World War 2 Editorial Cartoon Project


Collecting original illustration art that has been published is a rewarding target. The art is truly one of a kind, and because it has generally been published is a low resolution form, actually forging an original is functionally impossible. A scanned and edited version is too perfect, and the randomness of ink lines means that reproducing even a fraction of a percent of them would be impossible, even if you were looking at the high resolution art. The originals are fixed, annotated, on old paper, have production stickers and notes, and so on. Everyone knows the published piece from its appearance on newsprint, so faking something is out of the question, too. It took a long time for illustration and comic book and comic strip art to be recognized for its unique character instead of being considered low brow.

As of 2022, editorial art has not quite caught up, but it has the same qualities. Newspapers are not as widely distributed as comic books, so familiarity with the published work is less common. But the inability to forge and fake certainly is. I personally like editorial art because it always speaks directly to the moment of its creation and not in retrospect.

With this site, I would like to reconstruct some of the historical highlights of World War II through a collection of editorial illustrations (hard to call them cartoons, actually), and filling in what I can about the backstories. When they are dated, it is generally quite easy to dig out the contexts. When they are not dated, I need to do a little detective work and inference building to figure the most likely referents. One thing about editorial art is that it is timely. So when you find the event being referenced, you can be pretty sure the art appeared within a day or so and not even a week later.

Of all the pieces I own, the one shown below is the most intriguing and elusive. 

“I Cover the Horror Front” (ca. July 1944?)
by Bruce Russell (1903-1963)
14 x 20 in., ink and wash on posterboard

I would love to get a real date on this one and find its publication. No luck on that yet. 

Bruce Russell was a longtime cartoonist for the LA Times. He began at the Times in the early 1930s, starting off with sports cartoons, but in 1934 he became the newspaper’s lead political cartoonist, and held that post until his death in 1963. Russell won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1946, for his cartoon titled “Time to Bridge that Gulch.”

But Russell’s most powerful works were his WWII cartoons. He had a biting edge to his work, unafraid to tackle difficult subjects. Case in point: this drawing.

You can see that Russell titled the piece, “I Cover the Horror Front”, which is a take on a 1933 song, “I Cover the Waterfront” (more about that in a moment).

Holocaust era cartoons are relatively uncommon, and this is among the most powerful ones that I’ve seen.

Syracuse University holds an archive of Russell’s work, as does UCLA. I’ll learn more, one day. There is also a book (2015: “Cartoonists against the Holocaust” by Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe) that lists Russell and a few works, but nothing about this one.

There are three clues in the image, I think. (1) it was drawn while the war was still on because the Nazis were still flying the flag, (2) a sense of the actual make-up of the camps was known because of the smokestack, so first-hand reports were available, and (3) the title, if in reference to that song, would likely be a contemporary reference.

In June 1944, detailed reports (Vrba–Wetzler Report), as written by escapees, were being circulated. The Swiss-Hungarian Students’ League made around 50 mimeographed copies of the Vrba–Wetzler and other Auschwitz reports, which by June 23 had been distributed to the Swiss government and Jewish groups. The students went on to make thousands of other copies, which were passed to other students and the newspapers. As a result of the Swiss press coverage, details appeared in the New York Times on June 4, the BBC World Service on June 15, and the New York Times again on June 20, which carried a 22-line story that 7,000 Jews had been “dragged to gas chambers in the notorious German concentration camps at Birkenau and Auschwitz.”

On July 24, 1944, the Majdanek Concentration Camp became the first concentration camp to be liberated by Soviet troops (and the first to be liberated overall). On Aug 21,1944 Time Magazine published a story titled POLAND: Vernichtungslager:

Last week the Russian press published the first eye-witness description of a Nazi extermination camp. Wrote Soviet War Correspondent Roman Karmen: “In the course of all my travels into liberated territory I have never seen a more abominable sight than Maiden, near Lublin, Hitler’s notorious Vernichtungslager [extermination camp] where more than half a million European men, women and children were massacred. . . . This was not a concentration camp; it was a gigantic murder plant. Save for 1,000 living corpses the Red Army found when it entered, no inmate escaped alive.”

News about the Holocaust was out there. If American newspapers published relatively little about the ongoing Holocaust, it was in part because there was little hard news about it to present — only secondhand and third-hand reports of problematic authenticity. And for senior news editors the experience of having been bamboozled by propaganda during the First World War was not something they had read about in history books; they had themselves been made to appear foolish by gullibly swallowing fake atrocity stories, and they weren’t going to let it happen again.

Throughout the war few Americans were aware of the scale of the European Jewish catastrophe. But by late 1944, three quarters of the American population believed that the Germans had “murdered many people in concentration camps,” but of those willing to estimate how many had been killed, most thought it was 100,000 or fewer. By May 1945, at the end of the war in Europe, most people guessed that about a million (including, it should be noted, both Jews and non-Jews) had been killed in the camps.

The song “I Cover the Waterfront” was inspired by Max Miller’s 1932 best-selling novel of the same name. The book was adapted into a 1933 movie (starring Claudette Colbert). The song had become so instantly popular that the movie was re-scored to include it. Lots of jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong, covered the song. Dating from 1913, the phrase “to cover the waterfront” was a common idiom in the 1930s, meaning “to be thorough and comprehensive in what is presented or dealt with.”

At the height of her popularity, Billie Holiday recorded the song and helped to re-popularize it. She recorded it for the Columbia label on August 7, 1941, and then again, multiple times, on March 25, 1944, by which time it was played frequently during her shows.

The drawing has all the hallmarks of a published piece, including the fact that Russell gifted it to someone who had likely seen it in print. 

I am proud to own this incredible piece of history and use it here to cover the collection and commemorate the memory of the lost lives, terror, torture, and broken families wrought by the Nazi regime and its leader.