From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject “I Felt An Urgency The Publishing Industry Did Not Share”: Michael Mark Cohen and Cartooning Capitalism
Date April 5, 2021 8:25 AM
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[Radical cartooning did not merely provide comic relief for the
movements, but was an active force in framing socialist ideology and
goals in a revolutionary age.] [[link removed]]

“I FELT AN URGENCY THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY DID NOT SHARE”:
MICHAEL MARK COHEN AND CARTOONING CAPITALISM  
[[link removed]]


 

Ian Thomas, Michael Mark Cohen
March 22, 2021
The Comic Journal
[[link removed]]


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[[link removed]]
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[[link removed]]
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_ Radical cartooning did not merely provide comic relief for the
movements, but was an active force in framing socialist ideology and
goals in a revolutionary age. _

, Art Young

 

_Michael Mark Cohen is an Associate Teaching Professor of American
Studies and African American Studies at UC Berkeley. Much of his
published work to date has explored class conflict and radicalism in
America from the 1880s to the 1920s. In his 2019 book, _The
Conspiracy of Capital: Law, Violence, and American Popular Radicalism
in the Age of Monopoly_, Cohen argues that the culture of popular
radicalism for which this era is now known was brought forth by a
coalition of  union organizers, outspoken revolutionaries, and civil
liberties lawyers, among others, who were tireless and unflinching in
their criticism and defiance of the gilded age capitalism that sought
to dominate the working class. Cartoonists were a crucial element
within this vanguard, as they encapsulated radical ideas and ideals in
succinct, accessible ways. On his
website, _cartooningcapitalism.com_, Cohen offers a thorough and
loving tribute to their work, as he provides an overview of the
artists who shaped this era of cartooning and gives context to the
media landscape in which they operated. In this interview, conducted
by telephone in January 2021, then copyedited by email, Michael Mark
Cohen and Ian Thomas discuss _cartooningcapitalism.com_, American
Popular Radicalism, and the current state of radical cartooning._

IAN THOMAS: THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO TALK TO ME. AS AN
OVERVIEW, CAN YOU GIVE ME SOME BACKGROUND ON YOUR SCHOLARLY WORK AND
YOUR WORK AS ASSOCIATE TEACHING PROFESSOR OF AMERICAN STUDIES AND
AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES AT UC BERKELEY?

MICHAEL MARK COHEN: I am an Associate Teaching Professor of American
Studies
[[link removed]] and African
American Studies
[[link removed]] at UC Berkeley
where I teach courses on post-Civil War U.S. history and culture. I
recently published a book called _The Conspiracy of Capital: Law,
Violence, and American Popular Radicalism in the Age of Monopoly_
[[link removed]] and
it looks at the history of radical social movements in the United
States that attempted to overthrow capitalism between the Haymarket
bombing of 1886
[[link removed]] to the
execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927
[[link removed]]. The book considers the interplay
between these social movements and the use of conspiracy laws to
criminalize the political activism of the working classes while
enabling the capitalist state to wield a wide range of violent
countersubversive tactics to retain and expand its power. This era
witnessed the emergence of a wide range of anti-capitalist social
movements, including labor and union movements, the birth of the
Socialist Party in 1901, the anarchist internationals founded in the
1880s, as well as the Industrial Workers of the World
[[link removed]] (known as the IWW or the Wobblies) founded in
Chicago in 1905, all the way up to the birth of the Communist Party of
the United States as an underground party in the aftermath of World
War I. 

I spent a tremendous amount of time digging around in old socialist
and union newspapers, journals, magazines and pamphlets where I
expected to read the work of earnest revolutionaries discussing
socialist strategy and news from the latest strikes around the world.
Of course, I found all that and more. But what most surprised me about
this popular literature was that it also served as a platform for so
much great cartooning. Some of these cartoons were drawn by what are
today very well-known American artists, including several of those
responsible for creating an American high modernism in the early 20th
century like Stuart Davis, John Sloan, and Maurice Becker. But these
pages also included literally hundreds of cartoons drawn by anonymous
readers, some of whom signed their cartoons as “Fellow Worker.”
The IWW papers like _Solidarity_ or the _Industrial Worker_
[[link removed]] specialized in
this type, publishing brilliant cartoons every week drawn by unknown
union members who sometimes signed their cartoons with just their
membership numbers and were never heard from again. 

Art Young, Good Morning, September - October 1920

Taken together, these cartoons were an enormously effective tool for
spreading radical politics in terms that everyone could grasp.
Together these cartoons helped draw together immigrant workers,
non-English speakers or the semi-literate alongside more
sophisticated, urban radicals into a common message and a common
cause. And they did so much more effectively than any other
communicative medium I found. Not only was this great art being
produced by workers and artist from outside the high art world, but it
was outstanding propaganda for a growing movement. 

ALONG WITH UNION ORGANIZERS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LAWYERS, YOU CITE THE
WORK OF “RABBLE-ROUSING CARTOONISTS,” TO QUOTE THE DESCRIPTION IN
THE BOOK, AS AMONG THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS CULTURE OF POLITICAL
RADICALISM. WHAT INFORMED THAT ASSESSMENT? WAS IT ESSENTIALLY THE
ACCESSIBILITY OF THESE CARTOONS AND THE SHEER VOLUME OF THEM?

