Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks
Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of America's Leading Comic Artists is a new 275-page book that is a fascinating collection of editorial cartoons created between 1940 and 1945. These cartoons present an intriguing view of the wartime era--a view that's often at conflict with the rose-colored depictions of World War II that we so often see in the media these days.

The editorial cartoons presented in this book give readers a view of World War II as they happened. Though the War was a time of unity in many ways, it was also a time of strong divisions. There were pro-fascist forces that were intent at keeping the USA out of the war, but there were also war profiteers who had an interest in the US getting into the war. There was also dissent on the home front, and all the other stuff and bother of an ongoing robust political debate.

The cartoons presented in this book take a somewhat leftist stand as they were originally published in the liberal newspaper PM. They're also set apart from the norm by the quality of artists whose work is presented.

I found it fascinating to see these cartoonists in a different milieu than the one for which they're famous--and, of course, nobody is more interesting in this milieu than Dr. Seuss, who is the greatest children's book author of all time. Honestly, though, he's a pretty weak editorial cartoonist.

Much of Seuss's work is strained and overly complicated--relying heavily on a kind of awkward symbolism that resists easy reading. Many of his cartoons are simply not graceful. However, when he produces a great political cartoon, it's amazingly moving. I defy you to look at this one and try not to feel moved:


Isn't it cool how Seuss uses characters in his editorial cartoons that resemble characters in his books? And notice that the note at the bird's feet is signed by Charles Lindberg and Gerald Nye? Lindberg was a noted appeaser of Hitler, while Nye was a nasty Senator from North Dakota who deserved Dr. Seuss's wrath.

This cartoon and many others in the book explode the idea that the US was a united country. Page after page, panel after panel, readers see the wrath of this collection of editorial cartoonists directed at those who would keep the United States out of the war.

It's fascinating to be reminded that the man who opposed Franklin Roosevelt's Presidential election in 1940, Wendell Willkie, received more votes than any Republican before him ever had. It's also intriguing to read of the widespread anger and dissent at President Roosevelt's policies among the conservatives even during the war. That information puts our current political debates in an interesting perspective.

Not all of Seuss's cartoons were completely political. This next one is actually rather funny, I think:


One of the cartoonists whose work is revelatory in this book is Saul Steinberg, who was one of the great cartoon artists in American history--with a long and august career working for The New Yorker. He's the one who created the famous "view from New York" cover that is so frequently reproduced.

Much less well known, though, are the wonderful comic strips that Steinberg created. In style and punch line, these pieces are way ahead of their time--seeming to presage Peanuts, Dilbert, and other more contemporary strips that have a minimalist style:


Some pieces are just gorgeously drawn. Look at the wonderful use of blacks and shading to produce a mood in this piece by John Groth:


And look at this striking piece by Eric Godal:


Every single piece by Godal and Groth is equally as wonderful. However, the most moving of all pieces in this book is one by an artist named Arthur Szyk--an artist who fled Poland in 1940, but without his family. The inscription on this piece is very moving:


As I mention earlier, all the cartoons in this book were produced for PM, which was a left-leaning New York newspaper. It would appear that PM had its pick of some of the greatest cartoonists of all time.

Apparently, the story of PM is even more interesting than the cartoons presented in this book. Andre Schiffrin does a wonderful job of setting the stage and giving readers a feel for the quirkiness and creativity that flourished in that short-lived paper.

I found Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War to be absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. It was wonderful to get to see cartoons by such a wide range of creators--especially the one whom I have probably read more than any other artist in the world (my three kids all love Dr. Seuss). However, it was also fascinating to get a view of World War II as it happened.

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