The Banality of Villainy: Syd Hoff Eats the Rich

Caricature, when done well, is the art of clarification through exaggeration. Which is not the same thing as simplification. The best caricaturists exaggerate, enhance, underscore and highlight some physical or character attributes that express a deeper insight about its subject. Thomas Nast’s iconic Boss Tweed was not just obese with graft. He was gelatinous, overwhelmed and almost inert from his own power and greed. It was a portentous portrait. It argued visually the seeds of Tweed’s own destruction, an appetite for power that was overcoming his own control and better judgment. It did what caricature does best by attaching ideas and arguments to figures in ways that reach beyond simple journalistic proof or language. And because political and social caricature almost always personifies issues, it tends to explain social problems as aspects of human imperfection.

These aspects of caricature come to mind when poring through the baldly didactic satires by Syd Hoff in New York Review Books’ new reprint of his “The Ruling Clawss” cartoons he drew for the Communist Party USA Daily Worker newspaper between 1933 and 1935. 

Most famous for his 1958 children’s tale Danny and the Dinosaur, hundreds of New Yorker cartoons as well as the comic strips Tuffy (1939-1949) and Laugh It Off (1958-1978), Syd Hoff (1912-2004) had an underground career in the 1930s. Using the pseudonym A. Redfield, he drew satires of American institutions and especially the wealthy in the pages of leftist pubs like The New Masses and the Worker.

At first glance, any one of Redfield/Hoff’s single-panel jabs at the rich seem like boilerplate leftist didacticism. Corpulent members of the ruling class blithely break strikes, fire thousands at a time and routinely pull the strings of the politicians, police and courts for which they bought and paid. “…and in times like these we must all make sacrifices, gentlemen” a preening capitalist tells a cigar-chomping corporate board. “Let’s lay off 1,200 more.” As a bejeweled woman enter their limo, she explains to her top-hatted hubby, “We must go over and feel sorry for Mrs. Syderham. Her husband just lost a strike.” A leering industrialist woos his paramour by whispering a nefarious sweet nothing into her ear: “Ah, darling, without your inspiration, I could never have developed my poison gases.” A puffy potentate whines to a colleague, “What a nightmare last night! I dreamed I gave everybody a raise.”

In the context of 1930s America, these familiar tropes against the rich were hardly radical. For the first time since the late Gilded Age of the 1890s, American capitalism seemed to many a failed proposition, both morally and economically. The financier-driven stock market crash of 1929 had initiated widespread, profound hardship. At the height of the Great Depression in 1933, a quarter of Americans were unemployed, with many other underemployed and underpaid. The wealthy class’s resistance to FDR’s New Deal correctives for creating social safety nets and supporting organized labor, made them easy targets for satire across popular culture. And in political culture, the 1930s experienced a flowering of thought across the leftist spectrum. Celebrations of Joseph Stalin’s Communist workers’ society in the Soviet Union were common, as were Communist Party candidates in US local elections. And  after 1935, the CPUSA tried to align itself with more widespread socialist sentiments in the country by supporting New Deal policies and recasting its anti-fascist aspects as part of a patriotic Popular Front that was less ideologically rigid.

This explosion in radical and anti-capitalist sentiment during the 1930s would come back to bite many Americans during the post-WWII red scare. The legendary anti-Communist backlash after the war was rabid and unforgiving. Like many in the entertainment industries, Hoff himself was questioned by the FBI about his 1930s CPA associations. As an increasingly popular cartoonist in mainstream newspapers, magazines and childrens’ literature, he remained reserved and coy about discussing his own ideological roots. 

In the face of the Depression, Hoff aligned with many leftist groups and causes like the John Reed Society and CPAUSA retreats. As his mainstream cartooning and commercial art career took off in the 1930s he took to the A. Redfield pseudonym for his more activist work for the radical pubs. But even in his work as Syd Hoff in magazines like The New Yorker, he retained his working class sympathies by focusing on the lives of laborers. Hoff appears to have been a true believer. In an A. Redfield essay on “Social Satire” that is reprinted in this NYRB book, he contends that  “society is mainly divided into two classes, an oppressed class and a class of oppressors.” The bourgeoisie is “the class in society which consciously prepares new onslaughts on the oppressed.” In fact, much of the essay lambastes some of the very magazines and newspapers that employed him, for trading in a kind of satire that humanizes the oppressor class through gentle humor rather than undermining them with hard truths. From Peter Arno to Moon Mullins, Jiggs to The Little King, he sees satirists who “use only their lips, but not their teeth.” He concludes, “their comedy is all too often a whitewash for people and conditions that, in reality, are not funny.”