Pretty much every radical magazine, except for a few of the most
austere ones, had imagery and cartoons. And several magazines
specialized in cartoon art. What I found across this archive was a
movement through which American radicals collectively built a
revolutionary popular culture. Today, one can think about Bernie
Sanders’ presidential campaigns, the impressive growth of
the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)
[[link removed]] or the countless Gen Z Communists meme
accounts
[[link removed]] on
Instagram as a certain measure of popularity. But these recent
movements both lack the organization structure and have a much smaller
base relative to, say, Samuel Gompers leadership over the American
Federation of Labor or what Eugene V Debs’ Socialist Party
[[link removed]] was able to command
in the early 20th century. 

One way we can think about the success of this popular radicalism was
its ability to cross regional and ethnic lines to build a genuinely
national movement. Midwestern revolutionary socialism founded
the_ __Appeal to Reason_
[[link removed]], a
weekly socialist newspaper edited and printed in the small town of
Gerard, Kansas. The _Appeal_ helped to make much of the rural
Midwest, especially Oklahoma and Kansas, into the active heart of the
Socialist Party in the early 20th century. The _Appeal_ was
absolutely massive, selling more than 750,000 copies a week at its
peak in the 1910s, making it one of the widest circulating leftwing
papers in US history. Or you get _The Masses_
[[link removed]], created
in 1913 in Greenwich Village in New York City, as the center of a
multi-racial, feminist, high-modernist magazine that, at the same
time, not only employed the most important radical journalist of their
generation, especially Max Eastman
[[link removed]] and John
Reed [[link removed]], but also hired
Art Young to be their cartoon editor. 

Ralph Chaplin, Solidarity, June 2, 1917

For his part, Art Young was originally from rural Wisconsin.
[[link removed]] He
worked under Thomas Nast—the king of American political
cartooning—at a newspaper in Chicago. In the 20th century, Art
Young went on to become the most beloved radical cartoonist in
American history, publishing cartoons in _The Masses, The
Liberator_ and across the Left spectrum of outlets, but also in
liberal magazines like _Life, The Nation_, _Metropolitan_ and
others. As a socialist cartoonist reaching into the mainstream, Art
Young was unique, his success was enabled by a simple and easily
recognized style. _The Comics Journal_ has published several good
pieces on Art Young over the years and there are two new
Fantagraphics books
[[link removed]], pushed by major
collectors, that have reprinted some of Art Young’s less overly
political work.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE FOR ME THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE IN THE ERA YOU ARE
DESCRIBING? WAS IT THE APPETITE FOR THIS CONTENT THAT ALLOWED FOR IT
TO BE SO PREVALENT? IMPORTANTLY, I THINK, YOU PLACE IT IN CONTRAST TO
TODAY’S LANDSCAPE, WHICH IS A MUCH MORE CENTRIST OR EVEN
CONSERVATIVE MEDIA LANDSCAPE AND THE OUTLETS THAT REPRESENT THE KIND
OF PERSPECTIVE ESPOUSED IN THESE CARTOONS ARE MUCH FEWER AND FURTHER
BETWEEN. WHAT ALLOWED FOR THIS ERA OF AMERICAN POPULAR RADICALISM TO
BE WHAT IT WAS AND HAVE THE REACH THAT IT DID?

It’s a good question, but I don’t think it’s a question that can
be answered purely on a media level. Part of what is actually
happening in this era is the rapid industrialization of the United
States. On an economic level, it's the ongoing destruction of
handiwork and craft labor and its gradual replacement by deskilled
workers laboring on ever larger assembly lines. Men who were born into
generations of skilled laborers, craftsmen who owned their own tools
and thus commanded a sense of independence born of skills handed down
from their fathers and their fathers and their fathers, suddenly found
themselves immiserated, ground down to the status of “wage slaves”
as capital’s deployment of machinery in the labor process undermined
the freedom and financial well-being of American workers. Literally
millions of Americans who once led dignified, self-sufficient lives
now became proletarianized, dispossessed of their skills and sold on
the labor market as “free” wage workers who barely outran
poverty. 

As industrial capitalism spread across the United States after the
Civil War, inequality dramatically widened in its wake. To the
independent farmers, railroad and steel workers, the newly emancipated
Black freedmen and women of the South, as well as the large number of
Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants who arrived in this country after
being promised streets paved with gold and a ladder of success, all
this promised opportunity proved to be an illusion. The American
Dream, as it was and as it remains, turned out to be mostly bullshit,
or put more accurately, it was capitalist anti-union propaganda. 

So at the end of the 19th century, there broke out tremendous
disruptions in the political economy. Workers felt a real desire to
resist this Monopoly-driven, Wall Street-based ruling class comprised
of rich, awful, Social Darwinist tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, John D.
Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and other so-called “Robber Barons.” It
was the greed and corruption of this class that repeatedly sent the
country into chaotic financial crises caused by stock market
manipulation. In 1873, for example, a failed attempt to corner the
gold market led to a financial panic, followed by mass unemployment
that lasted nearly a decade. In 1893, another Wall Street crash
destroyed the national economy in what many came to recognize as a
characteristic feature of boom and bust cycles intrinsic to
capitalism. 

Art Young, Good Morning, September 1921

So there takes root in the public a revolutionary desire among
millions, native born and immigrant, Black and white, Northern,
Southern and Western to imagine a world beyond the greed, poverty and
disaster fueled by capitalism. To organize that growing despair, to
narrate that sense of crisis, to educate the public about what was at
stake in the accumulation of capital, a radical press emerged in the
late 19th century to both draw people into the movement and to
strengthen the movement’s intellectual organization. 

