Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal
Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump White House -- and then drags it all to Hell.
Hell isn't what it used to be.
Charon, Ferryman of the Dead, was forced into retirement after some influential sinners complained about his indiscriminate brutality. His ferryboat can be found on display in the Hell History Museum. New arrivals now enjoy a luxury passenger ship, though the River Styx can be crossed by airplane too. After fingerprinted and photographed, arrivals pass under the new entrance gate sign: "You are now entering Hell. Welcome." (The old greeting, "All hope abandon, ye who enter here" is retired too.)
The smell is bad, a combination of sulphur and automobile fumes and there's a heady scent of perfume—now one of the leading industries in the region. Cerberus, Hound of Hades, is spritzed with the perfume daily. Visitors and favored sinners can enjoy a taxi to the Grand View to acclimate to the heat before continuing on. Be sure to stop by the Limbo Club, where the ancient philosophers and bards have been joined by other impractical and so potentially disruptive thinkers, including Karl Marx, Henry David Thoreau, Isadora Duncan, and Eugene Debs. Visits are limited to one hour.
According to the last census statistics, two-thirds of the Devils you meet will be former sinners from the Upper World. The remaining are either original Bad Angels of Heaven or their descendants. Inbreeding and bestiality has resulted in a range of Minotaurs, Harpies, Houndbats, Goatgumps, and other variegated races of Fiends, Demons, Jinks, and Imps. The original inhabitants should not be called Fallen, since Hell's past isn't quite what it used to be either. Recent investigations reveal that when Lucifer and his fellow rebels warred against Heaven, they were victorious, forcing God into a peace conference where He signed a treaty ceding the subterranean regions.
Lucifer isn't his old self either. The early years of the 20th century saw an influx of robber baron capitalists, who forced the ruler to abdicate his thrown in order to modernize eternal damnation. The new Money Power government was soon printing its own currency and reaping the considerable benefits. Now Lucifer is truly Fallen, reduced to the ceremonial duties of parades and radio addresses. He and his PR adviser, Beelzebub, play a lot of cards in his palace office.
All of the above facts were directly observed and carefully illustrated by artist Art Young during his six-week visit to the underworld in 1934. He traveled there by New York City elevator. It was his third trip. The first two were in 1892 and 1901, well before the capitalist revolution and his own conversion to socialism. Steven Heller, who writes the foreword for the new Fantagraphics edition, asks: "Would he and Bernie Sanders be comrades?"
By way of answer, Heller points to Young's four-level chart dividing the inhabitants of Hell into economic groups. The "Poor" are heaped into literal mountains, while a tiny gathering sits atop the "Richer" shelf. Young doesn't offer percentages, but I suspect Hell doesn't impose a wealth tax on that top .01%.
Young returns at a prescient moment. Though Senator Sanders was likely still a serious presidential contender when Fantagraphics decided to republish Inferno, they could not have predicted that the Depression-era satire would arrive during the pandemic shutdown and what may be the opening weeks of the 21st Century Depression. Apparently the last economic catastrophe was a boon for Hell, since it yielded a massive crop of "financial wizards" arriving by suicide. Instead of sending them to the suicide circle, however, the government assignes them to the Recovery Board to issue reports emphasizing "the necessity of generous loans to Big Business" and to forecast "much hope in the willingness of the most miserable sinners to work for almost nothing, or even go without work until business improves."
It's not necessary to have read Dante's Inferno, or to have studied depictions of the underworld by Brueghel, Blake, Doré, or centuries of other artists to get his criticism, but Young clearly has. The mild-mannered cartoonist (he draws himself squat and round-faced) is an aficionado of all things infernal. His love of Dante produced three comedies, though unlike The Divine Comedy, Young was content to keep sketching the bottom rung.
He opens with a retracing of Dante's footsteps, but after literally mapping the Circles (now connected by elevators), he abandons the narrative approach for a random shuffle of vignettes titled by theme: The Scientists (they're as useless as the bards), About Women (they're as bad as the men), Heroism (limited ruthless football players), and Snatches of Conversation Along the Streets ("Must get job", "If it won't sell, what good is it?"). The meandering is fun, but the early promise of a concluding interview with the dethroned Satan preserves suspense.
Though Inerno is comic in the satirical sense, the book is not a comic book. Except in rare cases, words and images stand apart, and it's hard to say whether the drawings illustrate the blocks of prose or if those paragraphs just provide an excuse for Young's parodic cartooning. His subject and style are consistent, but some images are designed as quick dash-offs in the corners of pages, and others are meticulously crosshatched full-page reveries. Young's pen, whether drawing or printing, is filled with the same critical wit.
If it's not clear yet, his subject isn't Hell but life in the US portion of Earth. Where Dante and his other predecessors were Christians providing imaginary evidence of the future awaiting the faithless, Young's social commentary seeks to punish the abusively wealthy in the here and now. I suspect most of his targets shrugged off the criticism as easily in 1934 as their descendants will in 2020. If Young made it to cartoon Heaven, I can easily imagine the fun he's having right now sketching the robber baron in the White House, Hell be damned.