Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Comics Expose Corruption

Political cartoons have their own particular style of humor that blends serious topics with visual comedy. Caricature is one of the main arts used in political cartoons, described as "a parody of an individual, and allusion, which creates the situation or context into which the individual is placed." 

Leonardo da Vinci was credited with inventing the caricature, when he investigated "the ideal type of deformity, the grotesque". The principles utilized by Leonardo da Vinci are the foundation used by artists today.  

The popularity of political cartoons, greatly influenced by Thomas Nast (creator of the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey), inspired a 1876 publication called "Puck", a colored comic book that featured only political cartoons. 

In the early 1880s, Jay Gould gained control of the Atlantic and Pacific telegraph company in a classic takeover strategy to acquire Western Union, the largest telegraph company in the U.S. and the prize possession of the Vanderbilts. 

In 1880, The New York Times published an article titled, Vanderbelt Clearing Out: Jay Gould Taking His Place. Gould purchased 100,000 shares of Western Union stock from William Vanderbilt, who had just acquired his father's company (Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877). The deal was supposedly "kept as quiet as possible". The paper went on to say that Gould "would make a cool $7,000,000." 

As these events unfolded, Puck Magazine published a series of lithographs and woodcuts by Joseph Keppler, Frederick Opper, Barnhard Gillam and others. The cartoons were a relentless onslaught of negative press and public criticism. 

"Consolidated" depicts Jay Gould swinging between the columns of The Press and Commerce. Telegraph lines strangle the necks of the sculptures on the top of the columns. When this comic appeared in 1881, Gould had just successfully "consolidated" the telegraph companies and formed a monopoly. H.C. Bunner, the American novelist, stated that Jay Gould was the "to-day Emperor of the United States with absolute power" and that Gould was "a financial Alexander the Great...responsible only to himself."  

Comics expose corruption and bring it into question for the masses. The comic, Convenient Garments for Monopolists - How They Cover Up Their Crookedness, by Frederick Opper in 1881, still resonates with corporate media manipulation seen today (British Petroleum spent $50 million on an ad campaign in an effort to whitewash the Deep Horizon oil spill in the gulf of Mexico).  

Comics do rally public support. Check out the ad campaigns inviting us to occupy the streets. In this respect, these comics are a fascinating example of how iconography can coalesce into a powerful movement. While technically these are not political, at least in a partisan way (no party affiliation and no list of demands), they are inciting people to take action. 

As Occupy gains support and establishes a concrete agenda, I believe we'll see the power of comics and humor unleashed, potentially motivating a global nation to rise up against the established system in an attempt to distribute more evenly the wealth on this planet - and when they do, capitalists everywhere will wager bets and rise up to the occasion with goods and services that support the needs of the cause. 

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