Winsor McCay’s “His Best Customer”
Winsor McCay’s “His Best Customer”

History is a vast reservoir of dead facts and live arguments—a series of rhetorical bludgeons designed to beat the present into submission.

You can see the truth of this in Craig Yoe’s anthology The Great Anti-War Cartoons. Yoe isn’t shy about his agenda here: the book’s introduction is by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and, in a foreword, Yoe himself urges readers to commit to peace “no matter what your age, your country, your status, your religious or political background.”

It’s hard to argue with him. War sucks, and Yoe has selected a wide range of cartoons that make the point with elegance and grim wit. Winsor McCay’s 1917 drawing of war as a butcher, with long rows of corpses behind the counter, receding in perfect perspective; Oscar Cesare’s 1916 “The Man With the Sword,” where dead bodies blur into a beautiful, agonizing heap of scribbled crayon lines; Tomi Ungerer’s acerbically direct line drawing of the world as a naked woman with a missile about to be rammed up an orifice—in terms of craft, vision, and passion, political cartoons simply don’t get much better.

And yet The Great Anti-War Cartoons as a whole isn’t all that convincing. In fact, it’s irritating. Part of the problem is Yoe’s decision to arrange the book thematically, so that, for instance, all the cartoons showing the globe are placed next to one another. Here the world is dripping with blood, here it’s threatened with bayonets, and there it’s reduced to a cinder. Even the best cartoonists have a limited symbolic repertoire; highlighting their deficiency this way seems kind of cruel. Nor does it help that Yoe includes an aphoristic sentence or two at the beginning of each section. “‘Suppose they gave a war and nobody came’ was an intriguing question posed by peaceniks during the Vietnam War.” No shit? That’s deep, man.

Yoe explains that he chose the cartoons with a view to promoting pacifism, rejecting those that dealt too specifically with individual conflicts and instead selecting “drawings that strike a universal chord.” But universal chords don’t allow for much variation. No matter how well played, they get kind of monotonous over the course of an entire book. Say “war is bad” once and I’ll agree with you. Say it 190 times and my commitment to nonviolence may start to waver.

I’m enough of a knee-jerk pacifist to entertain the suggestion that even the Union’s decision to fight the Confederacy and U.S. participation in World War II did more harm than good. But those are arguments you actually have to make. Lots of smart folks from Obama on down think you sometimes have to fight wars to maintain peace. You can’t just show me a picture of a skull or a fat industrialist and expect me to agree that we shouldn’t have blocked secession or stopped Hitler. Indeed, Yoe admits that many of the cartoonists represented in the book weren’t pacifists, but opposed particular wars at particular times (or, in the case of the many Communists represented, opposed all war except class war). By throwing all the artists together under the label “anti-war” without describing the particular issues that engaged them—by making their message universal—he’s made them irrelevant.

Canadian Web cartoonist Kate Beaton doesn’t do universal. The title of her debut print collection is Never Learn Anything From History, and, sure enough, there’s not much didacticism in it. Instead, there are tidbits, anecdotes, anachronisms, and rampant silliness. England’s George IV finds he’s too fat to be king. Napoleon eats burnt sticks. On vacation with the Shelleys, Lord Byron boasts, “Try and find a place here that I haven’t put my penis in!” All of this is delineated in loose, dashed-off fashion with minimal shading and less effort at consistency. A single character’s body will stretch and contract with carefree abandon from panel to panel as Beaton blithely disregards anatomical as well as historical accuracy.

But she works with great precision where it counts. Characters’ expressions, for example, are reliably stellar. You’ll never see a more skeptical mouth than the sideways, flattened s on the face of Nietzsche’s landlady. And you’ll never see a more personable mustache than that of Nietzsche himself. It fans out in luxuriously self-satisfied bristles in one frame, then collects in tight, expectant curves in the next. Similarly, Beaton’s exuberant, offhand narratives belie the care she takes with words. In one cartoon, rampaging Norsemen enthuse like Valley Girls over their plunder (“Did you even see the communion chalice that I found?” “Omigod omigod omigod!”), while elsewhere formal phrasing is used to describe the patently ridiculous (“Sir, if I may, it looks like someone has thrown a pair of bloomers into the machine.”).

Despite her light touch—or because of it—Beaton manages to be a good bit more thoughtful than Yoe and his gallery of solemn skulls. By attending to specifics, she creates an alternative to the history-based harangue: a dialogue between past and present. In Beaton’s world a tea-drinking Genghis Khan can take a moment to reassure a frightened, modern-day American. “Why, I’m a liberator! A unifier of warring kingdoms! Not unlike your own George Washington,” he tells the bespectacled civilian. The two clap shoulders and smile. . . . Then Genghis, looking a mite uncomfortable, admits, “We still kill all our enemies though. I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty brutal.”

Our own George Washington killed some enemies, too. Not as many as Genghis, of course—but just how many are too many to kill in the name of liberty? Like most worthwhile moral questions, that one doesn’t have an easy answer.