Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of America’s Leading Comic Artists, By André Schiffrin, The New Press (October 2009)
As our largely corporate print news structure endlessly brainstorms ways to survive the oft-cited and euphemistic transition from print to digital while remaining solvent, it’s illuminating to consider that when Ralph Ingersoll launched the short-lived but influential PM in 1940, he resolved not to include advertisements so that the paper would be beholden to no one. PM appeared in a decidedly conservative New York news market, with sales of William Randolph Hearts’s isolationist, anti-Communist, and anti-Roosevelt publications well in the lead. At the time, the cartoon-heavy tabloid Daily News enjoyed the largest circulation in the city, likely informing Ingersoll’s decision to hire several of the nation’s leading cartoonists for PM’s editorial page. One of these artists was Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.
Any devotee of Seuss’s creations, the long-lashed and bottom-heavy prophets of tolerance and environmental consciousness, could easily discern that political Seuss was naturally anti-fascist and held fast to ideals of equality and shared humanity. During his lifetime, he worked as an ad illustrator, as an animator of military training films and, from 1940 to 1942, as one of PM’s most prolific political cartoonists, lending these drawings the same surreal anthropomorphism that he later used in his children’s books. Richard H. Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War was something of a revelation when it was published in 1999, outing a Seuss who, aside from decrying bigotry toward black and Jewish Americans, was also himself unabashedly anti-Japanese.
André Schiffrin’s Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War is “a companion and a sequel” to Minear’s work and features several political cartoonists in addition to Seuss, all of whom published in PM during World War II. Deferring to Minear’s examination of the contradictions within Seuss’s convictions and work, Schiffrin focuses instead on PM’s evolution and ultimate demise and how the paper’s artists consistently eviscerated the Axis leaders, Vichy collaborators, American racists and fascists, and FDR haters, among countless others, in their illustrations. With over 300 cartoons by more than dozen different artists, Seuss and Co. provides unsettling insight into how the aims of journalism have changed.
Before he created PM, Ingersoll, a Yale graduate and Manhattan socialite, already an avowed progressive, refined his vision of the responsibilities and capabilities of journalism by following up a stint at the Talk of the Town section in Harold Ross’s New Yorker with successful runs as editor of Henry Luce’s Fortune and Time magazines, both stalwart anti-New Deal, pro-Franco publications. Inspired, apparently, by Luce’s unabashed use of his magazines to further his own party allegiances, Ingersoll was determined to provide a spectrum of Left voices including, even, Communist writers. It was in this spirit of political engagement that he hired such cartoonists as Seuss, Saul Steinberg, Arthur Szyk, Eric Godal, and others who advocated daily for U.S. involvement in the war and against figures like Charles Lindbergh (American hero and Nazi sympathizer), Father Coughlin (anti-Semitic Fascist) and Hamilton Fish (“extreme isolationist”). And if talent in illustration wasn’t atop Ingersoll’s list of expectations, he definitely lucked out in this regard.
Saul Steinberg and Arthur Szyk in particular stand out as uniquely gifted; Steinberg as a darkly funny strip-cartoonist and Szyk as a master of minutely detailed caricature. In one of his single frame cartoons, Steinberg features Hitler and Mussolini posing, hand in hand, as if for a portrait, the former in a foppish bow-bedecked suit and hat, the latter less than three feet tall, a ribbon on his bald head, and the words “Il Duce” ornately spelled out on his lace-collared frock. Above, a letter they composed jointly:
“Dear Herr Santa,
Since 1939 we have asked you
please to bring us der Viktory
We have been waiting for one
so long You know how
good we are.
P.S. Our patience is at an end.
We suspect you are not Aryan.”
Steinberg’s drawings, as a rule, diminish the Axis leaders, conceiving of them as feckless, ridiculous, utterly incapable of original thought.
Szyk’s cartoons have little need for text, so generously replete are his drawn characters. There is none of the political cartoonist’s hasty flourish here; Szyk’s pen was patient and controlled. A handful of SS guards and officials span the background, all eyes fixed coldly on two doe-eyed, floppy-shoed figures at the fore: Jewish siblings, both children. No Disney character ever conveyed such a crushing combination of cuddliness and tragic vulnerability. The subtitle reads, “To be shot as dangerous enemies of the Third Reich!” Between them, Steinberg and Szyk, along with their fellow PM cartoonists, shamed segments of the American public which allied itself with reactionary politicians.
Schiffrin’s introduction and his brief preambles to each section of cartoons provide just enough context to make the whole accessible, despite the abstruseness of some of the cartoons, compounded by the datedness of seventy-year-old slang. What prevents Seuss and Co. from being relegated to esoteric academia is its insight into the world behind the cartoons, particularly the world of news. Whether it is preferable for papers to be aligned with political parties or corporate interests is debatable. Certainly there is something to be said for rethinking the merits of a journalism model which calls for objectivity and impartiality at all costs, while being completely dependent on corporate advertising dollars for its survival.