The Cobb Book, by Ron Cobb


From the sticker it still sports I see that I acquired my copy of Ron Cobb’s The Cobb Book through the Book Marx Club, which would have been shortly after publication in 1975.  It collected a selection of his cartoons from his earlier books RCD-25 (1967) Mah Fellow Americans (1968), Raw Sewage and My Fellow Americans (both 1970), along with later work published in the Australian periodical The Digger and in The Los Angeles Free Press.  Yes, it oozes 1960s/70s counter-culture, but the scary thing is how relevant it still is.

One of the first cartoons is possibly his most famous: an old man sits on a bench in an urban environment of high rises staring with a smile at a solitary plant poking up through the concrete.  Ecology is the dominant theme of this part of the book, showing the devastating effect human greed and thoughtlessness are having on the planet.  Commercial interests only care for profit, so giant redwoods can be sacrificed for a shopping and hotel complex to be called, with no irony, ‘Sequoia Square’.

Unlike such developers, Cobb has a strong sense of irony: billboards showing rural scenes marked ‘scenic drive’ erected along a road hide the urban blight behind.  A board in another drawing saying ‘Caution: Breathing May Be Hazardous To Your Health’ next to a chock-full road vanishing in the haze is particularly pertinent at a time of emissions scandals.  To ram the message home, Uncle Sam salutes as he stands on the deck of a sinking ship in a sea full of rubbish, a sign declaring: ‘Warning! Military-industrial pollution … No swimming/no drinking/no bathing’.  It’s not subtle, but it is powerful.  To indicate that not everybody is affected equally, two middle-aged men in suits sit in the window of a restaurant drinking coffee while a man in agony desperately claws the glass outside.  ‘Looks like we’re in for another bad smog alert’ says one calmly.

That this situation is not sustainable is the theme of a cartoon divided into four sections showing a single location over time.  In the first section, stone-age hunters carry their kill towards their village.  In the second, a castle has arisen on the spot and a hay wagon trundles towards it.  In the third, modern ‘civilisation’ has arrived and the track is now a frantic motorway, the entire area under urban sprawl.  In the bottom section there is nothing left except a barren landscape.  Our wasteful way of life will vanish, but we will vanish with them.

One image, which must have been inspired by 2001 (1968) shows a proto-human armed with a bone chasing two animals, one saying to the other. ‘A stick or a piece of bone and they think they own the world!’  ‘They’ still think this, and of course they do.  In the next, two Neanderthals waving bones and lumps of wood at each other are replaced by modern men, one shooting the other with a gun.  Modern technology makes these things worse, certainly, but Cobb’s meaning is ambiguous.  Elsewhere he suggests capitalism is responsible for the state of the world, here the implication is that it is in our nature to be violent, in which case social changes will not improve the state of civilisation.

The 1969 moon landing spawned several pictures, some continuing the ecological theme, with rubbish floating even in space and Apollo 58 devoted to a clean-up of the lunar surface.  Anti-militarism, doubtless influenced by the two years Cobb spent in Vietnam, and the fear of nuclear conflagration, generated some graphic images.  Vietnam is specifically referenced, but Cobb could see how it would end – a burning peasant lies under the American flag, the corner of which has caught fire.

The military-industrial complex is built on consumption, and that comes in for stick as well, as individuals are told to consume and a television stands in the kitchen waiting to be fed a TV dinner.  In a prescient drawing, a robot labelled ‘automation’ turns to a human and says ‘Oh … haven’t you heard? – The industrial revolution is over … We won …’  Keeping it all under control is a repressive police presence (think Kent State shootings in 1970), aided by the conservative Church that fails to present any meaningful criticism of the status quo.  However, depicting anti-nuclear protestors standing behind wire in Nazi concentration camp attire, CND logo replacing the yellow star, may now seem crass.

Race relations naturally feature – Uncle Sam on top of a huge swastika marked ‘White Power’ crushing a small black boy operating a jack which says ‘Black Power.  The effort is making the swastika crack, shortly to disintegrate.  Two middle-aged white men oozing privilege are talking and one opines, ‘Trouble is – most niggers want white skin without havin’ ta earn it’, blithely ignorant of the implications of what he is saying.  Native Americans too are shown to have received bad treatment: a white family praying while celebrating thanksgiving are shown sitting on top of a mass grave of Indians.  Overseas foreign aid is used to dump unwanted goods and crush dissent inimical to American interests.  Elected government is a tool of shady forces; Richard Nixon is portrayed as a little boy on the beach building the White House and Pentagon out of sand, yet the implication is that he and his ilk will be washed away by the tide of history.

Cobb is naturally pro-hallucinogenic drugs, sees mental illness as a manifestation of capitalist civilisation, and education as a method of ensuring the learning of conformity.  The Australian government is pilloried towards the end for being an American stooge while having treated the aborigines in much the same manner the Americans treated their indigenous population.  The final image, on the back cover, shows a lorry driving off into the distance after having run down an aborigine and a kangaroo.


The cartoons are printed in large format and their stark graphic qualities give them maximum impact.  They look remarkable, and their hard-hitting effect has hardly diminished in the decades since they first appeared.  Depressingly, the same issues are with us and Cobb unsentimentally highlights what we are doing to the planet.  As the caption says in the first of a pair of drawings showing the Earth from space, ‘it’s the only one we’ve got’, and the caption in its companion adds, ‘Love it or leave it!’


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