It took a Vladimir Putin to remind us of the long-forgotten nuclear button. Fortunately, so far he has only pressed the rewind button. A minor military operation he launched, supposed to be over in a few hours, is not going to end anytime soon. It remains to invoke parallels from the past. A favorite flashback point is the advent of World War II.
Cartoonists won’t easily let go of this moment. The famous British cartoonist David Low succeeded in this war, in front of prime ministers and kings. For him, the war began without surprise. Not that he had any mystical gift for foretelling or reading minds. He had fewer illusions. As a contradictory cartoonist, he habitually questioned and disbelieved. Moreover, given his professional status, he worked with a great deal of autonomy for publisher Lord Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard. What he returned to the newspaper was rigour.
David Low has done better homework than his own government on the man who started the war. Adolf Hitler ordered German troops to enter Poland from the west at dawn on September 1, 1939. In just over a fortnight, according to a choreographed timetable, Soviet troops entered Poland from the east. Three days later, Low’s iconic cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard. Under the one-word title “Rendezvous”, two very dissimilar political entities, Hitler and Stalin, were on the same page in the same frame, bowing to a man lying dead on a Polish battlefield.
In the eyes of the world, the Nazis and the Communists were sworn enemies until their non-aggression pact was made public. The deal was announced just a week before Hitler’s attack. Low had no idea what led to the instant bonding. But when it happened, he was unfazed, having rated players over the years. The two would do exactly what suited them. The cartoon said so.
There was nothing rushed or sloppy in the drawing. The work had everything one associates with the master – captivating composition, repeated brushstrokes and gestural language in perfect sync with the message. That is to say, bigwigs can violate national borders jointly or individually. A series of such violations followed to create a world war.
Low was a known critic of his own anti-conflict prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. “War” was not a word the cartoonist feared. There was more than hinted at in the weeks and months leading up to the outbreak, so much so that friends of the Prime Minister had called him a warmonger. Across the sea border, Goebbels agreed the cartoonist was an alarmist and should be restrained. Hitler’s propaganda minister knew the truth, that the British prime minister was more clueless than his cartoonist. Long story short, Chamberlain came down to appease the German regime. Low celebrated the release with a cheerful drawing of a Nazi tiger with swastika stripes. The well-fed creature is in a post-prandial rest with the prime minister’s remains strewn about – dentures, mustache and the ubiquitous umbrella.
In the annals of comics, it’s an oft-repeated success story. In a world that has yet to recover from its first great war, a young cartoonist focuses on who will trigger the second. Does something like this happen now, when the world has shrunk too much to keep secrets? Did a contemporary cartoonist anticipate Putin’s attack as Low predicted Hitler’s? Today, cartoonists all over the world are digitally savvy. They couldn’t miss much. They followed Putin as well as Low and his peers followed Hitler.
Putin has been around since 2000, a good 22 years, and he is by no means low key. It lacks the toothbrush mustache but offers much more to the cartoonist. While the German chancellor was almost always seen in formal military attire, the Kremlin celebrity walks around naked on trips to catch pike and fight bears. Caricaturists often fill the torso with tattoos. He was the cartoonists’ greatest delight until a bigger challenger arose. In 2017, President Donald Trump emerged and the global cartoon space was seriously challenged for the next four years. Trump has packed an excess of everyday misanthropy into his presidency, enough to wear down the cartoonist.
“Oh my God,” was Pulitzer winner Ann Telnaes’ reaction the day after Donald Trump was elected, “when I realized I would be serving my year as President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists during the same period as a guy who wanted to ‘open up’ libel laws and weaken the First Amendment so they could more easily sue journalists.” A year into Trump’s presidency, she lamented that there was not a single day she could keep the man out of the cartoon Putin had been squarely beaten.
The Russian supremo had better luck with Patrick Chappatte, perhaps the most watched editorial cartoonist today. Born in Karachi to a Lebanese mother and a Swiss father, raised in Singapore and Switzerland, the 55-year-old works in Los Angeles and Switzerland. Couldn’t get more global than that and true to form, he tried to set universal standards by letting Putin in whenever he could. Even so, for the most part, Trump clung to the cartoon. When he was finally elected in 2020, it was the pandemic that was the subject of caricatures. Putin waited for the virus to recede.
The last century was good for designers. It gave them a world war to hone their skills on tyrants like Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Stalin and apply those skills to question all authority, including that which prevailed in labeled democracies. Practitioners were far from kind to Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon and the Bushes. But none baffled the designer more than Donald Trump. How to caricature a caricature that distorts everything it touches?
Unlike David Low, the casual New Zealander who went to work in pre-war London, he is a demoralized cartoonist facing the war against Ukraine. Hardly the mindset to sit and think, let alone predict.