “real” artifact is.
I am intrigued by this unorthodox presentation of what can be pretty dry material. I feel like the fictionalizing of the collector allows the viewer to ask all sorts of questions, which may have felt unreasonable in a traditional, label-bound exhibit. As Diane M. Bacha says in her review of the exhibit for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “this installation is less about interpreting objects for visitors and more about inviting them to find their own interpretations.” http://archive.jsonline.com/entertainment/arts/mysterious-fictional-character-created-to-bring-art-to-life-at-mam-b99687087z1-372564511.html Isn’t that just what we ask our students to do when they analyze a primary source using the TPS method?
Not all of us can make it to Milwaukee to see Mrs. M-----‘s Cabinet. However, the Chipstone Foundation’s commitment to innovative technology allows us to experience it online. Take a look for yourself at http://mrsmscabinet.org/