Nast As Prologue: A Cartoon Pioneer

By: Dave Astor

Holiday Publishing Notice: The next Syndicate World column will be published Thursday, Jan. 9, 2003

It was “Remembrance of Things Nast” in Morristown, N.J., where several Dec. 7 events marked the centennial of the legendary editorial cartoonist’s death.

The Morris Museum was the site of a symposium that included discussion of the impact of Thomas Nast (1840-1902) on editorial cartooning today. The town library featured a film, slides, displays, and more on Nast. And the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum — across the street from the house where Nast lived from 1872 until months before his death — offered a large exhibit of photos, Nast artifacts such as his inkwell and walking sticks, cartoons by present-day artists showing Nast’s influence, Nast’s paintings (some huge), and, of course, his groundbreaking cartoons.

Visitors to the Macculloch show (running through Jan. 12) can see the symbols created or reconfigured by Nast — such as the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, Uncle Sam, and Santa Claus. And there are the memorable drawings attacking New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall and “Boss” Tweed, whose threats against Nast helped lead the cartoonist to move his family from Manhattan to Morristown — but didn’t lead him to pull any punches.

“He gave cartoonists a template to follow — you can be strong and courageous, and make a difference,” said Jeffrey Eger, editor of The Journal of the Thomas Nast Society, speaking during an E&P Online interview and tour of the Macculloch exhibit.

“I didn’t get into the profession because of Thomas Nast, but the profession is here because of Thomas Nast,” said Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News and the Washington Post Writers Group, one of four panelists at the symposium, which was filmed by C-Span for possible airing Jan. 1 and Jan. 2.

“We may not be conscious of it, but all edirtorial cartoonists are his children,” added another panelist, Scott Stantis of The Birmingham (Ala.) News and Copley News Service. “Here’s a guy who just hit you between the eyes with his point of view. That was inspiring.”

Nast was “the ultimate symbol of the cartoonist as crusader,” said panelist V. Cullum Rogers of The Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C.

The Influence Of Nast Today

Stantis noted that current editorial cartoonists who offer biting commentary are more in the Nast tradition than those who rely more on humor. Indeed, some cartoonists wondered if Nast could even get a job today. Many newspapers would be scared off by his strong stands, his partisanship (Ulysses Grant could do no wrong in his eyes), and his partial politically incorrectness. For instance, the German-born Nast — while passionately antislavery — often drew Irish-Americans in a negative way.

Nast’s influence on today’s cartoonists goes deeper than the way his iconic symbols still show up in drawings. He also exemplified the importance of devoting at least some cartoons to targets close to home. “People should remember that Nast’s most powerful and influential cartoons were his local cartoons about Tammany Hall,” said Wilkinson.

She and other speakers noted that local officials usually worry more than national officials about the way they’re satirized in cartoons. “President Bush doesn’t turn to the Philadelphia Daily News to find out what he did wrong the day before,” Wilkinson said wryly. “To local people, it’s a big deal [to be in a cartoon].”

“Saddam Hussein won’t wake up and see my cartoons,” agreed Stantis. But Alabama leaders and readers will, and sometimes their minds can be changed. Stantis recalled an effort to get courtesy titles used in Alabama schools, even though there are much more serious problems in the state’s educational system. He did a cartoon showing a student saying “I can’t read or write, sir” rather than “I can’t read or write” — and the courtesy-title suggestion was never heard again.

Speaking of literacy, Nast’s cartoons periodically contained Shakespearean, Biblical, and other literary references. Today, noted Wilkinson, cartoonists often have to turn to movies for cultural references many readers will understand.

Few Media Competed With Nast

Rogers said it’s much harder for a 21st-century cartoonist to have the impact Nast did in the 1800s. There were not only no films or TV back then, but no photos (until 1880 and beyond) in a typical newspaper. “If people knew what a politician looked liked, it was probably from a cartoon,” said Rogers.

“Nast was the television of his day,” said Eger, adding that Nast was “probably the best-known journalist in America.” At one point, he earned the then-enormous sum of $25,000 to $30,000 a year from Harper’s Weekly.

And Eger noted that Nast “was one of the first cartoonists to be syndicated,” starting around the mid-1880s.

Speakers also mentioned that Nast’s warmer side — seen in his avuncular Santa, book illustrations, etc. — helped endear him to the public. “He was for things, not just an iconoclast,” said Rogers. Today’s equivalent might be a hard-hitting editorial cartoonist who also does a somewhat gentler comic strip.

