Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #246: What Fools These Mortals Be: The Story of Puck by Kahn and West

I am frankly shocked and amazed that today's book even exists -- and, to go further, that it was published by a commercial publishing house that evidently expects to at least break even on the thing. If anyone tells you we're not living in a golden age of comics reprints, show them this and laugh very loudly in their stupid faces.

Perhaps I should explain.

Puck was a satirical weekly magazine published out of New York for about forty years, starting in 1877 and dying out just after The Great War. It was the major American entry in a once large and thriving genre -- England's Punch survived the longest, and so is probably the best-known now, but there were several dozen of them, in every major European language, making mild fun of the political figures and social scenes of the day for much of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Puck's fame lives on only in moldering print archives, in the minds of a few scholars, and in its eponymous Puck Building, which wonderfully served as the headquarters of the not-entirely-dissimilar magazine Spy for most of its twenty-year run a hundred years later. But, for two generations of the Gilded Age and afterward, Puck was a major force in molding American elite opinion and in determining what we would take seriously and what not. If you've seen late nineteenth century political cartoons -- any that are not by Thomas Nash -- they were probably from Puck originally.

Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West, two scholars of the history of editorial cartoons and each in possession of a complete run of Puck, wanted to bring the best work from Puck back into the public eye. Somehow they were able to convince IDW's The Library of American Comics to go along with that scheme, and so they assembled What Fools These Mortals Be: The Story of Puck, which be published at the beginning of October.

(I saw it in a digital format via NetGalley, which meant the reproduction of fine detail -- and late nineteenth century political cartoons are chock full of fine detail -- was severely limited. I am recommending What Fools These Mortals Be as a tremendous historical artifact and assembly of important work, even though I wasn't actually able to read a lot of the tiny text on the cartoons reprinted here. I expect the real book will be vastly clearer, as real books always are.)

Kahn and West give a short history of Puck along the way, and talk a little about the different cartoonists who worked there over that forty-year span; they divide What Fools These Mortals Be into ten thematic chapters and generally reprint cartoons -- all but a handful of them in gorgeous full color -- in chronological order. Puck, for most of its life, had a color cover, back cover, and inside centerspread -- those of us who work in publishing are grinning, because we know exactly what that means on the presses -- and those color pages were always devoted to art, and usually devoted to cartooning. (That was one of the main purposes of a satirical paper: to have cartoons making fun of things.) So this book is mostly full color.

The work reprinted here is generally in the lush, lavish, heavily detailed nineteenth century style, descended from engraving and full of precise caricatures of real people and lots of metaphorical imagery, which Kahn and West explain carefully in their captions. (Since Puck ran so long, it outlived that era of illustration, and there are also a few more modernist pieces -- along with parodies of the then-new newspaper comic strips and similar things -- near the end of the book, in a section with work that has nothing to do with politics.)

Again, it's a wonder and a joy that this book could even exist. I don't know who is the audience for hundred-plus-year-old political cartoons (besides me, of course), but I hope that IDW is right and that such an audience does exist. There's a lot of excellent, interesting, historically important cartooning here -- Puck has been credited with denying U.S. Grant a third term in 1880 and with scuttling the ambitions of could-have-been-President James G. Blaine in 1884, among other things. If this sounds at all appealing to you, you will definitely love it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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