I don't want to say that this revolutionary movement thrived because
of cartoons. That's too reductive. [Laughs] No cartoon is that
powerful. Material economic conditions in the United States are what's
growing this revolt. But the cartoons have a way of both feeding and
articulating this expanding sense of crisis, of expressing this anger
and outrage, and translating the specific experience of a worker in
Pittsburgh, or a farmer in Kansas, both of whose future is being encl
[[link removed]] These
cartoonists could illustrate the widening class struggle—because
that's what this was, and still is—and turn it into dramatic
personifications of global economic forces, both connecting and
personalizing economic struggles that otherwise may seem entirely
abstract. In these cartoons, the abstract power of capital becomes the
character of the capitalist. This grotesquely fat, suit-wearing white
man—always a white man— becomes a character through which radical
cartoonists could simultaneously mock and analyze the social structure
they sought to overthrow. 

A. Slave, Industrial Worker, Nov 21, 1912

Now, you asked about the media landscape in the U.S. at the time, and
in the late 19th and early 20th century, newspapers and political
cartooning were big business. Hearst and Pulitzer were the two major
newspaper publishing chains and they had massive circulations driven
in part by popular cartoonists. Half of that was the diversionary
comic strip silliness that you’d expect to find at the back of the
paper (which I unapologetically love), while on the editorial pages
there were the political cartoonists (which I take all too seriously).
Political cartooning, particularly in an era before it becomes
technologically viable to reproduce photographs, was critical to the
newspaper business. Several cartoonists, like Thomas Nast
[[link removed]], had large national
followings. But these papers—Hearst, Pulitzer and others—were
highly partisan. Nast, for example, was a committed Republican.
Indeed, there was little value placed on the concept of journalistic
objectivity. Then, as now, so-called journalistic objectivity was a
bourgeois fantasy, an illusion pushed by media professionals of the
middle of the 20th century. Instead, not unlike today, most newspapers
in the late 19th and early 20th century promoted one political party
over another. As in this one is a Democratic paper, while that one is
a Republican paper. Or it might be a Populist paper or a Socialist
paper or a union paper. And as a result there were hundreds of daily
newspapers across the country, often with dozens of competing editions
covering the news in the big cities.

SO, IF I CAN PIVOT BASED ON SOMETHING YOU JUST SAID, I THINK THE
LIBERAL SEGMENT OF THE POLITICAL SPECTRUM TENDS TO GREATLY VALUE—I
WOULD ARGUE THAT THEY OVERVALUE—THIS NOTION OF OBJECTIVITY. YOU JUST
SAID THAT SUCH OBJECTIVITY WAS NOT REALLY THE CASE IN THE LATE 19TH
AND EARLY 20TH CENTURY. I WOULD ARGUE THAT IT IS DEMONSTRABLY TRUE
THAT JOURNALISTIC OBJECTIVITY IS A MYTH TODAY, AS WELL. WHY DO YOU
THINK THAT VALUE IS SO PERVASIVE?

It’s a very good question. Let me point out a few things that don't
have anything to do with cartooning. One, capitalism leads to
concentration, and the big papers – the  _New York Time, the
Chicago Tribune, the SF Chronicle_ – knew that you could sell a lot
more papers if you made a show of representing the news from the
non-partisan political center, while still having opinion columns that
appeals to both Republicans and Democrats in turn. That has the effect
of widening your audience of readers, because you're not alienating
Republicans by being some fervently Democratic paper and so on. But as
it widens the audience, newspapers also narrow the political spectrum.
It keeps the range of political viewpoints within a tightly
controlled, respectable bounds. So, if you've looking at the opinion
pages of the _New York Times_ today and you have a “Leftist”
columnist like Paul Krugman, who's like not a leftist at all—he’s
a Liberal, at least he calls himself a Liberal. But it’s not like
there’s an Anarchist on the payroll, or someone who spends their
weekends fighting and doxing fascists who gets to write a weekly
column for the _New York Times_. (Although, of course, these papers
do on occasion print columns by fascists). These centrist papers set
the a boundary for what is and is not “fit to print.” What you get
in US media, particularly after the defeat of Nazism and the victory
of Communism in World War II, is a commitment to a belief in
journalistic objectivity as a form of Liberal-Centrism. This really
takes hold in the Cold War era in which mainstream political science
was focused on questions of forging a liberal consensus and political
pluralism which accepts industrial capitalism as the price of
rejecting both the extremes of the left and right.  

So you get a new political alignment that seeks to mitigate or contain
what comes to be called “extremism” as the basis for the practice
of journalistic run by experts and governed by a faith in
objectivity. We find this first and most effectively in the work of
Walter Lippmann and his book from the 1920s called simply _Public
Opinion_.
[[link removed]] When
we look around the media world today, with social media and
hyper-partisan TV networks like Fox and OAN, we can see how this model
is outdated despite the persistent ideological influence and large
market position of prestige outlets like the _New York Times_ and
CNN who still claim to uphold those illusory standards.