This view seems to both raise and lower the bar in evaluating Redfield/Hoff’s own work then. Ironically for a cartoonist, he seems to eschew humor as his aim. Indeed, his Daily Worker cartoons seem to suffer the classic humorlessness of the ideologue. They’re really not funny. At the same time he sets a high standard for judging whether and how his own caricatures of the rich genuinely bite. At the very least, it is safe to say The Ruling Clawss cartoons are less humorous than pointed. Hoff does not “whitewash” his upper class. But he doesn’t turn them into horned villains either. The richness of the satire only becomes apparent cumulatively, as Hoff reiterates a series of anti-rich tropes.

Hoff is at his best depicting the casual ease with which his ruling class metes out fates to teems of faceless workers from whom it is isolated. On a resort beach, two wealthy wives eye the passing, portly moneybags and say, “Poor Rodney’s vacation is ruined – his 25,000 coal miners want living conditions.” “Isn’t the machine age marvelous, Honey?” Mumsy tells her baby, “All papa does is talk into the dictaphone and presto-a hundred men are laid off.” The physical dissonance between capital and labor are visualized at every turn: couples whispering about the laziness of the unemployed as they pass beggars; mansion-dwellers bemoaning the meager grandeur of the vaults of opulence they inhabit; executives being tired from doing nothing but looking down upon hard workers. The sheer idleness of this class in relation to the workers on whom their wealth relies is one of Hoff ‘s signature moves.

Hoff even has a sort of masculine disdain for what appears to be a wimpy, pampered and flaccid owner class. The elder rich are seen almost to a person as overfed and inert, except for their kids, who are generally wispy and entitled. If one son fails out of one more school his punishment will be running one of dad’s factories. A flighty daughter is waiting for Papa to put down a Cuban uprising so she can tour there and write poetry. Inherited wealth is seen making the next generation even more removed than the last from labor, responsibility and self-respect. Hoff had a bit of a fixation on rich wives, their proud laziness, their disdain for underlings, their role as uncritical parrots of their executive husbands’ views.

And the wives appear to be just one part of Hoff’s larger argument about the political pathology of capitalism – the complicity of every institution in maintaining the power of a ruling class. Judges, police, property inspectors, even the clergy do their bidding. Hoff is at his most insightful when he depicts these institutional enablers seeming unsure themselves of what they are doing. “Well, we got thirty-five guys booked for criminal syndicalism, but I still don’t know what hell it means,” one jailer tells another. In one of my favorites from the collection, a beat cop is calling into the station as an activist hands out leaflets nearby: “It says, ‘Unite Against Imperialist War and Fascism’. Sarge – should I run him in or do we agree with him?”

This is didactic cartooning at its best. Hoff imagines scenarios of cognitive dissonance, where the institutional puppets become vaguely aware they are being used. He dramatizes systems of graft and collusion among judges, cops and politicians that matter-of-fact, unapologetic, even banal. 

And this is where The ruling Clawss ultimately gets its cumulative power to characterize the rich, not just reduce them to the simplest icons. The wealthy folk in Hoff’s strips never appear villainous so much as bland perpetrators of acts with villainous consequences. He is trying to stoke his audience’s class resentment by characterizing a ruling “clawss” that is blithe and disconnected, self-pitying and self-congratulatory, in a bubble of their own carefully tended reality. Obviously there are satires of privilege here that could and should resonate today.

Historic comic strip aficionados have been enjoying an embarrassment of riches in recent years…ironically. As the medium’s host, the dinosaur newspaper, limps towards the tar pit, a last powerful nostalgic gasp of reprints now seems to have covered most of the great syndicated strip work. Still missing, however, are comprehensive comics collections from periodicals that served smaller or more marginalized communities. Along with their reprint of Bungleton Green from the Black newspapers of the 1940s, NYRB is among a small group of publishers that are starting to fill in those gaps. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s