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From Nast to Family Circus, Philadelphia exhibit shows how Catholics have been depicted in cartoons

John Burger - published on 10/19/19

Catholic Historical Research Center mounts display of drawings by and about Catholics.

“Cartooning Catholics” is an exhibit in Philadelphia examining how Catholics were portrayed in secular drawings and how Catholics portrayed their own beliefs through cartoons.

Bob Humble, an area cartoonist who had a long running feature in the Delaware County Daily Times, kicked off the exhibit with a lecture at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Historical Research Center, housed in the former Our Lady of Ransom School, October 17. The free exhibit will be there until October 1, 2020.

It features some specimens of cartoons that would be considered highly offensive today, but which once expressed the anti-Catholic feelings of a good portion of the American population.

Exhibit A for that history is Thomas Nast’s “The American River Ganges,” which depicts a group of frightened children standing on a river bank, cowering as a bunch of crocodiles emerge from the water. Look a little closer, and the crocodiles are actually bishops wearing miters. On the opposite shore is a building in the form of St. Peter’s Basilica, but with “Tammany Hall” written across the front. On the near shore is an American public school in ruins, flying the U.S. flag upside down, a symbol of distress.

Catholic Historical Research Center

Nast, who published in Harper’s Weekly in the latter half of the 19th century, was “very fearful of Irish-Catholics coming in and kind of changing the cultural landscape of America,” Patrick Shank, an archivist at the center who curated the exhibit, told the Northeast Times. “He saw the rise of parochial parish schools and high schools as an attack against public schools.”

There are also modern depictions that are critical of the Church, such as comics from Jack Chick.

“These cartoons deal with Anti-Catholicism in two different ways, the first focused on the menace of the pope and the second dealt with the threat to the public school system,” the research center says in a press release.

But there are other other cartoons, drawn by Catholics and often published in Catholic newspapers, that served two different functions.

“The first was to offer commentary on current events and the second was to offer humor on daily Catholic life,” the center said. “The editorial cartoons drawn from the 1950s through the 1970s cover major historical events, including the Second Vatican Council and the Civil Rights Movement. Featured here are cartoonists Earl H. Wolf (1915-1999), Robert F McGovern (1933-2011), and John James Knudsen (1923-2008). Examining the drawings reveals how Catholics reacted to world events.

One, from the now-defunct Catholic Standard & Times, is a 1964 drawing titled “Complete Education,” showing a student working at a desk strewn with books on math, science, economics and other secular subjects, but also a Bible at hand.

Catholic Historical Research Center

The exhibit also features Marvel comics based on the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope John Paul II and others, as well as some strips from “Family Circus,” a comic created by Philadelphia native Bill Keane. Keane’s cartoons, said the center, “reveal the lighter side of Catholic social thought by highlighting religion as expressed in daily life.”

Catholic history

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