Nast showed a different side to his in-laws, too. One display at the Morristown library featured letters his wife Sarah wrote to her parents during the couple’s 1861 honeymoon in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Accompanying the words were whimsical sketches by Nast.

Symposium panelist David Levine, the renowned caricaturist for The New York Review of Books and other publications, said Nast also had a strong impact because of his artistic talent. “The quality of his pictures was incredible,” he observed.

Like Nast, his cartoonist descendants often do their best work when focusing on a major nemesis or major issue. Eger said Nast’s cartoons, though great for many years, probably “peaked” in 1871 when his attacks on Tweed were at their height.

The day ended with about 10 cartoonists going to Nast’s house. There — in the residence where Nast had entertained Ulysses Grant, Mark Twain, and other luminaries — the cartoonists of today raised a toast to their 19th-century mentor.

The pictures and words of the Morristown-visiting cartoonists — and many other cartoonists — are featured in a new Thomas Nast Society publication called Tribute: Cartoonists Salute Thomas Nast. That $30 book, and/or an audiotape of the day’s remarks, can be ordered by writing the Society at the Morristown library, 1 Miller Rd., Morristown, NJ 07960.

The 100th anniversary of Nast’s death was also marked by a Dec. 7 symposium at Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library featuring Nast scholars Morton Keller and Draper Hill — the latter a former editorial cartoonist for The Detroit News. A Nast exhibit at the cartoon library runs through Jan. 24.

On Dec. 8, Tony Auth of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Universal Press Syndicate was the American editorial cartoonist slated to receive the Thomas Nast Prize at a ceremony in Landau, Germany, where Nast spent his first six years.

And, on Dec. 25, children’s images of Santa Claus will owe much to Nast — who not only created the look of Santa we know today but situated him at the North Pole.


‘Crankshaft’ Shifting To King

Third Comic Coming New Year’s Day

“Crankshaft” will move to King Features Syndicate, which is now adding three well-known comics on Jan. 1.

The other two are “Mother Goose & Grimm” by Mike Peters, from Tribune Media Services; and “Bizarro” by Dan Piraro, from Universal Press Syndicate — the distributor also losing “Crankshaft.”

Tom Batiuk, who does “Crankshaft” with Chuck Ayers, said he’s moving to King because he’s happy with the job it’s doing with his 30-year-old “Funky Winkerbean” strip. “They’ve increased my client list [to almost 400] in difficult times, and they’ve supported the direction I’m taking,” said Batiuk, referring to the way he often deals with real-life issues.

“People generally assign comics to one of two categories: humor strips or continuity strips,” added King Editor in Chief Jay Kennedy. “Along with Lynn Johnston and Greg Evans, Tom is building a very popular third category: narrative humor. The core of ‘Crankshaft’ is its characters, not gag lines. The humor in the strip is the characters’ humor and those characters develop through the real-life situations they navigate. It’s a powerful approach.”

Johnston and Evans do “For Better or For Worse” and “Luann,” respectively, for United Media.

Batiuk praised Universal, and said deciding to leave “wasn’t easy.” But he added, in a malapropism worthy of crotchety senior citizen Ed Crankshaft: “I’m bringing all my eggs home to roost in one basket.”

“Crankshaft” began with Creators Syndicate in 1987, moved to Universal in 1991, and now runs in about 320 papers. It recently spawned an Andrews McMeel Publishing book collection called Your Favorite … Crab Cakes!


Post-Landers List Tops 900

Three Creators Features Sell Well

Three Creators Syndicate features that replaced Ann Landers’ Creators column have hit the 900-client mark, according to sales documents shown to E&P Online.

“Annie’s Mailbox” by Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar has 605 newspapers, “Dear Prudence” by Landers’ daughter Margo Howard has 200, and “Classic Ann Landers” has 100.


Redeye Becomes ‘Starr’ Dust

Provocatively Named Character Dies

by Mark Fitzgerald

Is “Brenda Starr” writer/Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich trying to tell us something about the prospects of a certain youth tabloid recently launched by her newspaper?

On Nov. 27, her Tribune Media Services comic introduced a character named “Redeye.” Eight days later, the character was killed off, expiring after this exchange with the glamorous reporter: “Redeye? Is that your name?” “Yes’m. Til my — gasp! — dying day, which is — gasp! — today!”

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