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Student Post: Cold War Cartoons of Paul R. Carmack

Christian Morality and Historical Perspective: the Cold War Cartoons of Paul R. Carmack

by Izzy DeSantis

Bio: Izzy DeSantis is a fifth year double major in art history and creative writing who has been at Billy Ireland since 2017.

As a data entry student assistant at Billy Ireland, my job is to create the records you see in our art database. Sometimes, this means I get to do a deep dive into the work of one artist. This was the case with Paul R. Carmack (1895-1977), whose collection of over 1000 political cartoons were generously donated to BICLM by his nieces. These cartoons span his entire career at the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, MA, from the late 1930s to early 1960s. Political cartoons are some of my favorite materials to work with. In order to make a good record for a work, I have to know what is going on in the cartoon, which more often than not means I have to brush up on my historical geopolitics. After three years at Billy Ireland, I’m in the unusual position of knowing most of my 20th century American history through political cartoons.

Like any historical document, political cartoons have a point of view, or bias, that the reader must be aware of. While working with Carmack’s cartoons, I learned that he was a white, Christian man with relatively conservative values, living in Boston. However, I found that Carmack was never fully devoted to either the Democratic or Republican party. He stuck to his own set of values and political convictions, which I, from the 21st century vantage of polarized American politics, found rather admirable. While Carmack’s identity and political values may not quite align with my own, I appreciated how he recorded historical events without pretending to have a neutral stance. In a sense, I think this gave me more freedom to picture and judge the historical events for myself.

Carmack, like most political cartoonists, covered the current events of his day. Some of these events were local to Boston or the Christian Science Monitor readership (the Red Sox’s appearance in the World Series, or National Bible Week, for example), but the majority of his corpus deals with the Cold War, the geopolitical crisis of his day. Many of Carmack’s Cold War cartoons express popular American sentiment from the period: strong approval for President Eisenhower, a combative opposition to the Soviet Union, and low tolerance for communist sympathies in other countries.

“Another St. George?” by Paul Carmack, January 2, 1953. Paul R. Carmack Collection and Papers

What distinguishes Carmack’s cartoons from the work of other artists is his Christian sensibility. For Carmack, the Americans’ key advantage in the Cold War was their moral superiority. He believed that the US had a stronger sense of community and moral righteousness than the Soviet Union. Even when the US was “losing”—when the USSR launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, for instance—he believed that American “moral power” would win out in the end.

“Sputniks may come and Sputniks may go…” by Paul Carmack, November 25, 1957. Paul R. Carmack Collection and Papers

American unity was based in Christianity for Carmack. Indeed, Christian morality is a critical defense against communism, in Carmack’s view, just as important as military or economic strength.

“Let’s give him a bigger shield” by Paul Carmack, September 17, 1951. Paul R. Carmack Collection and Papers

Clearly, Carmack took pride in American religious freedom, and expressed ambivalence towards the secularization of American society. While he supported American advancements in scientific research and economics, especially when these advances helped the Cold War cause, he worried that religion may get left behind.

“Research — Out of Balance” by Paul Carmack, May 19, 1947. Paul R. Carmack Collection and Papers

The importance of Christianity extends beyond American identity to morally justify the actions of the United Nations in Carmack’s cartoons. Carmack has a tendency to represent the US, the West, and the UN interchangeably with the same globe-headed man in a fedora, implying that American values were globally accepted, and further justifying the United States’ moral righteousness. In this sense, the Bible is not just the United States’ defense, but “The World’s No. 1 Defense.”

“The World’s No. 1 Defense” by Paul Carmack, October 17, 1960. Paul R. Carmack Collection and Papers

While I appreciate how Carmack gives global events a personal perspective in his cartoons, I think it is important to understand moments where his American subjectivity causes him to misrepresent historical fact. As a case study, I turn to a cartoon about the Congo Crisis, a power struggle which began after the Congo declared independence in June of 1960. A military mutiny, secessions by the Katanga and South Kasai regions, and violence between black and white citizens led to the dispatch of UN peacekeepers to the Congo. However, UN Secretary-General Hammarskjöld did not let the peacekeepers fight the secessionists, so the central Congolese government called on the USSR for additional aid. The US interpreted this call for aid as an expression of communist sympathy.

