24,000 Vintage Cartoons from the Library of Congress Illustrate the History of This Modern Art Form (1780-1977)

Historically speaking, what we call cartoons began as artifacts of print culture, and as such, of modernity. Before the widespread availability of printed texts, the word “cartoon” referred to a sketch, an artist’s mock-up of a greater work. The word literally meant “a very large sheet of paper,” since Renaissance cartones “were the same size as the intended painting and were created to transfer the image,” as one art historian notes (with some very elegant examples). So when and how did the cartoon become shorthand for illustrated comic editorials?

Not until the late 18th century, though the origins of the form are often traced to another Italian art, the caricatura, satirical doodles favored by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.


These, writes the Cartoon Museum, “were technical exercises in virtuosity with the daring aim of defining the essence of a person in a few deft strokes of the pen.” Like the work of boardwalk caricaturists, we associate the contemporary cartoon with deft essentializing, but rarely with high art.

Yet when cartoons as we know them began proliferating, illustrators produced very high-quality work. Many, like English engraver William Hogarth—“regarded as the father of British caricature… and of the comic strip”—are well-known as fine artists. Others, like James Gillray, the most influential cartoonist of the period next to Hogarth, combined fine draughtsmanship with the Italian love of exaggeration and the use of word bubbles. Gillray, who freely satirized figures like George III and Napoleon (above)—is one of many prominent cartoonists represented in the Library of Congress’s digital collections of vintage cartoons, which, taken together, comprise about 24,000 images.

The work of Gillray, George Cruikshank, and other famous cartoon artists of the “golden Georgian age” (1770-1820) appear in a British Collection that showcases “approximately 9,000 prints” highlighting “British political life, society, fashion, manners, and theater.” Most of the Library’s American Collection begins when the Georgian period ends, around 1830, when U.S. illustrators participated in furious debates over slavery, the expanding nation’s colonial wars and, of course, the Civil War. In the 1864 cartoon above, “Columbia, wearing a liberty cap and a skirt made of an American flag, demands, ‘Mr. Lincoln, give me back my 500,000 sons,'” to which the caricature of Lincoln responds with a visual and rhetorical shrug.

The Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon takes us well into the 20th century with 2,085 “drawings, prints, and paintings related to the art of caricature, cartoon, and illustration, spanning the years 1780 to 1977” and encompassing magazine illustrations like Russell Patterson’s “Where there’s smoke there’s fire” at the top, and political cartoons, comic book art, and comic strips like the four-frame Batman comic above from 1966. A larger collection of Cartoon Drawings collects “9,000 original drawings for editorial cartoons, caricatures, and comic strips spanning the late 1700s to the present.”

Finally, the Herblock Collection contains “the bulk of the 14,000 original ink and graphite drawings… from 1946 through 2001, when Herblock [Herbert L. Block] worked for the Washington Post,” as well as 1,300 images from his days at the Chicago Daily News. (See a slideshow here of selected cartoons throughout the artist’s career.) Many of the issues in these drawings now seem forgotten or obscure. Some, like his Nixon cartoons, are newly relevant to our times. As we look through these archives, that phenomenon repeats itself over the course of two-hundred years of cartooning. Fashions and tastes may change, but some of the tangled circumstances of British and American politics have remained remarkably consistent.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Franz Kafka’s Unfinished Novel, The Castle, Gets Turned Into an Album by Czech Musicians: Watch a Music Video for the Song, “The Grave”

If, for some unfathomable reason, author Franz Kafka should emerge from his grave to direct a music video, the result would most certainly resemble the one for "The Grave" by The Kafka Band, above.

The air of futility and social foreboding…

The chilly broken landscape, rendered in black and white…

Bikinis and bling…

(Kidding! Overcoats and haggard expressions.)

"The Grave" was directed by animator, Noro Holder, but the lyrics are credited to Kafka, drawn directly from his unfinished novel, The Castle. As the band’s name might imply, this is no fickle flirtation with the author’s sensibilities.

