Book Review/Kristian Williams

Timeless Cartoons

The Great Anti-War Cartoons, edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books, 2009, $24.99, 190 pages, soft cover)

In The Great Anti-War Cartoons (Fantagraphics, 2009), Craig Yoe has collected approximately 230 images unambiguously against war. Some are opposed to specific wars, some to wars in general, and a few to the broader forces that create war — nationalism, militarism, greed, and basic human stupidity.

The overwhelming majority of the cartoons originate from the United States or Europe. And the twentieth century — having seen both warfare and cartooning reach unprecedented levels — naturally predominates. Earlier periods are represented, though: The oldest piece is an image of death by Albrecht Dürer, dating from 1505. The next oldest, from half a century later, is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Fight of the Money-Bags and the Strong-Boxes,” which, despite its date, is strikingly modern in both its style and its politics. Other contributors include the standard representatives of the political cartooning canon — Herbert Block, Walter Crane, Robert Cobb, Edmond Duffy, Syd Hoff, Thomas Nast, Louis Raemakers — as well as a few artists who, while famous as cartoonists, are not generally known for their politics — Rube Goldberg and Winsor McCay, to name two.

The images are beautifully reprinted. Each one appears at a size that allows us to really drink in the artist’s details. And no more than two appear on a single page, so they never feel crowded together. Fourteen full-page illustrations are printed in color, truly capturing the texture and the depths of the original artwork.

These images are striking. They communicate quickly and clearly, with a power outside that of spoken or written language. And yet, from the collection as a whole, there emerges a sense of a common vocabulary. The same images appear again and again — not just the obvious tokens of skeletons, marching troops, dead children, and cannons, but the globe itself under attack, and weaponry that has come to life and turned against us. It is not just a matter of shared symbolism. Many of these cartoons present us with the same visual arguments: Death is a pied piper in a Daumier cartoon from 1871, and in a Ungerer cartoon from 1984. In an American cartoon from 1925, ghostly cavemen represent “The Brute in Us,” still there despite “The March of Civilization”; a similar caveman marches ahead of the troops in a different American cartoon from 1938, this one with the caption “Evolution”; and yet another caveman appears reflected on the shiny surface of a missile in a Russian graphic from 1990. An anonymous German woodcut, dating from the 17th century, shows the state as a monster eating innocent people and shitting out soldiers; an anonymous American cartoon from the 1970s shows exactly the same thing.

No matter when they were drawn, or with what aim in mind, so many of these cartoons retain their relevance, their power, and their deep, often sad, sense of conscience. Does that speak to the timeless quality of art? Or the endless tragedy of war?

Kristian Williams is the author of American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (South End Press, 2006). He writes regularly for The Comics Journal (

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2010

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