“That the light fail not” by Paul Carmack, August 10, 1960. Paul R. Carmack Collection and Papers

In this cartoon, dated August 10, 1960, Hammarskjöld leads a Congolese man through a rainstorm of communism and inexperience. The rain, which threatens the candle of independence, registers keywords which reduce the nuance of the Congo Crisis to Cold War buzzwords. “Communism” implies that the Congo wanted to be a communist nation; in reality, the social transition from colonized to independent nation was a larger issue than the choice between economic systems. As Americans, Carmack and his audience would have seen the involvement of the USSR in the Congo as a serious threat, worthy of representation in his cartoon.

Similarly, to imply that the Congolese were at fault for their political “inexperience” erases the historical fact of their exploitation under Belgian imperialism for 90 years. It was impossible for the Congolese to gain experience as leaders while living in a system that oppressed them. But, again, this point of view may not have been obvious to Carmack, who was born only 25 years after the Belgian empire began. The cartoon also positions Hammarskjöld (a proxy for the UN) as a guiding, paternal figure, and does not give the Congolese person the agency to weather the storm by themselves. While I, as a 21st century viewer, may read this as a dismissive assumption of Congolese “inexperience,” Carmack’s intention may have been more like a statement of brotherly cooperation. Even if I could see inside the artist’s mind, it would be impossible for me to recreate the cultural conditions of the 1950s and perfectly comprehend his point of view. Carmack lives and works in the midst of a Cold War proxy war, whereas I write and work with 60 years’ worth of historical distance.

I do not make this analysis to say that Carmack is insensitive to the plight of oppressed peoples worldwide. As evidenced in his other cartoons, Carmack feels duty-bound as a moral Christian person to support the freedom of all. He expresses sympathy for the Hungarians after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and his cartoons on the American Civil Rights Movement are similarly sympathetic. He has a strong sense of right and wrong that guides his cartoons and worldview at large.

“Satellites” by Paul Carmack, October 9, 1957. Paul R. Carmack Collection and Papers

I think that the fault lies not with the man, but with the era in which he worked. We must remember that Carmack needed his cartoons to be understood by a wide audience, and in order to ensure mass understanding, historical reduction may have become a necessary evil. I think the same explanation works for Carmack’s use of illustrative tropes, such as the globe-headed man, or a group of white men to represent all Americans, which may seem outdated or insensitive today. In reality, these tropes were standard for 1950s representation. Just as the artist has his bias in the 1950s, so too are we biased from our perspective as 21st century viewers. Carmack’s cartoons are historical objects, representations of the world as he saw it and lived it, and it is our duty as viewers to respect that reality.

Student post: Friendships and Fanzines: Inspiration from the Jay Lynch Collection

Friendships and Fanzines: Inspiration from the Jay Lynch Collection
By Hannah Kramer

Bio: Hannah Kramer is a History major, finishing her junior year at Ohio State. She has been a student employee at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum since October 2018. 

Special thanks to Professor Jared Gardner at The Ohio State University; his 2017 article “Before the Underground: Jay Lynch, Art Spiegelman, Skip Williamson and the Fanzine Culture of the Early 1960s,” published by Ohio State University Press in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, was invaluable in writing this post. 

Envelope containing Squire no. 1 sent from Williamson to Lynch

In my first year as a student assistant at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (BICLM), one of my projects required sifting through sections of the recently acquired Jay Lynch Collection. However, I couldn’t help but be distracted by every piece I picked up. Lynch had archived everything: from Playboy, to homemade comics, to humor magazines. I became completely transfixed with trying to understand the man who owned so many fascinating (and controversial) pieces of history.

