Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel
The New Press, September 2001
Dr. Seuss, writer/artist
Richard H. Minear, editor
I have to admit that I personally find editorial and political cartoons to be a colossal, frequently distasteful waste of time and resources. 99.9 times out of 100 they’re just strident, unimaginative, button-pushing sermons to the choir. They’re intended not to enlighten or persuade but to flatten complex issues into images so reductive that they’re not just simplistic but frequently misleading or even mendacious in their representation of what’s being talked about–which really doesn’t matter, because the right people will applaud and the right people will be outraged. You have to be extraordinarily gifted to make a go of this field, and maybe half a dozen such artists in the history of the English-speaking world have had that knack.
As it turns out, Dr. Seuss was one of them. Prior to his enshrinement as the 20th century’s preeminent author-illustrator of children’s books, the then-struggling Geisel–prompted by a loathing of Fascism–was an editorial cartoonist for PM, a daily New York City newspaper that served as sort of an unofficial spokesorgan for the Leftist coalition called the Popular Front. But as editor Minear points out in his informative and readable text pieces that contextualize the cartoons in this volume, the good Doctor was more populist than Popular Front, and his war-era cartoons reflect a general sense of, if not quite Leftist, then left-leaning fair-play values. As such they are enormously refreshing to look at and read. Seuss passionately attacks the racist Jim Crow policies of the military and industry. He targets the anti-Semitism of Charles Lindbergh and the isolationist movement, including one memorable cartoon where his uniquely Seussian “eagle” (it’s impossible to look at this big-beaked, long-necked American mascot and not put the species in quotes) bears a placard reading “I AM PART JEWISH.” One pre-war cartoon even lumps Communists (with whom PM was basically okay) in with Nazis and Fascists as the joeys in the kangaroo pouch of America Firsters. In fact his earliest post-Pearl Harbor cartoons, of Dec. 8th and 9th 1941, seem to view the onset of war primarily as a rebuke to the benighted domestic forces of isolationism he and the progressives at PM were regularly targeting anyway.
Also exhilarating is his choice of imagery, which is deeply Seussian and totally alien to the usual played-out editorial-cartoon tropes. He makes surprising use of visuals indebted to horror and fantasy: On several occasions he portrays the Axis menace as massive sea serpents (as regular readers of this blog’s horror posts know, I’m a sucker for water monsters), and in his best anti-Japan cartoon a spokesman for the Empire mouthing civilized platitudes is revealed by the downward-drifting eye to be a Lovecraftian monstrosity with lobster claws and dragon’s feet. Similarly, one of his most memorable jabs at Hitler portrays the Fürher as a sword-wielding, horned-helmet and skull-and-swastika-wearing barbarian dictator seated in a shadowy cave lair atop a hill of skulls, sending out his Vichy lackey Pierre Laval to round up forced French labor.
The Japanese monster-man, of course, serves to highlight through contrast Seuss’s big weakness: His depiction of the Japanese enemy as a fungible assortment of slanty-eyed, buck-toothed, pig-nosed, coke-bottle-glasses-wearing stereotypes, even extending to the supposed fifth column of Japanese-Americans who he lampoons as waiting for instructions from home in one cartoon. In this he’s no different than pretty much every other American propagandist of the period, but it’s still a letdown given his sensitive and progressive treatment of American racism generally, and how artistically creative he gets with virtually every other facet of the war. Take his bestiary, for example: his unusual American eagle I’ve already mentioned, while he frequently represents Germany as a put-upon dachshund. Russia almost always pops up as some giant bear, dinosaur, abominable snowman or something else huge. And delightfully, Seuss peppers astonished cats, dogs, and birds throughout his cartoons, reacting to the ridiculousness they encounter. Though it’s true that, as Minear points out, Seuss’s treatment of the Japanese is comparatively gentle compared to some of the really barbaric treatment they received from other artists, it’s still depressing to see his humorous specificity dropped when dealing with Japan, which is almost always depicted as a stereotype Minear, in his text pieces, can’t help but wrap in scare quotes.
But in pretty much every other aspect, these cartoons shine. For example, there are his drawings of the war’s leaders. His Mussolini is a contemptible jut-jawed pot-bellied dolt, portrayed in one laugh-out-loud parody ad for the fatuous charity “Bundles for Benito” as buck-nekkid except for a strategically placed copy of Mein Kampf. Seuss’s Hitler is always blithely unaware of his impending, inevitable defeat, eyes blissfully closed, nose in the air, combover jutting jauntily. (I do wish he’d have taken on the Allied leaders more directly: His infrequently depicted Stalin is pretty pro forma, and Roosevelt and Churchill, two of the most eminently caricaturable world leaders of all time and practically Dr. Seuss characters already, are never drawn at all.) Seuss also draws some wickedly complex Rube Goldberg-esque situations as allegories for bureaucratic red tape, and his occasional forays into military hardware–like the ginormous American warplane with fully 13 giant gun barrels bearing down on Hitler’s pathetically tiny single-propeller affair–are packed with energy and high estimation of American power. He’s a hoot as a wordsmith too, as you might expect. “Food? We Germans don’t eat food! We Germans eat countries!” says a skinny Prussian father to his emaciated son in a cartoon ridiculing Germany’s bad fortunes at home. A pre-war cartoon shows a matronly America Firster reading a storybook called Adolf the Wolf to her alarmed children: “…and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones…But those were Foreign Children and it really didn’t matter.” The joke hits all-too-familiar targets in this the “Never Again” age.
Which leads to the most chilling cartoon in the collection: Hitler and Laval merrily singing a duet in a forest whose trees are laden with hanged Jews. In his text pieces, Minear argues that Seuss’s goofy, Chaplinesque Hitler and his overall humorous comportment is inadequate to the task of upbraiding the true evil and horror of the war, while standout cartoons like this one and a pair of ominously Orwellian predictions of the fate of the American populace should Germany win do a better job. I’d just say different, not necessarily better. Seuss’s cartoons neither deny the evil of Hitler nor lend to it an air of grandeur–they mock it to within an inch of its lousy life. I think that’s about right.