News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Book Review: Drawling Liberalism: Herblock’s Political Cartoons in Postwar America

 Reviewed by Christina M. Knopf

Simon Appleford. Drawling Liberalism: Herblock’s Political Cartoons in Postwar America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2023.     

The political cartoons of Herbert Lawrence Block, professionally known as“Herblock,” influenced leaders, shaped political discourse, and had a lasting impact on public memory. Herblock’s career, Simon Appleford notes, “lasted seventy-two years and encompassed the presidencies of thirteen men, from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush” (1-2). Born in 1909 in Chicago, Block worked there and then in Cleveland as an editorial cartoonist until joining the Army in World War II. Following his discharge, he worked for the Washington Post for an amazing 55 years until his death in 2001. Appleford claims in Drawing Liberalism that Herblock was a significant advocate for, and voice of, postwar liberalism – one that is largely neglected in scholarly attention to liberal intellectuals of the era. Drawing Liberalism thus focuses on “how Block’s cartoon’s [sic] reflected and shaped liberalism in the domestic sphere” (15).

The book is organized into six chapters, prefaced by a brief introduction, and followed by a short epilogue. Forty-three Herblock cartoons illustrate the chapters, assisting readers’ understanding of Herblock’s style. The introduction establishes the significance of political cartooning in history and public discourse, while providing a brief overview of some of their rhetorical features. However, comics studies and political communication scholars with keen interests in the visual and rhetorical devices employed by cartoonists will find uneven attention to those features in the rest of the book. Appleford is a historian whose focus is on Herblock’s articulation of, and contribution to, postwar liberal ideology, not an art historian.

The first chapter provides a brief biography, outlining Herblock’s journey to the Washington Post in 1946, highlighting the influences and experiences that shaped Herblock’s politics and artistry. Chapter 2 focuses on Herblock’s work throughout the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s. Appleford introduces the chapter as one that “examines the visual devices that Block used to persuade his audience” that the fearmongering of anti-Communists was as much a threat to the country as Communist subversion. Some of the “visual devices” discussed include Herblock’s use of sports metaphors, allusions to Greek mythology, everyday scenarios with which readers could identify, and his development of the character of Mr. Atom – an anthropomorphic atom bomb. Appleford further identifies three categories of Herblock cartoons that represented threats to Americans’ civil liberties: cartoons that depicted the House Un-AmericanActivities Committee (HUAC) as vacuous and vindictive; cartoons that depicted HUAC members as overzealous and malicious; and, cartoons that depicted HUAC “in activities that struck against the very symbols of American democracy” (61). Indeed, as Appleford discusses in the chapter, Herblock is largely credited with coining the term “McCarthyism” after Senator Joe McCarthy, who he drew with a “thug-like, almost Neanderthal depiction [that] would become a recurring theme” (69) of Herblock’s characterization of opponents to civil liberties and civil rights.

In chapter 3, Appleford examines Herblock’s handling of segregation and racial violence, arguing that “Block identified the fight for African American rights as one of the most important social and political movements of the mid-twentieth century,” (16) – but one in which he was more concerned about white intolerance and bigotry than the Black experience. Appleford writes, “By privileging the actions of white elites […] at the expense of other participants – most notably of the African American community but also of women and children – Block gave his readers a significantly distorted picture” of events (87) – but he also brought the ideal of racial equality as fundamental to American values “to the attention of a much larger audience than might otherwise have been exposed to ideas of liberal intellectuals” (90). And the white Southerners drawn in Herblock’s cartoons took on the signature thug-like appearance that he used for depicting enemies of liberalism.

Chapter 4 argues that Herblock’s “cartoons serviced as proxies in the early stages of a national debate over the so-called culture wars that has characterized much of American political discourse for the past fifty years” (16). It begins with Herblock’s response to the Kennedy assassination and the hostility with which an anti-gun cartoon was received by many readers – which Appleford describes as a reflection of the early stages of the “culture wars.” The chapter then looks at Herblock’s cartoons during the Kennedy years, noting that the artist “drew inspiration from the self-styled rhetoric of the campaign” to depict Kennedy as “a courageous pioneer or clean-cut cowboy” (120). The reader is left to fill-in-the-blank, that such imagery reflected Kennedy’s use of the frontier metaphor. The chapter also examines Herblock’s disparagement of the right-wing John Birch Society and Daughters of the Revolution, where he again used his thuggish depictions to suggest the “presumed lack of education and propensity for violence” (127) of their members. Appleford connects such imagery to Herblock’s belief in an urban majority as more representative of American ideals than the rural minority, with which he connected a conservative ideology that was antithetical to American democracy,

