Screwball Sunday: Frederick Opper Tears Down the Presidential Candidate, Screwball Style

“Puck’s Life of Garfield”by Frederick Opper (Puck, September 8, 1880)

Politics can certainly be pretty screwball. In fact, one of the primary antecedents to screwball comics is the political cartoon. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the comics Frederick Opper created for the Puck weekly.

In today’s Screwball Sunday comic, I’ve selected a wonderful one-page satire from Puck’s pages by Opper in which he skewers the 1880 Republican candidate for President, James Garfield. Puck’s politics almost invariably aligned with those of the Democratic Party, so much so that the equally great cartoon magazine Judge, home of Zim, was founded to present the Republican point of view. So it’s not surprising Puck took aim at the Republican candidate, although in the long run, he wasn’t all bad.

It is eye-opening to see how Americans who lived 140 years ago worried about the character, corruptibility, and capability of a presidential candidate in much the same way as Americans do today. But most of all, it’s funny and entertaining to see how well Opper mercilessly derides Garfield.

Presenting a lampoon of the ever-popular, plaudit-strewn candidate biography, Opper’s “Puck’s Life of Garfield” begins with the candidate as a baby, greedily enjoying his milk with a “Mobile-leer.” This references the Crédit Mobilier scandal, in which Garfield and other politicians accepted bribes in return for support of laws that allowed the companies building the transcontinental railroad to criminally price-gouge.

Opper goes on to portray Garfield in exaggerated fashion as a kid who hanged cats, played hooky from school, and was too ignorant to be able to read a “danger” sign on thin ice. The drawings are quite funny and filled with the type of manic energy that would soon develop into the screwball style.

As an adult, Garfield appears to be a rather cowardly and self- serving soldier and a fanatical preacher who delivers disagreeable sermons. At the end, the cartoon wonders how much religion the preacher candidate might impose on the state should he win the election.

Of particular interest to cartoon fans is the fifth picture in which Opper draws a mule pulling a barge on a canal towpath. The mule has as much personality as any of the human figures on the page, foreshadowing the Maud the Mule newspaper comic strips he would create about two decades later.

This comic originally appeared on the back cover of Puck’s September 8, 1880 issue. Primarily a black-and-white publication, Puck offered color lithograph cartoons on the front and back covers as well as a spectacular two-page centerspread. The color cartoons had to be drawn with grease crayons on large stone blocks by the cartoonists. All lettering was done as a mirror image.

As Opper came into his own on the magazine staff, he was given the back cover to more or less do as he wished. Starting out as a second-banana political cartoonist, Opper found his true calling as a humorist in the non-political filler cartoons he also created for Puck. On occasion, he mixed the two forms, blending humor and editorial cartoons, as in today’s example.

Two months after Opper’s lampoon appeared, Garfield won the election and became the 20th president of the United States. About six months into his presidency, Garfield was assassinated (the grim details of the assassination are vividly depicted in Rick Geary’s fascinating 2008 graphic novel, The Fatal Bullet). In the White House, Garfield fought for civil rights for black Americans and successfully launched civil service reform. Perhaps his greatest legacy is simply the fact that numerous American towns have a street or a school named after Garfield.

By an odd twist Opper would go on to launch a more elaborate and popular cartoon attack of another president, William McKinley, who was also felled by an assassin in 1901. Opper’s Little Willie cartoons, published (and partially co-authored) by William Randolph Hearst made him nationally famous, and then equally hated in some quarters for a time as public sympathies shifted.  

Undeterred, Opper continued to work adeptly in both political cartoons and humor comics until his retirement in 1932, just one of the many reasons he is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest of those who made cartooning their life’s work. You can read more about Opper’s Little Willie scandal—as well as learn more about Opper, Zim, Puck, and Judge—in the first two chapters of the Library of American Comics’s Eisner-nominated book, Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny.

See also LOAC’s What Fools These Mortals Be: The Story of Puck by Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West. The color lithograph cartoons are extraordinary visual treats.

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