Rick Marschall and Warren Bernard’s “Drawing Power” is a provocative visual examination of the wonderful world of cartoon advertising. Popular comic strip characters such as Mickey Mouse,Little Nemo and Krazy Kat sold everything from cookies to tobacco. Lavishly and lovingly drawn by talented cartoonists, these ads had a tremendous effect on the financial viability of many products.
Marschall, a former political cartoonist, observes that comic strips and cartoons made the truth “accessible” and that when “lies are told, cartoon ads make the lies seem irrelevant.” Moreover, Marschall notes, “at all times, they have made [selling] fun.”
People took notice when R.F. Outcault’s hugely popular character the Yellow Kid promoted High Admiral Cigarettes and his other popular creation, Buster Brown, peddled shoes. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck donned military uniforms for Sunoco Oil. Cartoon versions of baseball heroes such as Dizzy Dean, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg were in breakfast cereal ads. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola evidently had a good friend in cartoonist Fontaine Fox and his comic strip, “Toonerville Folks.”
From an artistic point of view, the most impressive cartoon ads occurred during the 1910s and ’20s. Cartoonists such as Winsor McCay “snapped to attention and supported America’s intervention in the Great War,” producing brilliant portraits of heroic infantrymen. Sheet music covers incorporated beloved comic strips such as George McManus’s “Bringing Up Father.” Bud Fisher’s “Mutt and Jeff” landed on posters up and down the winding American landscape.
Marschall and Bernard have mixed an unusual batch of artistic and economic history. After reading this book, you’ll never look at comic strips and capitalism the same way again.
Taube is a Toronto-based columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
A Compendium of Cartoon Advertising 1870s-1940s
Edited by Rick Marschall and Warren Bernard
Fantagraphics. 114 pp.