17 October 2020

The “Thomas Nast” Art Team, Part 2

With the next set of pictures for “Thomas Nast: A Life in Cartoons,” we got into the political part of his career. And the three cartoonists drawing those moments all have experience in political art.

Nast joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly in 1859, just in time for the US Civil War. Some of the magazine’s artists, such as Winslow Homer, drew battle scenes from life. Nast, though he took some trips to camp, preferred symbolic scenes with unmistakable pro-Union messages. His images could be so powerful that the Republican Party adopted them as campaign material.

We illustrated that connection with a symbolic meeting between Nast and President Abraham Lincoln, drawn by Shea Justice. Lincoln voices oft-quoted praise for Nast’s work in front of three of his most famous works from the war years. I suggested adopting elements from two cartoon traditions: making Lincoln and Nast into a “Mutt and Jeff” pair, and borrowing Tom Toles’s technique of adding commentary on the main scene from a couple of characters in the corner.

As for that commentary, that grew from my inability even in the age of Google to find any source for Lincoln’s praise before A. B. Paine‘s 1904 authorized biography of Nast. Fiona Deans Halloran wrote the same in her modern biography, expressed in the polite language of a footnote.

Stated more bluntly, this “Lincoln quotation” seems to have come from, or at least through, Nast himself. After consulting with Halloran, we made her the voice of doubt (or reason) while Nast speaks up for printing the legend.

Shea Justice, MFA, is a teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School and a member of the African-American Master Artists in Residence Program. His portraits of figures from African-American history have been collected in this volume.

To hear from Dr. Fiona Deans Halloran herself, check out this video of her far-ranging conversation with longtime political cartoonist Pat Bagley for the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The next cartoon looks at Nast’s campaign during Reconstruction for basic equality for all Americans, built around his iconic cartoon “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.” Nast’s vision of equality was limited, though. His take on, and caricatures of, non-white Americans could be quite disparaging. And he particularly disliked Irish Catholics, as this cartoon highlights.

Originally I had Nast saying, “Except for the Irish Catholics!” But then my artistic colleagues noticed that one of the figures at Uncle Sam’s table—on the right, near where his finger rests—had the profile that Nast typically gave to his Irishmen. So I tweaked the wording to acknowledge that Nast even gave an Irish couple a seat at Thanksgiving.

E. J. Barnes drew this panel, as well as serving the whole project as art director. She did admirable work assembling all the images, a job that turned out to include not only cajoling the cartoonists but also securing workable reproductions of Nast’s drawings and inserting them into our modern drawings in the midst of the pandemic shutdown. E. J. sells her artwork and comics stories through Drowned Town Press.

The next panel dramatizes one of the most famous episodes in Nast’s career, the second time he helped to bring down William “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall. Nast drew a lot of cartoons about Tweed, rousing public opinion enough for other legal authorities to move in. When Tweed fled US custody to Spain, police there recognized him as a wanted man from a cover of Harper’s Weekly—though they weren’t clear about what he was wanted for. Information from across the Atlantic is easier to come by these days, as I found when I sought period images of Spanish police uniforms.

The artist for this panel is Heide Solbrig, another colleague from the Boston Comics Roundtable. With a doctorate in communication from UCSD, Heide has taught arts and media studies at various colleges in New England. She’s working a graphic memoir called The Dandelion King and a series of comics journalism reports about the US-Mexico border. I see a reflection of her interest in immigration at the center of her panel as people line up in front of that transatlantic ship.

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