"The Grave" is actually part of a ten-song album inspired by The Castle. (Stream it on Spotify below.) As bandmate, author Jaroslav Rudiš, observed:

Kafka is often deemed as a dark author, yet we strive to challenge this cliché. The novel possesses plenty of black and absurd humour, which we reflected in some of our compositions.

The album led to a collaboration with Germany’s Theater Bremen on a theatrical adaptation that featured the music played live.

The moody woodcut-inspired visuals seen above come from a graphic novel adaptation of The Castle illustrated by Rudiš’ bandmate, Jaromír 99, in collaboration with David Zane Mairowitz, an American playwright who previously tackled Kafka’s The Trial

At the point where another group might decide to take a detour into sunnier territory---a pop romp through the oeuvre of Milan Kundera perhaps---the Kafka Band is doubling down on another coproduction with Theater Bremen, an adaptation of Kafka’s novel Amerika (or The Man Who Disappeared), slated to open this fall.

The Grave

I’m dreaming of

Being with you

Without interruption

On earth

There is no space

For our love

Not in the village

Not anywhere else.

Deep in the earth / around us only death / the living won’t find us.

I’m imagining a grave

Deep and tight

We hold each other

My face next to yours

Yours next to mine

Nobody will ever see us

On earth there is no space

For our love.

Deep in the earth / around us only death / the living won’t find us.

Watch the video for "Arrival," another track inspired by The Castle, with drawings by Jaromír 99 here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and theater maker, soon to be appearing in a clown adaptation of Faust, inspired by the current administration and opening in New York City this June. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Jonathan Demme Narrates I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!!,” a Short Film About the Counterculture Cartoon Reid Fleming

Earlier today, we sadly learned about the passing of Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs and Stop Making Sense. We'll have more to say about his contributions to cinema in the morning. But, for now, I want to share a short film, narrated by Demme himself in 2015, called I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!!.  Featuring stop motion animation and interviews, the short revisits David Boswell's 1970s counterculture cartoon, Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman. Perhaps the cartoon never ended up on your radar. But it certainly influenced a number of important creators you're familiar with. And, happily, you can still pick up copies of Reid Fleming: World's Toughest Milkman on Amazon or over at the official Reid Fleming web site.

Directed by Charlie Tyrell, I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!! will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.. You can also download it over at Tyrell's vimeo page.

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1950s Batman Cartoon Tells Kids: “Don’t Believe Those Crackpot Lies About People Who Worship Differently”

"Don't believe those crackpot lies about people who worship differently, or whose skin is of a different color, or whose parents come from another country. Remember our American heritage of freedom and equality!"

Blow the dust off the vintage 1950s Public Service Announcement (PSA) from Batman.

Back during the Eisenhower era, refugees from World War II didn't exactly get a warm reception in the United States. And so the forces of good, DC Comics, created some PSAs designed to encourage kids to treat new citizens with kindness and understanding. You can see one frame from a larger cartoon above. The makers of Superman cartoon also created their own tolerance poster. Check it out here. And hopefully you'll help spread the same message today.

via Boing Boing

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Hear an Hour of the Jazzy Background Music from the Original 1967 Spider-Man Cartoon

Ray Ellis had a six-decade career as a producer, arranger, and jazz composer. And while he's best known for arranging music for Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin (1958), he also enjoyed a long career orchestrating music for television. Working under a pseudonym "Yvette Blais" (his wife’s name), Ellis composed background music for the cartoon studio Filmation between 1968 and 1982. And, during the late 60s, he notably created the background and incidental music for the original Spider-Man cartoons.

Above, hear Ray Ellis' Spider-Man soundtrack. The show's talking parts and sound effects have been removed as much as possible, then "pieced back together into complete form," by a YouTuber who uses the moniker "11db11." All of the music from Season 1 is included, plus many recordings from Seasons 2 and 3. It's worth noting that the 52 episodes from the original 1967 Spider-Man TV series have been completely restored. You can purchase them on DVD online.

