Hell and Back
Art Young’s Inferno is, unlike Dante‘s before it, not an indictment of sinners per se (hey, we’re all sinners) but the plutocrats and Wall Street criminals that have repeatedly exploited the citizenry through legal legislation with extralegal loopholes. Fantagraphics has just published a superb new edition of this 1934 classic—the “Original Art Edition,” with reproductions of Young’s original satiric drawings and notes. Comics historian Glenn Bray wrote the foreword and I contributed the introduction to this timely volume. Below is an excerpt.
Art Young’s brilliance as a cartoonist, satirist and commentator is that he was always on the money; specifically on the well-heeled heels of those profit-mongering robber barons who amassed billions in wealth on the backs of labor. His most famous depiction of corporate excess and greed, titled “Capitalism” (published in 1911 in Life, then a humor magazine), portrays an obese bald oligarch, gluttonously glugging from a drum-sized terrine, leaning back on a chair poised to topple off a cliff to the bottomless pit below. If one were to alter some physical characteristics to make him more contemporary looking, you’ve got the perfect visual indictment of today’s Wall Street and Washingtonian plutocrat.
A lifelong provocateur, Young was of his time, ahead of his time, and timeless in terms of conceptual acuity and pictorial savvy. Nothing proves this better than Art Young’s Inferno. … Originally published in 1934, Young was influenced by Gustave Dore’s exquisite 1861 engravings for Dante’s Inferno. There have been several artist interpretations of the Divine Comedy in recent years, Gary Panter’s Jimbo’s Inferno (2006) and Seymour Chwast’s adaptation (2010) among my favorites, however, nothing has come close to Young’s roast of free market capitalism and the venal capitalists, monopolists and lobbyists that keep the fires stoked. In the role of Virgil, Young treats the viewer to hell as it had never been imagined but nonetheless exist(ed) to a large degree behind the facades of the towering office buildings and boardrooms then and now.
This was Young’s final visit into Satan’s den before he died in 1943 (and I’m almost certain was arisen to cartoonist heaven). He made two iterations before this. His first, in 1892, Hell Up To Date: The Reckless Journey of R. Palasco Drant, Newspaper Correspondent, Through the Infernal Regions, As Reported by Himself, does not so much hit the hotspots of capitalism as it uncovers the secrets of the mythical underworld and what it takes to become a resident. The second, the 1901 Through Hell With Hiprah Hunt, was a reprise rendered in a less fussy, more mature line. Drant was replaced by the bible-thumping preacher Hunt—Presbyterian through and through. The savagely funny imagery is a direct precursor of the 1960s underground comix.