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Nast is a fitting starting point for this history of political cartooning. His place in this nation’s past is analogous to that of filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who directed the cinematographically groundbreaking but patently racist The Birth of a Nation. Nast’s use of animal symbolism, his refinement of the running gag, and his exaggeration of the facial and bodily features of politicians all shaped cartooning’s iconography—yet, as Fischer persuasively argues in his revisionist opening chapter, much of Nast’s brilliance stemmed from a willingness to hit below the belt and a zealous anti-Catholic prejudice.

Unfortunately, Fischer’s book only partly delivers on the promise of this first chapter. Them Damned Pictures is neither a comprehensive summary of the art of cartooning nor a tight collection of stand-alone essays. Instead, it addresses nine themes—from Statue of Liberty imagery to the ways cartoonists convey evil—in a manner that’s often intriguing but altogether uneven.

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Though Fischer writes with commendable clarity, he tends to repeat ideas he has already raised, and he clogs his chapters with more thumbnail descriptions of cartoons than could possibly be relevant. Also worrisome is his failure to provide full historical context. Though Fischer covers 1870-1890 thoroughly, he’s mute on how cartooning developed in America prior to Nast, much less on how it was practiced internationally. And while he devotes substantial attention to political cartooning’s renaissance since 1970, Fischer scarcely mentions the intervening eight decades—which included such World War II–era cartooning giants as Bill Mauldin. Fischer even skips the wrenching technological and cultural changes—from the development of independent newspapers to the birth of TV—that shaped both the appearance and the power of editorial cartoons.

Despite his episodic approach, however, Fischer deftly exposes some of cartooning’s darker moments, demonstrating that the “filler” drawings in 19th-century magazines were a far cry from the innocuous flowerpots that sprout between columns of The New Yorker. More often than not, they contained vicious stereotypes of blacks, Irishmen, Jews, and Indians. That ethnic and racial standards have changed isn’t exactly news, of course. Still, it’s revealing to see so much offensiveness dished out so casually—particularly in publications like Puck, Judge, and Harper’s, whose news columns claimed to be progressive.

Today’s enlightened generations have another reason to feel queasy about these cartoons: If one can ignore the bigotry, an admittedly difficult feat, some of these gags are actually funny. In fact, certain comedic concepts survive in politically correct formulations. In 1996, ex-slaves don’t steal hens from their neighbors’ chicken coops—white rednecks like Snuffy Smith do. And Jews no longer personify avarice—that’s up to venal WASPs like The Simpsons’ Monty Burns.

Thankfully, not all the archival material proves so grim. For instance, Fischer relates how an odd-looking Populist Party senator from Kansas, William Peffer, was demonized to a predominantly urban magazine readership because his long beard, clodhoppers, and Stetson made him a perfect rube for caricaturists. Today, of course, such a look would land the lucky senator a glossy newsmagazine spread and endear him to voters disgusted with politicians-as-usual. And Fischer notes that renegade pols aren’t the only ones who jangle cartoonists’ creative juices. His jocular closing chapter probes why Dick Nixon was “a gift from the gods.” “Even better than Tweed,” Fischer writes, “Nixon provided the natural ingredients of caricature: ski-jump nose, beady eyes, jowls and thin shoulders—above all, his affinity for slouching with arms uplifted and fingers in a trademark double-V waggle.” So useful was Nixon’s visage that 10 years after his resignation, Steve Sack of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune drew a brilliant panel of a crowd cheering wildly for a Nixon comeback. “Damn cartoonists!” mutters Nixon.

Like Nixon, Fischer’s reach exceeds his grasp. But Them Damned Pictures’ generously illustrated pages illuminate an important truth. As any poor soul who crossed Thomas Nast could tell you, civil political discourse didn’t die yesterday. Fischer’s book contains abundant evidence that it was never born at all.

—Louis Jacobson