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via Retroist

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The Harlem Jazz Singer Who Inspired Betty Boop: Meet the Original Boop-Oop-a-Doop, “Baby Esther”

Jazz Age cartoon flapper, Betty Boop, inhabits that rare pantheon of stars whose fame has not dimmed with time.

While she was never alive per se, her ten year span of active film work places her somewhere between James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. The market for Boop-collectibles is so vast, a definitive guide was published in 2003. Most recently, Betty has popped up on prepaid debit cards and emoji, and inspired fashion’s enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier to create a fragrance in her honor.


As noted in the brief history in the video above, Betty hailed from animator Max Fleischer’s Fleischer Studios and actress Margie Hines provided her voice.

Physically, she bore a close resemblance to popular singer Helen Kane. Their babyish vocal stylings were remarkably similar, too. But when Betty put the bite on a couple of Kane’s hits, below, Kane fought back with a lawsuit against Paramount and Max Fleischer Studios, seeking damages and an injunction which would have prevented them from making more Betty Boop cartoons.

The Associated Press reported that Kane confounded the court stenographer who had no idea how to spell the Boopsian utterances she reproduced before the judge, in an effort to establish ownership. Her case seemed pretty solid until the defense called Lou Bolton, a theatrical manager whose client roster had once included Harlem jazz singer,“Baby Esther” Jones.

Two years before Betty Boop debuted (as an anthropomorphic poodle) in the cartoon short, Dizzy Dishes, above, Kane and her manager took in Baby Esther’s act in New York. A couple of weeks’ later the nonsensical interjections that were part of Baby Esther’s schtick, below, began creeping into Kane’s performances.

According to the Associated Press, Bolton testified that:

Baby Esther made funny expressions and interpolated meaningless sounds at the end of each bar of music in her songs.

“What sounds did she interpolate?” asked Louis Phillips, a defense attorney.

“Boo-Boo-Boo!” recited Bolton.

“What other sounds?”

“Doo-Doo-Doo!”

“Any others?”

“Yes, Wha-Da-Da-Da!”

Baby Esther herself did not attend the trial, and did not much benefit from Kane’s loss. Casual cartoon historians are far more likely to identify Kane as the inspiration for the animated Boop-oop-a-doop girl. You can hear Kane on cds and Spotify, but you won’t find Baby Esther.

With a bit more digging, however, you will find Gertrude Saunders - the given name of “Baby Esther” - belting it out on Spotify. Some of her intonations are a bit reminiscent of Bessie Smith… who hated her (not without reason). Saunders appeared in a few movies and died in 1991.

via Urban Intellectuals

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Superman Defeated the KKK (in Real Life): Hear the World-Changing 1946 Radio Drama

Earlier this week, we featured the 1950 Superman poster that urged students to defend the American way and fight discrimination everywhere. Today, we present another chapter from Superman's little-known history as a Civil Rights defender.

The year is 1946. World War II has come to an end. And now membership in the Ku Klux Klan starts to rise again. Enter Stetson Kennedy, a human rights activist, who manages to infiltrate the KKK and then finds out an ingenious way to take them down. He contacts the producers of the popular Adventures of Superman radio show, and pitches them on a new storyline: Superman meets and defeats the KKK. Needing a new enemy to vanquish, the producers greenlight the idea.


The 16-episode series, "The Clan of the Fiery Cross," aired in June, 1946 and effectively chipped away at the Klan's mystique, gradually revealing their secret codewords and rituals. Listen to the episodes above. And take heart in knowing this: According to Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of FreakonomicsThe Clan of the Fiery Cross was "the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan." Mocked and trivialized, the Klan's numbers went back on the decline.

For more information on this chapter in superhero history, read the well-reviewed YA book, Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate. Also find more information on these episodes at the Superman Homepage.

To hear more original Superman radio shows, head over to Archive.org.

Note: there is a little bit of a controversy about what exact role Stetson Kennedy played in infiltrating the Klan. You can read up on that here.

Thanks, Alissa, for calling this radio series to our attention.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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