Art Young, “Keeping It In the Family,” Good Morning, May 1 – 15,
1921

THAT SOUNDS LIKE A MUCH LARGER, LONGER CONVERSATION THAN WE HAVE TIME
FOR. TO GET BACK TO THE WORK IN YOUR BOOK AND YOUR
WEBSITE, CARTOONINGCAPITALISM.COM [[link removed]],
YOU PROVIDE AN OVERVIEW TO SOME OF THE CARTOONS FROM THE ERA ABOUT
WHICH WE ARE SPEAKING. CAN YOU SPEAK TO WHAT YOUR GOALS WERE IN
PUTTING THESE CARTOONS BACK INTO THE WORLD AND GIVING THEM SOME
CONTEXT?

Well, to be blunt, I built the website
[[link removed]] because I couldn’t find
anyone that would publish a book of these cartoons. Fantagraphics, who
publishes _The Comics Journal_, wouldn't give me the time of day.
[Laughs] At the time, no one was saying to me ‘Oh, yes, socialism
and century old cartoons… so cool! Let’s publish a book of
forgotten lefty drawings!’ It didn’t matter that they are all in
the public domain and carry no copyrights. But I had all these
cartoons collected. I researched their creators. And I cleaned them
all up. They looked really good to me and I went out to find someone
who would publish these and got nowhere. Publishers either saw them as
too obscure or too political, especially for the comics fanbase, who,
politically speaking, is a very mixed bag. Comics fans are a very
diverse and eclectic crowd and I am one of them. I certainly have no
intention of insulting comic book readers or publishers, but, for some
of the reasons I was talking about above, the comic publishing
industry was not as into this stuff as I was. So I built a website and
gave it all away for free. 

After the Occupy movement in 2011, I finally started to see these
cartoons coming back. All of a sudden, there were new, widespread
discussions about socialism and anarchism and class politics and what
a new Socialist Party might look like? There seemed to be a really
deep desire to articulate a new leftist politics for the 99% as the
new slogan went. The history of left organizations found a renewed
life among Millennials and those of us who were dissatisfied with the
lack of real political change in the Obama era.

Terms like plutocracy and oligarchy were back in circulation. We
appeared to have come full circle, and the late 19th and early 20th
century era of deregulated, predatory monopoly capitalism was back
with the neoliberalism and financial collapse of our own time. Born in
the Reagan era, neoliberalism restored the 19th century’s yawning,
expanding inequality after decades in which full-employment, union
membership, civil rights for Black folks, new opportunities for women,
and a robust middle class was America’s primary social and economic
goal. Neoliberalism restored the era of Wall Street domination in
which the market became the oracle of public policy and the rich got
richer while the poor got poorer. As a historian, I find that the past
is a resource for the future. And I find it inherently compelling to
argue that ‘we've been here before. Some version of this crisis is
familiar. We have seen this level of inequality. We have seen what
happens when Wall Street takes over the policy-making and political
apparatus of the country. And we know that results are not good. A
century ago this was also happening, and look, these activists and
artists knew how to fight back.’ 

Art Young, “Secret Meeting,” reprinted in The Best of Art Young
(Vanguard Press, 1936

I felt was that there really was a need for socialist theory and there
was a need for people to understand the dynamics of commodity
production, the extraction of surplus value, the enclosure of the
commons, and the proletarianization of entire generations; all of the
things that you can understand if you have the time and motivation to
read all of Marx's _Capital_
[[link removed]]. Or, just
maybe, you can be introduced to these ideas by picking up these
cartoons. So many of these cartoons are exquisite translations or
popularizations of sophisticated social theory, dramatizing complex
political and economic concepts in an entertaining fashion. And so I
felt an urgency that the publishing industry did not share, and I said
‘Fuck it, I’ll buy me a domain name and build a website.’ 

The title of the website, Cartooning Capitalism
[[link removed]], comes
from Eugene Victor Debs, the four-time candidate of the Socialist
Party for president of the United States, the child of Terre Haute,
Indiana, who in the 1920 election, received more than 1 million votes
while serving a federal prison sentence in an Atlanta Penitentiary for
making an anti-war speech. In an introduction to a collection of
radical cartoons, Debs wrote: "Cartooning capitalism is far more
inspiring than capitalistic cartooning."

CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT THE PROCESS WAS LIKE OF TRACKING THESE CARTOONS
DOWN AND COLLECTING THEM AND CLEANING THEM UP? I MEAN WAS IT DIFFICULT
TO TRACK THESE DOWN? WAS IT DIFFICULT TO ESTABLISH THE CHRONOLOGY OF
WHEN THEY WERE PUBLISHED AND TO PUT THEM INTO CONTEXT? WHAT RESOURCES
WERE YOU USING? 

I started this research as part of my doctoral dissertation in
American Studies at Yale University where I had access to abundant
library and archival resources. Later, I also got my first academic
job at Duke University, where they hold the papers of the U.S.
Socialist Party for reasons that I never really fully came to
understand. All of which is to say that as an academic historian, I
have learned a set of research skills. I am dedicated to reading,
researching, writing and collecting original source material so as to
distill their significance into historical and cultural arguments. 