Chapter 5 is concerned with Herblock’s lackluster response to the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s – one that “failed to give any legitimacy to protest movements” (16). Here, discussion turns again to Herblock’s handling of civil rights and his tendency to privilege the actions of, and impact on, whites. Appleford also discusses Herblock’s relative lack of attention to women’s rights issues as “a reflection of postwar liberalism’s own lack of interest in the questions [compared to] civil rights” (165). Appleford further notes Herblock’s reliance on the major tropes of “dangerous seductress, innocent victim, or as a symbol of American values” (167) – though such visual metaphors were infrequently related to women’s issues or civil rights, such as the Vietnam War caricatured and embodied as the mistress of the Lyndon Johnson administration. Overall, Appleford demonstrates in this chapter that Herblock’s lack of representation for women’s and other rights-based movements that emerged in the 1960s suggested an unwillingness to engage with critiques of “the patriarchal institutions and cultural practices of postwar liberalism” (169).

The final chapter focuses on the subject with which Herblock is most strongly connected in public memory – his portrayals of Richard Nixon. Appleford seeks to show how Herblock’s cartoons were pivotal in defining the public perception of Nixon, transforming him from a young congressman considered handsome and principled, “into an archetype of corruption, a chameleon whose position on the issues of the day changed based solely on political expediency, and whose features became synonymous with the abuse of power” (16). Throughout the chapter, Appleford frequently discusses the prominent “5 o'clock shadow” in Herblock’s caricature of Nixon – one that was a controversial point of contention for the president and his supporters. It is, however, almost by accident in passing that Appleford recognizes that the darkened face visually represents “the darker side of Nixon’s character” (206). Other common depictions of Nixon by Herblock as a vulture or undertaker and as a man who wore many masks. Perhaps the most insightful part of the chapter is Appleford’s exploration of Herblock’s cartoon coverage of Watergate, for which Herblock frequently used water imagery. Washington Post owner Katherine Graham noted that Herblock’s cartoons were well ahead of the news on understanding the significance of the Watergate break-in, and Herblock worked closely with reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in making sense of the investigation.

The book’s epilogue briefly examines some of Herblock’s post-Nixon work to underscore Herblock’s lifelong commitment to democracy by using his pen to pressure the people and the government to “do the right thing.”

Throughout the book’s 234 pages, Appleford considers the ways in which Herblock “was attempting to tread the fine line between caricature and stereotype” (41). He rarely depicted African Americans in his cartoons – and some of those depictions relied on minstrel Black face features and some only showed the characters from the back. He also typically depicted women in traditional gender roles, as faces in a crowd, as members of a family, or in gender-appropriate professions such as teacher or nurse. Appleford particularly notes Herblock’s use of literary and pop-cultural allusions: Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Snow White. The Wizard of Oz. Poltergeist. Harvard University’s alma mater “Fair Harvard" (although Block never finished college). Readers would be well-advised to look through the end notes for additional insights.

Appleford deftly weaves the work of Herblock into the larger political history of the United States. As such, the book may be a great resource to any scholar looking to better understand the zeitgeist of postwar America. One weakness for classroom or reference use, however, is that chapters do not use subheadings to help organize or clarify the different topics or themes encompassed in each.

In the book’s focus on Herblock as an intellectual of postwar liberalism, Appleford is very successful. He carefully situates and explains the arguments advanced by Herblock in relation to other liberal thinkers of the time. Some attention to other cartoonists of the era might have also been informative, especially when Appleford presents perspectives on Herblock’s engagement, or lack of, with particular topics and imagery, to offer readers a sense of whether Herblock’s handling of these was unique or not. Nonetheless, readers are sure to gain a new understanding of the current political milieu through Appleford’s history. His attention to not only Herblock’s arguments, but also to the controversy they generated provides historical perspective on present day partisanship within the culture wars.


Christina M. Knopf, PhD is a Professor & Presentation Skills Coordinator in the Communication and Media Studies Department of SUNY Cortland.

No comments: