The Realist was a magazine both representative and counter to the times it existed in. Viciously satirical and usually aimed at power (like all good satire should be), it was neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat or Republican, communist, fascist or anything else in between. Its targets were religion, government, corporate America, popular and counter cultures, racism and imperialism. Very little was spared its pointed and often poison pen. The magazine lasted over forty years, from 1958 to 2001 and published a total of 146 issues. When it first appeared, it was unique. Indeed, the only other publication that comes to mind that was even attempting to present something akin to The Realist’s editorial approach back then was Mad Magazine, and its intended audience was adolescents. By the time The Realist was put to bed, its iconoclastic take on the world had been replicated multiple times. However, none of those who followed in its footsteps could ever claim to be as original or as simultaneously respected and despised. The magazine’s founder, Paul Krassner, remains the epitome of what his journal was about.
A typical issue of The Realist included serious investigative reportage (The Awful Truth about Scientology), satirical pieces regarding current news events (The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book), perhaps a personal essay from editor Paul Krassner or a contributor (My Acid Trip with Groucho Marx), and cartoons. Lots of cartoons. It is the latter that this review is about. Recently, Fantagraphics Books published collection of hundreds of the cartoons in a beautifully rendered deluxe edition. The collection includes selections spanning the magazine’s existence. Mostly drawn in black and white, the majority of the cartoons are single panels commenting on one of the aforementioned topics. Sometimes offensive, sometimes merely whimsical, and at other times just plain funny, the cartoons are very representative of The Realist itself.
Not everyone will find all of these cartoons funny. Some might even peruse the entire book and barely crack a smile. Others will find at least a few of the comics offensive. Hell, I cringe at a few of them myself. Need I remind the reader that this is what satire can do? The point isn’t to offend, but to force the reader to think; indeed, to rub the reader’s nose in the offensive nature of the culture and society they exist in. It is a culture and society whose norms include war, racism, prejudice, greed, poverty. The fact that satirists and cartoonists find it necessary to offend their readers is directly related to those norms we have learned to accept and ignore, usually at the same time. I would argue the more offensive the reality a society accepts as normal; the more offensive that society will find the works of those who satirize it. Politically, most of the work in this collection could be categorized as left libertarian; it is critical of economic inequality and in favor of social and sexual liberation. That being said, the cartoons reflect the changing attitudes of its forty years of existence, especially as regards women and race. In another indication of the changing attitudes—this time on Israel and Palestine—there are also a few panels that at best reflect a 1968 version of the West’s view of Israel and the Arab people and at worst are racist and just plain Zionist in its uglier form.
Numerous cartoonists are included in the collection. One will find multiple renditions from artists like Richard Guindon and Mort Gerberg. Numerous other cartoonists were published in the magazine, too. These included artists whose underground comix are now considered classics of the genre: R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Dan O’Neill, Jay Kinney and Skip Williamson, to name a few; this particular text does include works from Wilson, O’Neill, and Williamson. Art Spiegelman, the artist who authored the two-volume graphic Holocaust novel Maus, also has some cartoons in this volume. A wraparound cover by Jay Lynch provides an entertaining and colorful addition to the book.
The Realist Cartoons is many things at once. It is a collection of works by some of the later twentieth century’s most adventuresome and innovative cartoonists. It is also a graphic history of those years told from a perspective best defined as countercultural. By telling an alternative history, the reader is also presented with the objective history of the times and events. At the same time, The Realist Cartoons serves as an introduction to the radical, occasionally angry, always humorous and iconoclastic magazine called The Realist. If William Burroughs, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor could draw, this would be a book where their work would be right at home.
(By the way, one can access the Realist online archives here.)