The Daily Heller: The Poor Get Poor and the Rich Get Ugly

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Syd Hoff (1912–2004) was among a hybrid group of authors/comic artists/humorists; a New Yorker gag cartoonist who created the children’s book characters Danny the Dinosaur, Sammy the Seal and Grizwald, an urbanized bear (see the exhibit here). Hoff sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker at age 18 and was a regular contributor throughout his life. His pieces were eventually published in a dozen collections.

While working for mainstream clients, he also frequently contributed political gags to the 1930s radical left-leaning periodicals, including The New Masses (art directed by fellow New Yorker cartoonist Mischa Richter) and the Daily Worker, the communist newspaper that was a scourge of the rich and powerful. For his partisan wit he used the nom de crayon A. Redfield (perhaps a sly reference to his shade of party affiliation). In those critical times it was better to keep his bread and butter jobs separate from his more charged political passions, lest a government agent take umbrage.

Among my favorite cartoon collections of that era (and there are many), Hoff/Redfield’s 1935 The Ruling Clawss is a witty portrait of the upper crust and the cops that do their bidding. Originally published in the Daily Worker, the acerbic barbs aimed at the indecently wealthy might best be described as Peter Arno (another master at pointing out folly) on steroids. Hoff skillfully captures the Depression-era moguls in artfully nuanced slapstick comedy. His images are a history of those times.

I still eagerly paw through my fragile original copy, although it had years ago become frayed and tattered. Which is why I’m pleased to report that New York Review Comics has published a new affordable paperback of The Ruling Clawss. There is a certain nostalgia in looking through the gags of American nobility, especially compared to the current grade of smarmy oligarchs, but it also is a bit of unwanted deja vu. The haves and have nots still have and have not, except the ration is much, much, much more lopsided today.