I was researching the history of conspiracy laws in the United States
and the ways in which conspiracy laws are used to destroy plebian
social movements, particularly labor unions and other radical
organizations like the Communist Party. There's a long history of the
explicitly politicized use of conspiracy laws to defend monopoly
capital (defined by the Sherman Act of 1890
[[link removed]] as a
“conspiracy in restraint of free trade”) against organized popular
resistance. The conspiracy laws criminalize collective action in all
sorts of ways, including in this era, banning strikes, picket lines
and boycotts. I still find this question quite fascinating (even now
as the Justice Department considers conspiracy and sedition charges
against those who stormed the capital on 1/6/2021). While I was
digging into conspiracy theories in this era, I first discovered and
then gradually became enraptured by these cartoons. So I just started
printing them out as I went cross-eyed reading microfilm as a way of
keeping myself engaged. Once I had a large enough stack of these
images, I bought myself a clunky early 1990s scanner and I started
digitizing the cartoons into Photoshop where I learned to clean them
up, pixel by pixel. 

At the time, there were some reprint collections available, but far,
far more of these cartoons could only found in their original sources,
available only on microfilm, in bound editions in libraries, or in
special collections archives. Today, there is much greater access to
these sources, including some great reprints and digital archives,
such as the huge international cartoon collections at Marxists.org
[[link removed]].
The advantage for me, working originally in analog, was that these
cartoons were mostly just black line drawings, so I could photocopy
them and they'd look pretty good. This form, the simple black and
white line drawing, is also why these cartoons were able to circulate
as widely as they did in radical periodicals. These shoestring
left-wing publishing outlets could reprint them cheaply. 

Ralph Chaplin, Solidarity, June 2, 1917

Some Art Young cartoons would get published and republished six or
seven times across the left press because they were that popular. Art
did want, or rather need to be paid for his work, and he earned his
money selling cartoons to the liberal press. But he was also a
committed member of the Socialist party who ran for public office in
New York City and faced not one, but two federal sedition trials
carrying a 20 year prison sentence for the crime of drawing subversive
cartoons. Throughout this era, radical cartoonists were censored by
the post office and attacked by the federal government for what they
drew. Ralph Chaplin [[link removed]],
one of the leaders of the IWW, was convicted and sentenced by a
federal judge to 20 years in prison for his work as editor of the
Wobbly newspaper _Solidarity_. This is a man who wrote the labor
anthem “Solidarity Forever,”
[[link removed]] organized
strikes and unionization drives, all while drawing hundreds of a great
cartoon. Chaplin was simply a creative genius of the American
revolutionary working class. And for this crime, the US government
tried to kill him. 

YOU MENTIONED EARLIER HOW SUCCINCTLY YOU FELT THESE CARTOONISTS SUMMED
UP COMPLEX POLITICAL AND SOCIAL THEORY, SUCH AS MARX'S _CAPITAL_.
WERE THESE ARTISTS CARTOONISTS BY TRADE? WHAT WERE THE BACKGROUNDS AND
TRAJECTORIES OF ART YOUNG AND RALPH CHAPLIN, FOR EXAMPLE.

Art Young wanted nothing more in life than to be a cartoonist. Very
few of us live that elementary school dream of what we want to be when
we grow up, but damn it Art Young did. [Laughs] He was something of
child prodigy as an artist growing up in a small Midwestern town where
he started publishing cartoons in his local newspaper at a very young
age. He moved to the big city and got a scholarship to receive some
formal arts education in Paris, but he became very sick while abroad
and had to come back to the United States. At that point, he decided
that fine art was not for him, and that he would become a professional
cartoonist. The artist that Art Young admired most of all was Gustave
Dore, whose engravings illustrating Dante’s Inferno became Young’s
most profound influence. Over the years, Art produced three different
parodies of this work, writing and drawing three books on a
cartoonist’s descent into the modern Inferno. The last of these,
1934’s _Art Young’s Inferno_ may be Young’s single greatest
work [[link removed]].

Anyways, Young came to socialism sort of late in life, well after the
Haymarket bombing of 1886 in Chicago in a conspiracy of anarchists
were accused of throwing a bomb that murdered several police officers.
In fact, Young was sent by his editor to draw portraits of the seven
men in the Cook County prison several days before one of them
committed suicide and four others were executed for the crime of
conspiracy and for being anarchists. (No one knows for sure who threw
the bomb). When the new Governor of Illinois exonerated the three
remaining anarchists in 1893, attacking the prosecutor for malicious
persecution of innocent men found guilty by association, Art Young
realized that he had played a part of that witch hunt. This personal
crisis started him on a path of self-reflection and redemption in
which he publicly converted to socialism. He had always been something
of a sentimental liberal, caring deeply as he did about the suffering
of the poor, but then he goes searching for not just a socialist
education, but socialist outlets where he can publish new types of
cartoons. By the 1930s, Art Young successfully maintained his radical
sensibility while keeping clear of the sectarian conflicts between
unionists, Socialists and Communists, largely giving off a
grandfatherly vibe to younger radicals who respected his long memory
and body of work linking the Haymarket tragedy to the new radicalism
of the Great Depression.

Ralph Chaplin, on the other hand, was a much more dangerous figure.
[Laughs] In his autobiography, he describes himself as a working-class
tough growing up who found his way, through work, commitment and
intelligence into leadership positions in a number of labor unions,
the IWW most importantly of all. He was a working-class militant who
had real skills in organizing, drawing, songwriting, and investigative
journalism. The man was a quadruple radical threat who saw his
songwriting and cartooning not as an artistic end in itself, but as
being in service of revolution. Chaplin eventually became the editor
of the IWW’s main magazine, _Solidarity_, and right-hand man
to William D. “Big Bill” Haywood
[[link removed]], the
secretary-general of the IWW and one of the most charismatic figures
in the history of the American Left. Chaplin becomes one of the
IWW’s culture warriors, drawing in people like Joe Hill, the Wobbly
songwriter who also was a cartoonist. 

