What Fools These Mortals Be!

Image of Puck: What Fools These Mortals Be
Release Date: 
October 14, 2014
IDW Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“. . . richly entertaining volume.”

America loves to laugh at politics and politicians. Sarcastic broadsides reflecting on the policies of the governing British can be found among the earliest days of Revolutionary America. Today television shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report provide a platform for some of the most insightful and funniest political commentary and satire available.

There is one big step in American political humor that gets lost in the line that starts with a one-sheet nailed to a tree in the center of town and ends today with Jon Stewart staring at disbelief at Bill O’Reilly: the editorial cartoon.

What Fools These Mortals Be! by Michael Alexander Khan and Richard Samuel West is a lavish, insightful, and hugely entertaining history of America’s first national humor magazine, Puck. It was the work of the artists showcased in Puck that significantly raised the bar in the way that editorial cartoons were viewed by the public, which, considering the way that the cartoons of Thomas Nast were taking apart corruption of the day in New York City is saying a lot. 

The magazine first saw publication on March, 1871. An outgrowth of a similarly named German publication, Puck regularly tore apart hypocrisy, greed, self-righteousness, and the power hungry with every chance it could.

Named after a familiar, mischievous little character Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the magazine also used a mascot of the same name to help them in their quest.

Along with a wonderful history of the magazine itself, this new collection reprints hundreds of brilliant, full color reproductions of editorial cartoons that graced the magazine’s pages over 100 years ago.

This collection is a timely reminder of the place held by editorial cartoons in the history of American politics, publishing and art.

What set Puck apart from so many other magazines of the time was the precision and craft of their artists as well as a printing process that allowed them to publish their art in full, brilliant color.

With its multicolor capabilities, the magazine was as capable of showing the rosy-red blush of an embarrassed politician caught with their hands in the public till as well as the brilliance of a many-hued sky behind a racing commuter.

Sequential art, such as that found in newspaper comic strips, had yet to fully develop. This meant that the infinite imagination of the editorial cartoonist was physically limited by the boundaries of a single panel.

Within those four walls a skilled artists could bring to life the chest-thumping delusions of an elected official, the vast beauty of the American wilderness, the self-importance of a governmental bureaucrat, or a bewildered voter with just pen and ink. And Puck showcased the work of some of the best artists of the time.

A national magazine, Puck often played a big part in the nominating process behind each party as well as the election itself. It never made the slightest effort to conceal how it really felt about an issue.

What makes this volume important as history is that every reprinted cartoon is placed in the full context of the time. Brief descriptions identifying the politician, the situations they face, and the problems involved accompany each image.

Puck understood the reference points that the average reader would be able to grasp. From the Shakespearean origin of its own name to artistic allusions taken from the Bible and literature, Puck’s artists talked to their readers in a shorthand that they audience understood.

In one of the best examples of this wide-ranging point of references, authors Michael Alexander Khan and Richard Samuel West present a series of cartoons devoted to President Ulysses S. Grant’s attempt to gain a third bid at the presidency.

The magazine opposed the idea and began their campaign relatively softly. An early cartoon by Joseph Keppler, one the greatest among Puck’s early crew, shows Grant in oriental garb fanning possible supporters while they sleep. The implication being that those supporters may be under the spell of opium. . . .

Another cartoon then shows Grant as the Golden Calf while other bow down to his graven image. When Grant loses the bid to Garfield, Keppler reaches back into then recent history to draw a parallel to the Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Only this time it is Grant offering his sword.

In its time no magazine could touch Puck. For over 40 years it was among the best when it came to political commentary and satire. In addition to the magazine the owners of the magazine also published books, compilations, specials, one-shots and annuals. This new compilation draws from all sources over the magazines history.

While the magnificently talented crew of artists that the magazine employed is a big part of this collection, it is the content that makes this volume so meaningful today. Spend five minutes browsing thought What Fools These Mortals Be! and you will see that, no matter how modern we think we are today, few things have really changed over time.

Political parties still fight wildly. Fools come to power and the brilliant can prove to be ineffective. Money is the real religion of America and no matter what law is passed, someone will find a way to subvert it. Corruption will never leave politics and those who fight for the underdog can easily disappear among innuendo or apathy. Foreign policy can just as well boost a career as ruin it.

Puck is the first step in a long history of American humor in magazine form. Modern incarnations such as MAD, National Lampoon, Spy (who in their eighties heyday occupied the Puck Building) all owe a debt to what The Library of American Comics has gathered in this richly entertaining volume.