Cartoon by Joseph Keppler, about the election in 1888
Cartoon from 31 March 1886. It depicts the Republican Party after their defeat in the 1884 presidential elections rebuilding their party symbol, the elephant, by stuffing it with "bloody shirts". This is a reference to their rally cry "to wave the bloody shirt", which reminded their voters of the effects of the American Civil War. 

Joseph Keppler was a 19th-century Austrian-American illustrator, caricaturist, cartoonist and actor. He published his first cartoons in Austria, but eventually moved to the United States. There he made numerous political cartoons, some of which follow a sequential narrative which make them an example of early comic strips. Keppler's most important contribution to comic history was the establishment of the satirical magazine Puck (1871-1916). In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Puck was one of the leading American illustrated magazines, alongside Judge. It not only offered room to many early cartoonists, but also popularized comics and cartoons among the general public.

Early life
Joseph Keppler was born in 1838 in Vienna as the son of a baker. He studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and published his first humorous illustrations to the local satirical magazine Kikeriki. After graduation Keppler discovered that being a painter hardly brought in any money. He therefore became a background painter for a theatrical troupe, touring along with them through Germany and Italy. Keppler even joined them on stage as a comedian. He earned extra money by restoring old paintings. By 1864 Keppler was married and came to the conclusion that it might be better if he immigrated to the United States. His father had already moved to northern Missouri in 1848, where he'd opened a general store. Keppler settled in St. Louis in 1867, initially as a theatrical actor again.

'Cleveland's Einzug in Washington, 4 März 1895' ("Cleveland's Entrance in Washington, 4 March 1895"), mocking U.S. President Grover Cleveland. 

In 1869 Keppler established the first of several humorous magazines which aimed at a German-American demographic. They were all published in German as well as English. His first attempt was the weekly Die Vehme (1869-1870), but the magazine went bankrupt after only a year. The follow-up, Frank und Frei, merely lasted half a year. Keppler's third attempt turned out to have the longest lifespan. In March 1871 he established the humorous magazine Puck. Originally it only circulated in St. Louis, but in the fall of 1872 Keppler and his family moved to New York City, where he found a job at the publishing company of Frank Leslie. He became a political cartoonist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper too until 1876. Around the same time Keppler introduced Puck to New Yorkians and his magazine quickly became a huge success. The first New York issue in German was printed on 27 September 1876 while the English language version hit the market on 14 March 1877. While the German-language version already ceased to be by the end of the 1880s, the English version of Puck would thrive for more than 50 years...!

Covers by Joseph Keppler for Puck, respectively 22 January 1879 and 21 January 1885. 

Puck borrowed its name from the similarly named character from William Shakespeare's play 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. The character also appeared in the font of the magazine's front page, as a mascot. He was accompanied by the slogan: "What fools these mortals be!", a quote from Shakespeare's play. Puck had humorous columns, but most people bought it for the cartoons, which were mostly political in nature. The content in Puck was printed in black-and-white, except for the front cover, double-page centerfold and back cover. Their first colour double-page centerfold appeared in March 1877. The first one with a comic strip was published on 1 July 1888. In terms of ideology Puck supported the U.S. Democratic Party and therefore ridiculed the U.S. Republican Party numerous times. They also had an anti-Catholic stance and were against women's voting rights.

'The Bosses of the Senate' (23 January 1889).

The Bosses of the Senate
Some of Keppler's cartoons are still famous today. On 23 January 1889 he published 'The Bosses of the Senate' (1889). This powerful cartoon depicts various billionaires as huge bloated giants with bellies that are big bags of money. Their presence in the U.S. Senate looms large over the Senators who are all depicted as tiny insignificant figures. In the back we see a door which reads "People's Entrance" but it is locked. On the wall a quote from Abraham Lincoln's famous 'Gettysburg Address' can be read, but slightly altered. Instead of "the government by the people and for the people" it states "the government by the monopolists and for the monopolists". The entire drawing is a sharp commentary on the power of businesspeople over politicians. At the time companies who held a monopoly could become incredibly wealthy with little limit to their earnings. It wasn't until the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act and 1914 Clayton Anti-Trust Act that significant measures were taken against these monopolies. Still 'The Bosses of the Senate' has a timeless message which still resonates today. The cartoon has been reprinted in many history books and is still popular among opponents of capitalism and business monopolies.

