Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

World War I in Cartoons
Reviewed by David F Beer

World War I in Cartoons
by Mark Bryant
Grub Street Publishing, Reprint Edition 2014 (2006)

We're all familiar with the comic strips or cartoons found in our daily newspapers and magazines. They may consist of a single panel, such as The Far Side, or three or four panels in sequence like Dilbert or Doonesbury. Many are satirical, some can be biting in a critical manner, and they all seek to elicit a response of laughter, scorn, or even anger. Cartoonists and caricaturists have been around for centuries, but it wasn't until the 19th century with the rise of newspapers and magazines that they became popular and available to much of the population. The 1800s saw the publication of journals noted for their cartoons, such as Punch and Vanity Fair in England, Puck and Judge in the United States, Simplicissimus in Germany, and La Caricature in France. In 1890 London's Pall Mall Gazette became the first newspaper to hire a staff cartoonist.

Order Now
It's from sources such as these and many others that Mark Bryant has put together his extremely enjoyable and informative book with over 300 cartoons in color and black and white. World War I in Cartoons, however, is not only an impressive collection of international cartoons on the war, but also a highly readable year-by-year account of the major events of the conflict. After an introduction covering the history of cartoons and details about the major cartoonists of the time, the author presents his material in six chapters, beginning with prewar cartoons and then a chapter for each year of the war from 1914 to 1918. An index and list of sources concludes the book.

You may find some familiar names in this publication, but there will also be plenty that have been forgotten. Perhaps some sources the author uses, such as the Chicago Daily News, the Auckland Observer, and the New York Herald are not so obscure, but when we come to the Hindi Punch, John Bull, Passing Show, and Le Rire, we soon enter the world of ephemera (I love that word). Yet these and many other publications of the time had their say about the war — both editorially and satirically. In like manner the names of cartoonists such as Max Beerbohm, Bruce Bairnsfather, William Heath Robinson, and Louis Raemaekers might ring a bell, but few of us have heard the names of many others on both sides who commented on the war and whose cartoons can be found in this "graphic scrapbook of the Great War" (p. 9).

Nowadays we all recognize cartoon or caricature art when we see it. The frequently sketchy line drawings are rarely realistic. They rely on distortion or exaggeration, especially when portraying human beings. The person represented can appear grotesque, ludicrous, lovable, or god-like, or anywhere along this spectrum. Stock figures became familiar in the cartoons drawn during WWI. Thus John Bull, Britannia, and the British Lion appear frequently in British cartoons, Uncle Sam in American ones, Marianne and the French Cockerel in France, and of course there's the Russian Bear. Whether they appear as grotesque or brave and admirable depends on the nationality of the cartoonist. The Kaiser was a prime target for Entente cartoonists, favorite distortions being his absurd mustache, spiked helmet, and drooping sword. In like manner the dachshund and the sausage are often seen in contorted poses as representatives of Germany.

Typical Pages from World War I in Cartoons

Most cartoons are accompanied by captions to make their point thoroughly clear. Sometimes a caption of the time assumes more knowledge of history or English and classical literature than most readers might possess today, but these are clearly explained by the author. In fact, author Mark Bryant's accompanying text takes us clearly and faithfully through the war in the company of the cartoons he has selected, and it is hard to imagine how anyone could have done a better job. This is a book that's hard to put down, and by the time you finish it you'll not only have enjoyed the journey but also will have learned much about cartoon art and the attitudes, hopes, fears, prejudices, and significant milestones of the First World War.

The author, Dr. Mark Bryant, has a PhD in History from the University of Kent. He was honorary secretary of the British Cartoonists' Association for nine years and he has been secretary of the London Press Club since 2000. He has given lectures on the history of cartoons, has frequently organized cartoon exhibitions, and has served on the jury of international cartoon competitions in many different countries. World War I in Cartoons is an original and refreshing change from the usual histories and analyses of the war.

David F Beer

1 comment:

  1. David, Great review, another book outside my area of interest that sounds very appealing!