Joe Hill, One Big Union Monthly (November 1919)

Joe Hill [[link removed]], a Swedish immigrant
and itinerant worker, wrote magnificent labor songs and drew great
cartoons that perfectly expressed the IWW’s distinctive ethic and
culture. That was until Hill was arrested in Utah for a murder he did
not commit, where he was executed by firing squad in 1915 after
uttering his famous last words: “Don’t mourn, organize!” Chaplin
offered the eulogy at a mass funeral when Hill’s body returned to
Chicago. 

Art Young was an artist who believed that socialism was the hope of
humanity and he used his art in service of that hope. Whereas, Ralph
Chaplin was a committed revolutionary who took up the cartoonist’s
form as a mode of propaganda towards freeing humankind from the burden
of capitalist exploitation. Joe Hill perfectly blended the two
positions, which is part of the reason why the ruling class in the
Rocky Mountains framed and executed him. These stories are important
just in case anyone is tempted to think that cartooning doesn’t
matter, or that it’s a safe way to make a living. 

I FIND THAT IN TALKING ABOUT THE LEFT, EITHER HISTORICALLY OR IN
CONTEMPORARY TERMS, I THINK THERE IS A TENDENCY TO TURN IT INTO A
MONOLITH AND I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT TO TRY TO GET AT THE NUANCES
WITHIN THE SPECTRUM OF THE LEFT. YOU MENTION ART YOUNG AS SOMEONE WHO
WAS ABLE TO MOVE INTO THE MAINSTREAM CULTURAL DISCOURSE. CAN YOU TALK
ABOUT HOW HIS WORK WAS RECEIVED THERE? AFTER THIS CULTURAL MOMENT
PASSED, WHERE DID THESE CARTOONISTS GO? WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM?

There are a couple of different figures to think about in this regard.
Including Art Young, Robert Minor and Maurice Becker. By the 1920s,
Art Young did draw the sort of Democrat versus Republican cartoons
that satirized the dueling political parties from a broadly socialist
point of view. He could take a “pox on both houses” approach,
condemning both sides for being corrupt and venal. Art Young also had
a deep and genuine sentimental strain. There’s a famous cartoon that
he did of two children holding hands at night, walking out of an
alleyway in a slum, probably somewhere in the Bowery in New York and
as they look up into the sky the boy says: ‘Chee, Annie, look at de
stars – thick as bed-bugs.’ It’s a sentimental cartoon of the
Progressive era which a liberal could read and swoon over, crying over
the poor children rather than demanding an end to child labor and the
destruction of capitalist landlordism. While the humanity and naïve
suffering of these children is not in question, the openness of the
message in this cartoon gave Art’s work crossover appeal between the
left and the mainstream. 

Of course, we could talk all day about the differences between various
factions of the American left in this era, as today. There were
hardcore revolutionaries like Jack London
[[link removed]], John Reed
[[link removed]] and Emma Goldman
[[link removed]]. And
there were elected “bridge and sewer socialist” like Milwaukee
Congressman Victor Berger
[[link removed]] who really
just wanted good, honest government that could provide for the people
as a part of the left flank of the Progressive movement in the early
20th century. 

But there's also the fact that Art Young was constantly dueling with
conservative editors who messed with his work. Art Young’s single
greatest cartoon, which is also, to my mind—full hyperbole mode
here—the single greatest political cartoon ever created, which is
the central image of my website. It’s simply captioned
‘Capitalism” and it features a fat man seen from the back who sits
before a banquet table piled high with food and dirty dishes, tipping
backwards in his chair over a black abyss while pouring still more
food down his insatiable gullet. Drawn around 1920, one would be hard
pressed to find a more contemporary image of capitalism that this
century old image. This is the environmental abyss, the COVID abyss,
the abyss of poverty. So when it comes to capitalist crises, you name
it, it becomes legible in this image. I don’t know for a fact that
Art Young read Karl Marx's _Capital_ (though I sort of doubt that he
did). But there is a passage in _Capital_ in which Marx talks about
the motto of the capitalist being “_apres moi le _deluge,” or
after me the flood.
[[link removed]] I'm
here to get mine, says the capitalist, and once I've got it, fuck
everybody else. I’m rich, let the waters rise. This of course
remains the ethical standard of the capitalist class today. The
problem was that when Young tried to publish this cartoon in _Life
Magazine_, they recaptioned it simply as “Greed.” Art Young was
livid with his editor and pulled the image, later publishing it in his
own magazine as it was intended. It is important to understand the
distinctions between an image like this labeled ‘Greed’ and the
same image labeled ‘Capitalism.’ Part of the what's at stake in
this is taken again from Marx’s great work. Unlike Adam Smith,
Marx's critique of capital is not a moral one, it is a logical and
historical critique. Marx is not arguing that the capitalist class is
immoral, or that these are bad people who could run this system in
line with different ethical guidelines beyond greed if they chose.
Marx’s point, illustrated by Young’s caption, is that it is the
system of capitalist production–not the ethics of the ruling
class—that exploits the proletariat and claims all the pleasures of
life in an endless spiral of accumulation before the inevitable bust
of economic crisis. The capitalist is as much a part of this system as
are the workers, and the whole grotesque system will, sooner than we
think, topple over into that very abyss below his feet. This crash
will come not because of the greed or the moral turpitude of the
capitalist class, but because of the nature of an economic system
dedicated to producing profits for the few over the production of
necessary goods for the many. Art Young understood what was at stake
in labeling this cartoon ‘Greed,’ because that was something good
liberals could rally against and say, performatively wringing their
hands, ‘Oh, greed is bad.” All while supporting and profiting from
the expansion of capitalism itself. It is the system that is in
crisis, not the values of lords who sit precariously atop it. And to
confuse the two is the difference between revolution and reform,
between the possibility of transformative action and a simple
emotional response among the comfortable middle classes. 

