While cartoonist Syd Hoff (1912-2002) is best known for his celebrated children’s book Danny and the Dinosaur, and syndicated newspaper strips like Tuffy and Laugh It Off, there’s a strand to his work that began much earlier that is perhaps less recognised. Beginning in the early 1930s, Hoff worked under the alias A. Redfield contributing political cartoons to various left-wing newspapers, magazines and other publications. New York Review Comics, whose catalogue continues to keep forgotten classics in the public consciousness, are reprinting a collection of this work titled The Ruling Clawss, bringing Hoff’s biting wit to a new audience of appreciative readers.
The Ruling Clawss debuted back in 1935 and surprisingly this NYRC edition is, nearly a century on, its first reprinting. Originally published by the communist newspaper The Daily Worker, it’s a compilation of Hoff’s work from therein, all understandably assigned to the Redfield pseudonym. An introductory essay by Philip Nel provides both historical background and political context to Hoff’s career, allowing the reader a frame of reference for this arguably long-forgotten example of cartooning social activism.
What follows is a procession of one-panel gag cartoons that disarm and condemn through their understatement. The opening page sets the scene with a quietly scathing critique of capitalism as a chairman in a boardroom addresses his colleagues as “my fellow workers”, without even a hint of self-awareness. It’s an establishing shot that foreshadows what is to come; around 150 pages of commentary on privilege, capitalist exploitation, racism and social inequality, all perfectly encapsulated in single illustrations so cutting that they deliver their message through easy wit rather than anger.
Hoff gives us a cast of haves and have-nots with the former’s visually realised blinkered buffoonery and grotesque condescension speaking volumes about the iniquitous nature of the class system. Generals professing their lack of fear of combat while they bravely send in others to die for them; pampered women espousing their support for Black workers because they always employ them to do their laundry; and rich businessmen proud of their charitable kindness when they redeploy would-be muggers as strike-breakers.
Of course, what makes The Ruling Clawss all the more telling is how little has really changed in the 88 years since it was originally published. The obscenely rich still exploit their workforces without censure; unions and worker rights continue to be suppressed and sacrificed to the gods of capitalism; and the othering of the vulnerable as scapegoats for society’s ills never ends. Hoff’s plea for a more equitable world remains as relevant now as it was in 1935.
Syd Hoff (as A. Redfield) (W/A) • New York Review Comics, $24.95
Review by Andy Oliver