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Robert Osborn's Explosive Icon

A few months after the end of World War II former US Navy Lieutenant Robert Osborn, an expressive and satiric artist whose assignment was drawing witty cartoons for training and safety books and brochures,* published a cautionary manual of a different kind. Rather than teach sailors and pilots survival techniques under battle conditions, his book War is No Damn Good sought to metaphorically save lives by condemning all armed conflict and especially the nuclear kind.

While serving his country in the South Pacific Osborn had seen many horrors and supported the ends. But after viewing photographs from Hiroshima and its atomic aftermath he realized the means were not beyond reproach and as an artist he could not squelch his indignation. Thus emerged the first protest icon of the nuclear age. His drawing of a smirking skull face imposed on a mushroom cloud transformed this atomic marvel into a symbol of death. Although it was a simple graphic statement, it was the most poignant of the precious few anti-nuclear images produced after World War II.

This was the most startling but only one of countless icons, images, and graphic commentaries that Osborn created over his lifetime. He was an artist of conscience, man of conviction, and antecedent of the great cartoonists and commentators who attacked injustice and lampooned folly. He was the American Daumier. He reported on the comedie humaine and was critical of affairs of state that were not very comic. His expressive pen and brush line was known to anyone who read The New Republic, Life Magazine, and The New York Times, or his satiric books On Leisure and Paranoia, and the autobiographical Osborn on Osborn. His work defined the social satiric milieu of his era because he stripped bare the pretense of hypocrites and fools, of which there where many. His favorite portraits, for example, of President Richard Nixon brilliantly captured the inner scoundrel with just a few caustic yet descriptive brushstrokes. He was rarely charitable to his victims, yet these drawings were gifts to the rest of us.

And speaking of gifts, Osborn was a consummate artist even in his personal correspondence. Friend and foe, relative and acquaintance – one and all – received what must be thousands of hand scrawled letters and cards. Rarely did he type, print, or conventionally compose a missive but rather rendered his carefully chosen, sometimes angry but usually warm, funny, and friendly words (and a few comic images too) so large as to be designed for a billboard. With unmitigated flourish and drama his sentences formed rhythmic patterns of expression intended to speak loudly and eloquently to the receiver. Like his cartoons and drawings these letters let off steam when he wrote about his betes noir at home and abroad, but they also conveyed simple birthday, holiday, and seasonal greetings, too. One always knew a gift was coming because the names on the envelope were writ huge to be seen yards away.

[*”Aye, Aye, Sir!” (Coward-McCann, Inc., 1943) is a comic account of enlistment in the U. S. Navy at the peak of the war with Japan. It chronicles the average recruit from signing the papers to basic training to becoming a sailor.]

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