Podcast and Gallery: William Randolph Hearst, Populism, and the Funny Pages

Some reflections how a famous press baron used cartoons to promote anti-system politics of both the left and right.

It’s easy to understand why Orson Welles, when making the youthful masterpiece that would forever change filmmaking, settled on the life of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951).

Hearst enjoyed all the luck of the Devil and lived his life with gusto, only small fraction of which shows up in the fictionalized form of Citizen Kane (1941). Blessed from birth with a fortune due to his father’s lucky strikes as a silver miner, Hearst used his inherited wealth to to become a press baron, a politician, a playboy and a patron of the arts. Politically, his journey from the left to the right traces the larger trajectory of populism (or anti-systems politics) in America. In the late 19th and early 20th century, he was one of the few newspaper owners who was a full-throated left populist, a supporter of William Jennings Bryan’s broad call for economic democracy. Hearst shifted to the right in the 1920s but remained a populist of sorts as he used the language of the common man to rail against the New Deal, the Yellow Peril, and Red menace.

Hearst’s patronage of the arts extended from high culture to low. Even as he filled Hearst Castle at San Simeon with the masterpieces of European art, Hearst was a hands on publisher who more than any single non-cartoonist shaped the birth and progression of American comic strips. Through King Features Syndicate, Hearst promoted and disseminated such famous comic strips as Frederick Opper’s Happy Hooligan, Rudolph Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, George McManus’ Bringing Up Father, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and E.C. Segar’s Popeye, and Chic Young’s Blondie.

The evolution of the strips mirrored Hearst’s own changing social and political views. The early comics were anarchic and anti-social, with the Katzenjammers and Ignatz Mouse always ready to disrupt the established order with a little dynamite or a brick. Meanwhile attractive heroines like Polly Perkins struck a blow for female emancipation. The later strips were more militaristic and nationalist, often featuring Asian and/or communist villains trying to destroy WASP-y American heroes. The story became blond Flash Gordon versus the Asiatic Ming the Merciless. In the humor strips, suburban comedy of marital mishaps replaced bomb throwing kids. The comic strips went from urban to suburban, from seditious to sedate.

I talked about Hearst and his cartoonists in this podcast, using as a basis of the talk Dean Mullaney’s splendid book, King of Comics: One Hundred Years of King Features Syndicate.

I wanted to present a small gallery of treasures from the book, which will help illustrate the podcast. You can click on each image to see them larger.

Hoist, the Friend of the Comic People

“Hoist, the Friend of the Comic People” — a satire of Hearst’s run for governor of New York done by Louis Glackens in Puck, October 31, 1906. The page shows all of Hearst’s comic strip characters supporting his election

Bringing Up Father

Krazy Kat

Polly and Her Pals

Flash Gordon

William Randolph Hearst

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