Workers and boss, by Joseph Keppler
'A Picture for Employers'.

Prototypical comics
Keppler created a few cartoons which are told in a sequence, making them comparable to a comic strip. In the 21 August 1878 issue of Puck he drew 'A Picture for Employers', which is separated in two images. On the left we see a group of Chinese immigrants dozing off on opium and eating rats. Underneath the drawing it reads: "Why they can live on 49 cents a day". The picture on the right shows a white father returning home to his wife and children, while the text underneath says: "And they can't". The rather racist message is that low-paid work is better left off to Asian immigrants. A similar politically incorrect cartoon appeared in 1880 named 'A Female Suffrage Fancy'. It fantasizes what would happen if women were allowed to vote. In the center we see a woman dressing up like a man. The six images that surround her show the consequences of female voting. Men would have to take care of children, while women are off to vote and they would presumably only vote for attractive candidates and chase away ugly ones.

'A Female Suffrage Fancy'.

In 1881 Keppler made another comic strip-like cartoon entitled 'A Dangerous American Institution - The Free and Untrammeled Revolver' (1881) which ridicules free gun control. A large revolver is depicted in the center of the image. Just like 'A Female Suffrage Fancy' the various little drawings around the center image show a doom scenario. Guns would fall in the hands of such dangerous people like children, college students, women (!) and lunatics. Keppler mentions only one kind of person who would have the right to use a gun, namely policemen. But even here the tone is cynical. The policeman is described as: "The one man who has a right to use it... but never knows how." In 1882 Keppler questioned the American Dream with 'Everybody Born In This Country Can Contemplate The Possibility of Becoming The President of The United States'. The cartoon shows U.S politicians Benjamin Butler, Ulysses S. Grant and John Kelly seated in a coach pulled by regular people. The politicians hold big bags of money, in reference to the corruption scandals that dogged them at the time. While this is the central image we see various little cartoons around it. Each one shows people not as privileged as the politicians and who are therefore unlikely to ever enter the White House at all.

Other contributors to Puck
Originally Keppler drew all cartoons in Puck, but as the magazine became a bestseller he employed more cartoonists. Among them were Ralph Barton, Frank Beard, Louis Dalrymple, Walter Dean, Samuel Ehrhardt, F.L. Fithian, Bernhard Gillam, Louis Glackens, Walter Dean Goldbeck, Bert Green, Syd Griffin, Livingston Hopkins, F.M. Howarth, Frank Kemble, Albert Levering, Tom Merry, Frank Nankivell, Rose O'Neill, Frederick Burr Opper, J.S. Pughe, A.P. Schultz, Charles Taylor, James Albert Wales and Eugene Zimmerman. At the time Puck was one of the bestselling American magazines, thus giving all these young cartoonists and illustrators a huge platform. In 1884 a rival appeared on the market, Judge, which would gain an equally large audience.

Cartoon by Joseph Keppler
'Everybody born in this country can contemplate the possibility of becoming the President of the United States', 1882.

Final years and death
Between January 1889 and June 1890 a London edition of Puck was published, but without much success, presumably since most English readers already enjoyed Punch. In May 1893 Keppler published a selection of his 56 best cartoons named 'A Selection of Cartoons from Puck by Joseph Keppler' (1877-1892). The same year he brought a smaller version of Puck on the market to tie in with the Chicago World's Fair. Unfortunately the workload brought a lot of stress along which had a bad effect on his health. In 1894 he passed away.

His son, Udo J. Keppler (who later changed his named to Joseph Keppler Jr.) was also a political cartoonist. He was Puck's art director from 1890 until 1913, when he sold the magazine. In 1916 Puck became property of William Randolph Hearst, but nevertheless only lasted until 5 September 1918. Hearst re-used Puck and its tagline between September 1931 and 1989 in the Sunday funnies of his newspapers under the name 'Comic Weekly'. A testament to Puck's legacy is Puck Building in Manhattan, New York City, which once were the magazine's headquarters from 1887 on. Gilded statues of Puck around the building's exterior still remind present-day visitors of its former inhabitants. 

Joseph Keppler was a strong influence on Eugene Zimmerman

photograph of Joseph Keppler

Series and books by Joseph Keppler you can order today:


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