22 October 2020

The “Thomas Nast” Art Team, Part 3

Yesterday’s Boston Globe praised the approach of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s “Thomas Nast: A Life in Cartoons” online exhibit: “In a nice twist, the exhibition doesn’t emphasize Nast’s own work (though it offers links to many of his cartoons). Instead, nine contemporary cartoonists illustrate episodes from Nast’s life.”

I discussed six of those artists in the two preceding postings. Here’s the rest of the team.

Under Harper’s Weekly publisher Fletcher Harper, Nast had editorial freedom in the topics he chose and how he approached them. That often put him at odds with the magazine’s political editor, George William Curtis, who was more gentle and loyal to the Republican Party as a whole rather than just President U. S. Grant. We illustrated that conflict in what I later realized was yet another Nast-speaking-to-his-editor scene. But hey, his job was speaking to editors, and it’s a scene I know well.

The line “hit the enemy between the eyes” line came straight from Nast. The historical society understandably wanted more Massachusetts content, so this cartoon includes Nast’s unflattering caricatures of two Bay State politicians, Benjamin Butler and Charles Sumner.

The artist for this panel is Sam Cleggett. When the core team were thinking of cartoonists to recruit, two of the qualities we looked for were political work and visual style reminiscent of Nast. I pointed out, “Sam knows hatching,” and this energetic cartoon shows that he sure does. Sam also creates animation art for television and video games.

On top of his political cartoons, Thomas Nast’s biggest contribution to American culture was to popularize a certain look for Santa Claus. He had grown up with a German Christmas tradition of “Pelze-Nicol,” which he used to illustrate the Dutch tales of ”St. Nick” preserved in New York. Nast’s Santa was round and jolly, the size of a child, and swathed in fur.

For years Nast drew black and white pictures of Santa Claus for Harper’s. They became so popular that McLoughlin Bros., a pioneering picture-book publisher, offered to publish a book of Nast’s pictures converted to color lithographs. That technique approximated brown by printing black lines and highlights on a red field, with the result that the fur tinged toward red—and a red suit became what we expect Santa to wear.

Dan Mazur produced the cartoon of a McLoughlin brother showing Nast his page proofs for Santa Claus and His Works. As usual, he loaded it up with historical detail, hunting for the right sort of press and Pelze-Nicol himself.

Dan was also one of the organizers of this project, and he was one of the founders of both the Boston Comics Roundtable and the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo. His latest comic as a publisher is the Boston Powers series, and his upcoming comic as an author-illustrator is Lunatic.

After losing his editorial independence, Thomas Nast left Harper’s Weekly. He launched his own magazine, which lasted only a few months. He went on the lecture circuit, but that was exhausting. He produced history paintings looking back on the Civil War. His investments went bust, leaving him in a precarious financial state.

For our final cartoon, I imagined a cheeky take on the moment when Nast accepted a post in the U.S. diplomatic corps under Theodore Roosevelt. Artist Nick Thorkelson chose to render that in three panels to enhance the timing of the vaudeville dialogue. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so funny when Nast caught yellow fever only a few months after arriving at his first assignment. (We didn’t illustrate that moment.)

Nick Thorkelson has made political cartoons for the Boston Globe and many other outlets. One of his specialties is graphic biography, with his latest being Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia (2019).

So that’s our look at the career of American cartoonist Thomas Nast, from his childhood immigration to his death overseas.

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.

COMING UP: Part 3.

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.

COMING UP: Part 2.

09 October 2020

Taking Thomas Nast’s Life Online

It was disappointing to learn, as I described recently, that the cartoon biography of Thomas Nast I’d worked on since this spring would not be displayed in the Massachusetts Historical Society as originally planned. But frankly, in this needlessly calamitous year, that change in plans felt like a minor glitch.

At the time, I was researching visual references for the artists: What did Nast’s editors look like? What about their workspaces? How did Spanish police officers dress in the 1870s? As I did, I tried to imagine our new pictures in an online environment. How would they come across on people’s computer screens instead of up on the wood-paneled walls? Most important, what could a digital exhibit do that a material one could not?

Online, the cartoons would be smaller than they would be when displayed on a wall. But the webpages could give viewers links to the Nast images they played off of—and to many more images than the physical room had space for. I began to reimagine the exhibit as a series of webpages with supplemental webpages offering additional information.

There were still some challenges caused by the pandemic. The M.H.S. is looking after its employees by making sure only a few are in the building at a time, which meant that it took longer to digitize some of the Nast images we needed. There was no chance for all the people involved in the exhibit to sit down in a room, lay out the material, and discuss how it fit together. But again, compared to what else was happening in America, those weren’t big problems.

My colleague E. J. Barnes did a terrific job rounding up all the cartoonists’ drawings, keeping track of the necessary Nast artwork, assembling the hybrid images, and then going back to the artists to ensure they supplied all the info they needed to be credited and paid. And she drew one of the new cartoons as well!

“Thomas Nast: A Life in Cartoons” made its online debut a few days ago. It’s an adjunct of a larger digital exhibit on political cartoons in American history, “Who Counts: A Look at Voting Rights through Political Cartoons.” With the country in the middle of a crucial election, and access to the ballot at issue more than anytime for decades, this is a very timely exhibit. I’m proud that I was able to be part of it, and to help provide a forum for so many talented cartoonists. (More about them coming up.)

On Thursday, 15 October, Nast’s modern biographer, Fiona Deans Halloran, and political cartoonist Pat Bagley will give a virtual talk about the man through the M.H.S. Sign up here.

06 October 2020

Making Space for Thomas Nast

Early this year, folks at the Massachusetts Historical Society contacted me and colleagues in the Boston Comics Roundtable and invited us to help create part of a new exhibit on political cartoons in American history. 

Our role would be to depict the life of Thomas Nast, the leading American political cartoonist of the late nineteenth century, in a series of new drawings. A particular room in the MHS’s handsome building on Boylston Street was reserved for this part of the exhibit. 

That room is round. It has two doors, three large windows, and a fireplace. There’s handsome wooden paneling up to about chest height. In other words, it’s not a simple box with off-white walls ready to be a neutral enclosure for art.  

Measuring the room and the available materials, I mapped out a display customized for that space. There would be nine rectangular panels around the edge of the room, one with introductory text and eight with cartoons tracing Nast’s life. Each new cartoon would incorporate Nast’s own artwork, either within the scene or as inspiration, showing the course of his career. 

As for the room’s quirks, I made them part of the display. The three cartoons set in the tall window spaces, depicting the height of Nast’s influence, would be augmented above and below with reproductions of his own caricatures and icons. Beside the fireplace would stand a cut-out of one of Nast’s famous drawings of Santa Claus. In the center of the room, a display case would showcase Nast’s pages for Harper’s Weekly from the MHS collection. It was a pretty clever scheme, if I say so myself. 

My colleagues recruited artists while I researched Nast’s life to find iconic moments and details. While there are many collections of his artwork, the best sources for biographical detail were Albert Bigelow Paine’s 1904 Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures, based on conversations with the artist and published soon after his death, and Fiona Deans Halloran’s thorough, nuanced study, Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons.

Then the virus arrived. We all hunkered down in our houses for a while. I continued the research. In fact, I’d just taken a bunch of Nast books out from the local library, and all their due dates were helpfully extended, and extended again. On eBay I found Nast’s first published print for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, cheap because the seller hadn’t recognized the artist. Some of my early ideas for cartoons didn’t work out. The MHS asked for more Massachusetts content. I revised and polished with my collaborators’ help. 

And then the virus stayed around. The MHS decided its building had to stay closed to the public through the fall. The exhibit built around a particular space would not appear in any space at all.