Comics and Cartoons: Visualizing Disaster

This is part of a series of blog posts highlighting objects and archival documents from Social Climates: Power and the Environment in the Archives, an exhibition currently on view in the Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML. Drawing on a wide array of RBML collections and materials, Social Climates explores the interconnections between culture, history, politics, and the natural world. 

The following blog post is adapted from the Social Climates exhibit essay text by Karen Green, Curator for Comics and Cartoons. 

Comics and cartoons generally reflect, and sometimes influence, the culture of their time period. Editorial cartoons have addressed global issues for well over a century, taking complex issues and rendering them comprehensible to the general public. Climate became a particular concern in the 1960s, as a series of catastrophic events combined with growing activism; this led to the first Earth Day and, later that year, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Minicomics, such as Sarah Glidden’s Climate change: October, and longer-form graphic novels can explore issues more fully, from Derrick Jensen’s humorous takes, in As the world burns: 50 simple things you can do to stay in denial, to the graphic journalism of Crude, by Pablo Fajardo, which looks at Texaco’s involvement in the Amazon.

Ray Osrin was a Golden Age comic book artist who, leaving comics in the 1950s, reinvented himself as an editorial cartoonist, first at the Pittsburgh Press and then at Cleveland’s Plain Dealer. This cartoon appeared not too long after the June 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River, which helped inspire legislation such as the Clean Water Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ray Osrin, 1928–200. The thinker. Ink on art board. Cleveland: The Plain Dealer: January 1, 1970

Athelstan Spilhaus, a geophysicist and science advisor to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, teamed with New Yorker cartoonist Carl Rose to produce the Sunday science comic, “Our New Age” from 1957 to 1973. By scratching the back of the Zipatone in some places and inking over it in others, Rose created an evocative look at the earth’s poles–and a useful baseline for comparison to the poles today.

Carl Rose (as Earl Cros), artist, 1903–1971. Athelstan Spilhaus, writer, 1911–1998. Our new age. Ink and Zipatone on board. Appeared November 9, 1958

Social Climates runs through September 30, 2022 in Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML, 6th Floor Butler.