15 October 2020

The “Thomas Nast” Art Team, Part 1

Here’s commentary on the “Thomas Nast: A Life in Pictures” web exhibit and how the pictures came together.

The exhibit starts with a portrait of that nineteenth-century political cartoonist by Paul Szep, twentieth- and twenty-first-century political cartoonist. He also did a video interview about political cartooning for the Massachusetts Historical Society this fall.

Szep was the Boston Globe’s cartoonist during the 1970s when I was growing up. I enjoyed finding his picture in each day’s paper, learning about what news stories he was addressing, looking for his daughter Amy’s name hidden in the hatching. I even remember getting his autograph on a Watergate-era collection at a book festival when I was about nine. I suppose Szep was the first professional cartoonist I ever met. So it’s nifty to see him involved in this exhibit.

The first cartoon my team created for the exhibit covers Thomas Nast’s childhood immigration from Bavaria to the US. Initially I imagined a single panel of a little boy in stereotypically German costume on a ship’s deck or a dock, mixed in with other immigrants. But I couldn’t find a Nast print of a nautical scene as a model.

Instead, I alit on a “diary comic” that Nast drew on his first trip across the Atlantic the other way when he was a young journalist, not published until Alfred Bigelow Paine’s 1904 biography. That page provided the structure. The impressionistic memories of the trip that Nast recounted to Paine provided the content—each vignette reflects a real recollection from early childhood.

Catalina Rufin, who’s creating stories about growing up, daily life, and fairies, made a great match for the concept of this cartoon.

The next panel shows Nast as a teenager handing in his first assignment to magazine publisher Frank Leslie. In looking for a Nast picture of an immigrant-crowded dock, I came across a print of the Hoboken ferry landing on eBay. From an anecdote and a little image in Paine’s book, I realized that was Nast’s first published work. So that print is now part of the Massachusetts Historical Society collection, and it became the focus of this cartoon.

Both artist Jerel Dye and I hunted for visual references to provide a reasonably accurate representation of Leslie’s workspace, down to that desk calendar. We used this panel to show how Leslie used assembly lines of artists to produce art for the press. At first Jerel drew Tommy Nast with a little wispy beard, but I objected that he was only fifteen at this time—he didn’t grow a little wispy beard until the next cartoon! Nast’s own caricature of his first meeting with Leslie appears here.

Jerel Dye drew the art for the graphic novel Pigs Might Fly, written by Nick Abadzis, and has created several short comics on his own. In healthy times he teaches at the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts. One day I hope to fly on one of Jerel’s spaceships.

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