Jay Lynch was a key figure in the underground comix movement as an artist, editor, and archivist. Some of his most notable underground works include Bijou Funnies and Nard n’ Pat. Throughout his career, he contributed work to a variety of publications including more mainstream magazines like Playboy and Mad.

Now as a third-year history major, my thoughts have turned to writing an undergraduate thesis. My time at the BICLM has undeniably shifted my academic interest to the world of underground comix. My efforts to understand Jay Lynch and his collection has led to key questions that have inspired my thesis. Who are the artists of the underground comix movement? What were their motivations to create comics? How did they form a movement? And what is their place in the cultural shifts of the 20th century?

To start out my research, I wanted to find the origins of the underground comix movement. Luckily for me, the Billy Ireland holds many of the early fanzines (inspired by Mad, Cracked, and other humor magazines) where some of the biggest names in underground comix found their start, including Art Spiegelman, Skip Williamson, Jay Lynch, and many more. In looking at these fanzines, one finds the beginning of a movement.

Prior to widely available and inexpensive photocopying, many of these fanzines were duplicated using a mimeograph giving many of them a distinctive purple ink. Other fanzines, such as Art Spiegelman’s own fanzine Blasé, were printed using a hectograph, which used gelatin to transfer ink to paper. Unfortunately, the works created on these machines were not intended to last and have degraded over time, making their preservation a top priority. That being said, these machines allowed many young cartoonists to copy and share their work. BICLM is proud to have created full-text digitized versions of nearly all of these early fanzines, available by request.

You can see Art Spiegelman speak below from the BICLM archives about using a hectograph to create fanzines:

Many young artists began creating their own fanzines and circulating them amongst friends. However, a network of fanzine publications quickly grew, as young artists advertised their fan publications in the humor magazines they idolized. Most notably, Joe Pilati’s Smudge fanzine was plugged in Cracked. Young cartoonists and fans, including Jay Lynch, requested copies, sent in their own contributions, and advertised their own fanzines, including the one by the name of Wild!.

Jay Lynch, like many others, contributed to multiple early fanzines as both an artist and an editor. Prior to his contributions to Smudge, Lynch became heavily involved in Wild!, a humor fanzine edited by a young Don Dohler. Wild! also featured future underground cartoonists Skip Williamson and Art Spiegelman. In the creation of Wild!, these artists exchanged ideas, advised each other on printing, learned how to self-publish, and cultivated their unique artistic voices. Most importantly, collaborating on Wild! proved to be crucial in cementing the connections between these artists that were the foundation for the underground comix movement.

Wild! no.5, p.19, Jay Lynch

Don Dohler eventually attempted to pass control over Wild! to either Lynch or Spiegelman, but by then the artists had moved on to other projects. Williamson and Spiegelman had started creating their own respective fanzines, Squire and Blasé, to which Lynch contributed. In addition, these artists also began finding success in more professional satire publications including with Harvey Kurtzman who featured Williamson and Lynch in his adult humor magazine Help!. Spiegelman was almost featured just before the magazine went under.[1] Nevertheless, they never lost the satirical and countercultural tone that was cultivated in their humor fanzines.

You can hear more about Lynch’s participation in Wild!, and his archival collection here:

The artists who participated in these humor fanzines created the foundational networks and friendships that jumpstarted and held together the underground comix movement. Their work from this era features a comedic and artistic voice that hints at the cartoonists they would eventually become. I was lucky to be able to view scans of many of the early fanzines mentioned above. I cannot wait to be able to visit BICLM again in person to look at many of the manuscript materials found in the Jay Lynch Collection. I can only imagine what the letters between these artists could tell us about the origins and motivations of the Underground Comix movement.

[1] Gardner, Jared. “Before the Underground: Jay Lynch, Art Spiegelman, Skip Williamson and the Fanzine Culture of the Early 1960s.” Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society 1, no. 1 (2017): 75-99.

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