Art Young, "The Last Supper," Good Morning, January 1, 1920

Art Young ran into all kinds of problems with this liberal press who
didn't understand his work and sought to de-fang it in ways both
subtle and rather crude. It was an ongoing process of negotiation for
him to win a space of artistic freedom from within the realm of
necessity. This is, I think, something that every artist understands;
this dialectic between your own artistic impulses, your own political
beliefs, and the needs of your publisher, the needs of your gallerist,
and the desires of your audience. Outright censorship was also
something that Art Young dealt with his entire life.
[[link removed]] He was sued by
the Associated Press once and later had his magazines banned from the
US mail. Any radical artist of any stripe is going to deal with
censorship from time to time. But the compromised stuff that did
appear in _Life_ magazine, that work was deeply, deeply beloved by
huge audiences and it ensured his survival as a working artist. 

Now, what happened to the rest of this generation of radical artists?
The wave of revolutionary agitation that started in 1886 reached a
crescendo around World War I when most of these radical social
movements—the Socialist Party, the IWW, anarchists, and the miners
and steel unions—were all violently crushed by a combination of
vigilantism, corporate violence (strike breakers and private
detectives), and state power in the Red Scare of 1919
[[link removed]]. During the war, the
federal government built an enormous repressive apparatus in the form
of the FBI, immigration and deportation courts, and the Justice
Department to target those who stood against US involvement in the
war. Of all the Socialist parties in the world at the time, only two
parties rejected their nations’ entry into World War I: The U.S.
Socialist Party and the Russian Socialist Party. The former was
crushed in the Red Scare, while the latter seized power in Russia and
formed the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks. 

During the 1916 elections, there was tremendous opposition to entry
into the Great War by a majority of the American people. Of course,
the capitalist class was very motivated to enter the war as a way of
making money by selling steel, guns and handing out loans to Brittian
and France And so, once the US moved to join the war in 1917, the
opponents of American capitalism—the unions, socialists and
others—had to be crushed. This began with the mass arrests and
subsequent federal trials of hundreds of leaders of the IWW. Put on
trial in Chicago, the jury convicted the IWW members—including Big
Bill and Ralph Chaplin—of more than 25,000 felonies after less than
five hours of deliberation at the conclusion of the longest federal
trial in US history to that point. Haywood fled to newly Communist
Moscow and Chaplin served several years at Leavenworth. The government
had effectively broken the organization. 

Also, at this time, the state empowered several far-right vigilante
organizations, particularly the American Legion to attack labor
unions. There are far too many incidents where members of the IWW
like Frank Little
[[link removed]] or Wesley
Everest
[[link removed]] were
assaulted, shot and lynched as part of suppressing strikes in key
industries like copper and timber. This wave of violence poured over
the country, accompanied by censorship and mail bans that destroyed
the radical press. The results were found in the reactionary politics
of the 1920s, shaped on a national level by white
supremacy, eugenicists
[[link removed]] restricitons on immigration,
and Jim Crow segregation in the South. It was an era in which the
second Ku Klux Klan
[[link removed]] dominated
politics in the states where socialism once bloomed across much of the
American Midwest and West. 

So, a lot of radical cartoonists went underground or fled the
country. Maurice Becker
[[link removed]],
one of the cartoonists I wrote about in some detail, got out of jail
early on a technicality and fled directly to Mexico where he
met Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro
Siquerios
[[link removed]] and
others Mexican artist who also were Communists. When he returns to the
US, Becker too joins the Communist party.  

Or we might take the trajectory of Robert Minor
[[link removed]],
a very popular cartoonist who was one of the Hearst paper’s most
famous and highly paid artists at the end of the 19th century.
Despite this capitalist success, Minor was drawn to the radical left
and quit the Hearst chain, becoming a socialist, drawing several
images for _The Masses_ and then going on to join the Communist
Party. Despite his success as an artist, Minor eventually gave up
cartooning entirely to become a leading figure in the party,
eventually taking over leadership for the defense campaign of two
Italian-American anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, who were tried and
executed for a crime they did not commit in Massachusetts in 1927. So
here is one artist who gave up the money, fame and eventually their
artistic talent for the cause of revolution. 

YOU DESCRIBED THE CURRENT MEDIA LANDSCAPE IN WHICH THESE THESE
VIEWPOINTS ARE TAKEN UP AS NICHE, ESPECIALLY IN COMPARISON TO WHAT IT
WAS IN THE ERA COVERED IN YOUR BOOK. DO YOU SEE PARALLELS, THOUGH? DO
YOU SEE CARTOONISTS TAKING UP THIS WORK AND DOING THINGS THAT MIGHT
MATCH IT, IF NOT IN CRAFT THEN MAYBE IN SPIRIT? WHAT ARE THE PARALLELS
YOU SEE BETWEEN THAT ERA AND THIS ERA?

