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A Bully Interview with Rick Marschall

Dec 16, 2011

We here at the TR Center were lucky enough to welcome Rick Marschall to our annual Symposium where Marschall created a fascinating exhibit of cartoons for one of the events. I recently was able to interview him about his love of cartoons, what some of his favorites are in his new book, Bully! The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, and why Theodore Roosevelt and cartoons were a perfect storm.

“I was infected early and I don’t know why,” Marschall declared when asked how his interest in cartoons began. He spoke about a book of old political cartoons his father had and, since he already liked to draw, the book led him to an interest in collecting vintage cartoons. “There is something magical and mysterious about other times,” Marschall noted. He also commented that  he started collecting at the perfect time. He could save up the money from his paper route and purchase entire years of Puck magazine at $25 a year. (For comparison, Marschall said if you can find a run on eBay today, it will be in the ballpark of $800.) The owner of what the Smithsonian has called the largest private collection of cartoons and comic book memorabilia has no regrets about that investment as he looks around his office. “They’re my best friends.”

Bully! The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, Marschall’s new book, tells the story of our 26th president largely through the over 250 vintage political cartoons in its pages. What was it about Roosevelt’s era that lent itself to the political cartoon so well? Marschall called it a “perfect storm,” an unparalleled era of journalism and a colorful personality in the White House who openly courted the attention of the press.

Newspaper photography was not mature yet in Roosevelt’s time, and there were no news reels. Entire national magazines such as Puck and Judge, published in full color, filled their pages with political cartoons and satire. The cartoons though were not meant to amuse, or hardly to amuse, as Marschall clarified. They were meant to inform, incite, encourage and persuade their readers to the cartoonist’s, and by extension, the newspaper’s, point of view. “It is easy to be casual about cartoons,” Marshall observed, “but they are more sophisticated than political editorials or essays.” They have the same goals as those sorts of documents, but a cartoonist also has to have the talent of art and the knack for being able to convey a lot with pictures and captions. These were complex pieces of political commentary; not the Sunday funnies. 

You add the popular and vivacious character of Roosevelt to that formula and magic seemed to happen, Marschall posited. The cartoons depicted TR in a way that text and even photographs could not. The cartoonists of the era were able to truly capture Roosevelt through their work, and even today these cartoons offer unique insights to help us  understand the man.

Ask Rick Marschall what his favorite cartoons are in Bully! and he hesitates for a moment before saying, “That’s a little like asking what’s my favorite child when they’re all in the room.” Marschall looked through over 20,000 possibilities before choosing the 250+ cartoons featured in the book. When pressed, though, Marschall named these few :

  • “The Tattooed Man,” a cartoon from the 1884 presidential election, because it is from the very start of Roosevelt’s political career and he was featured alongside so many prominent and long-standing members of the Republican Party (pages 58-59).
  • “Sculptor Strong’s Gift to the Metropolis,” which doesn’t even have Roosevelt in it…except for his feet. Drawn by an anti-Roosevelt cartoonist for a Democratic paper, Marschall likes this image because it gives Roosevelt props for his work as Police Commissioner (page 104).
  • The only photograph in the book, the cover of Leslie’s Magazine following the 1916 election. The magazine was published before the election results were known, and the cover depicts a photograph of Roosevelt’s head bursting out of the page (page 370). - the point being that whether he was an elected official or not, Roosevelt was the face of national politics.
  • Lastly, a more somber cartoon, published just three weeks before Roosevelt’s death. It depicts the former president and one of his good friends, Leonard Wood, talking with a caption, “Well, he kept us out of the war.” Wilson had kept both men state-side during World War I, and the cartoon plays on Wilson’s 1916 campaign slogan. This is a more obscure cartoon, Marschall admits, but it works on many levels (page 381).

I’d like to thank Rick Marschall for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with me about his cartoons and his interest in Roosevelt. I urge you to check out his new book, Bully! The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, and take a closer look at Roosevelt in political cartoons.

Posted by Krystal Thomas on Dec 16, 2011 in Current Events  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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