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Charmed Life

Toonsmith

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 8/7/2002

There I was in research purgatory, fumbling with one of the Enoch Pratt Central Library's self-serve microfilm printers, when somebody else's paperwork caught my eye. The person at the next machine had printed out an ancient newspaper article; alongside the text ran a cartoon that I recognized instantly as the work of Richard Q. "Moco" Yardley. My outlook brightened immediately. To that point I'd been pursuing a Charmed Life lead that was looking more and more like a dead end. It would be a lot more fun to write about Yardley instead.

I relate this bit of serendipity because, whatever it says about my work habits, it says more about Yardley's work, which ran in The Sun and other local outlets for nearly half of the 20th century. It amazes me that even in the degraded form of a photocopy from microfilmed newsprint, a Yardley cartoon could pop off the page and hit me right in the pleasure center. His style is unmistakable--precise yet playful, minimal in design but bursting with ideas, irrepressibly cheerful even in the throes of satiric outrage.

Baltimoreans of 40-odd years standing will know what I'm talking about better than I do. I never met Yardley--he died in 1979, a few months after I moved to Baltimore--and until I researched this article I'd seen perhaps 10 examples of his work. After his death, and a spate of eulogies from Sun colleagues, he faded rapidly from public memory and from print. Today, he lurks deep in the cultural background.

From time to time over the last 20 years, old Baltimore press hands have cited him. A decade ago, veteran commentator Frank DeFilippo hailed Yardley cartoons as "the best guidebook" of Mobtown's old machine politics. More recently, in 1996, photographer Jim Burger wrote a charming piece for The Sun about living in Moco's house and channeling his spirit. In many respects Mike Lane, The Sun's senior editorial cartoonist, is Moco's true heir, although Lane's work exudes more bile and less benevolence. Lane's brush, like Yardley's, swoops across paper like a figure skater; his characters, like Yardley's, tend toward clownish bulbousness.

Despite my minimal exposure to his work, Yardley has had a distinct influence on my own efforts as a cartoonist. Once I had to draw a poster for a street fair, and produced an imitation "Moco" without intending to. I was merely attempting to do what Yardley did habitually: convey a sense of fun in black and white. He also shared my interest in cartoon cartography. A few years ago, when I was doing research for a picture-map of Hampden, I found that Yardley had beat me to it, 50 years before. In homage, and with proper credit, I incorporated his swashbuckling toon of Sir John Hampden, for whom the North Baltimore neighborhood was named, in my final design.

From all I've read about Yardley the man, his lively drawings were a near-perfect form of self-expression. He was an educated bon vivant who worked classical and Shakespearean allusions into his daily allegories; his artistic influences ranged from Egyptian hieroglyphics and medieval manuscripts to comic strips and cubism. He and his wife, Peggy, were avid collaborators at both work and play--she often colored his black-and-white productions, and the couple were famous party-givers. The latter fact helps to explain the cartoonist's popularity with Sun colleagues, who routinely abandoned professional objectivity on his behalf, promoting him as a celebrity in his own right. As early as 1948, articles in The Sun declared him an "institution."

In one salient respect, the art misrepresented the artist: Yardley often depicted himself as a plump but diminutive man with curly hair and a beret. In fact, he was quite large: 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds. Writers have called him "Falstaffian" for his prodigious size, appetite, and good humor. I see a closer resemblance to Thomas Rowlandson, the British satirist of Napoleonic times, who was likewise enormous, fun-loving, and a seminal force in the history of cartooning.

In terms of posterity, Yardley's jolliness has not been an asset. His approach to satire, mocking sin but never condemning the sinners, strikes modern eyes as naive and lightweight. Critics tend to honor the dark, mordant side of political cartooning. Yardley's buoyant and often surreal take on events had more in common with Dr. Seuss (whose own offbeat editorial cartoons are all but forgotten) than with Thomas Nast or Patrick Oliphant. The artist's staunch provincialism, which contributed to his local fame in life, has also abetted his present obscurity. He was a crab-cake-gobbling, beer-quaffing son of the Land of Pleasant Living, far more interested in the sideshow of Maryland politics than in the drama of world events.

And, alas, few human artifacts are as short-lived as newspapers. Yardley's original cartoons survive in private collections throughout the city, but they never get a public airing. Two Yardley murals cited in his obituaries--one at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts--are long gone, according to officials at those institutions.

Were Yardley alive today, he'd celebrate his 100th birthday next March. He deserves to be rediscovered. As Lane, his successor, declares, "He's one of the most widely ignored, best cartoonists ever. He should have won a Pulitzer." Maybe so--but I imagine him bouncing around on a puffy cartoon cloud, sporting cartoon wings and not giving a damn.

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