Circumstances are very different now, capitalism is both more unstable
and far more widespread than it was a century ago. Things are a lot
blurrier in some ways, but in others, like the ecological crisis, they
are much clearer. The United States has returned to 19th century
levels of economic and political inequality. We don't have Jim Crow
segregation anymore, but we have the mass incarceration and police
murders of Black people. So on the level of racist violence and
deregulated capitalism, there are tremendous parallels between the
late 19th and early 20th centuries and now.

_World War 3 Illustrated 1980-1988,_ Cover by Aki Fujiyoshi

And yes, there are most definitely cartoonists that are keeping this
radical tradition alive. In the 1970s one thinks about the
breakthrough series of books starting with Rius’ still
unequaled _Marx for Beginners_
[[link removed]].
Or, one of my favorites, _Anarchy Comics_
[[link removed]] which ran
irregularly from the 1970s to the 80s. In the 21st century, several
examples come to mind, beginning with the circle of artists
around _World War 3_. I truly love and admire the work of artists
like Sue Coe, Seth Tobocman, Eric Drooker, Peter Kuper, and Eli Valley
[[link removed]]. Working with these artists and others, the
historian Paul Buhle
[[link removed]] has edited a
range of wonderful books about radical politics including graphic
histories of the _Wobblies_
[[link removed]], and a series of
radical biographies of Emma Goldman
[[link removed]] drawn by Sharon
Rudhal, Rosa Luxemburg
[[link removed]] drawn by Kate Evans,
Che Guevara drawn by Spain Rodriguez and Eugene V Debs
[[link removed]] drawn by Noah
Van Sciver. Kyle Baker’s exceptional book about _Nat Turner_
[[link removed]]_ _is
a real landmark in this terrain_. _As is Joe Sacco’s entire body
of work [[link removed]],
especially his transformative work of cartoon
journalism, _Palestine_. 

But the one artist I really want to single out is Molly Crabapple
[[link removed]], who I think is one of the great
cartoonist of our moment—even if she may not really be a cartoonist.
Molly is a New Yorker who works in every conceivable visual
medium—painting, illustration, animation, cartooning and she writes
brilliant books about social movements in at least four languages. As
an artists, she crosses all of those boundaries and borders, but is
also deeply committed to and works within the social movements for
environmental justice, racial justice and labor. She was central
artistic figure for Occupy Wall Street and the presidential campaigns
of Bernie Sanders. Recently she has done several stunning animations
[[link removed]] supporting the Green
New Deal with Naomi Klein and AOC. She's always using her artistic
skills to serve the uplift of human freedom and liberation and the
struggle against capitalism and racism. So, I think there are a lot of
people today that keep this work of radial cartooning alive, but I
have to say, maybe just on a personal level, that Molly Crabapple is
my favorite. I think her stuff is just extraordinary and I believe
(hope, imagine) that, were she to stumble across my webpage, she would
find a world of old cartoons that could inspire her, and stand behind
her contemporary vision and innovations. 

There are lots of really outstanding cartoonists now. But it’s a
very different, decentralized political landscape now, and there isn't
a single locus of radical energy like the IWW or the Socialist Party
from a century ago. And yet, what is fascinating is the capability of
the American left to coalesce rapidly around an immediate moment or
cause. We’ve seen that with Occupy. We’ve seen that with Black
Lives Matter. We saw it this past summer of 2020 where my city of
Oakland, California filled up with extraordinary murals after downtown
buildings boarded up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. We’ve
seen artists go to work for Bernie Sanders. We see them promote the
agenda of AOC and Ilhan Omar, and the Green New Deal. I do think that
things are harder for the left now than they may have been a century
ago, in the sense that any alternative to hegemonic capitalism seems
rather distant at times. And yet, I want to leave you with my firm
belief that we are right now in the midst of a substantive leftist
revival in the United States, particularly a revival of socialism in
the United States. We can debate what kind of socialism that is and
whether it is good or bad, but it's undeniable that this is growing in
size and sophistication and that artists will have a critical role in
whatever movements we build going forward. Again, what Debs wrote more
than a century ago remains true today: “The true art of the
untrammeled cartoonist is now being developed, and [they] will be one
of the most inspiring factors in the propaganda of the
revolution.” 

_IAN THOMAS is a freelance writer whose works have appeared in:
Medium, HuffPost UK, Paste Magazine, Cell, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
The A.V. Club, CornwallLive, Data Science Central, Pittsburgh City
Paper, Comics Journal Magazine, innovation enterprise-CHANNELS-,
Flagpole Magazine, FLOOD Magazine, Children & Young People Now,
Pittsburgh Current._

_For over 40 years, FANTAGRAPHICS has published the very best comics
and graphic novels that the medium has to offer. Our mission is to
celebrate great cartooning in all of its incarnations, from the
form’s early luminaries to contemporary artists currently forging
the future of visual storytelling. Not content to rest on our laurels
and extensive roster of talented artists, we constantly seek out fresh
voices from across the globe. Thus, we honor the rich history of
comics while providing a platform for bold new stories, styles, and
perspectives that push the boundaries of the medium. Fantagraphics
remains peerless in our commitment to be the publisher of the
world’s greatest cartoonists._

_Find out more about Fantagraphics books, cartoonists, and upcoming
events on, check out our blog, and follow us on social
media @FANTAGRAPHICS._

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