The first Earth Day was held on April 22nd, 1970, and the event was celebrated by 20 million Americans who held demonstrations across the country to demand protection for the land, air, and water. Earth Day came about as the result of concerted environmentalist action, and artists played an important role in that process.
In fact, the Ecology symbol was created by the American artist Ron Cobb, and the icon gained in popularity before the founding of Earth Day. Cobb’s symbol, first published in 1969, combined the letter “E” (for earth and environment), with the letter “O” (representing wholeness and unity). The artist immediately offered his artwork to the world community by placing it in the public domain. The symbol became wildly popular and found its way onto flyers, posters, buttons, banners, patches and bumper-stickers.
A fellow Angeleno, Cobb was born in Los Angeles in 1937, and he became the country’s premiere underground cartoonist from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. His brilliantly drawn cartoons tackled everything from the Vietnam war and race relations in the U.S., to the abuse of political power and the arms race. In 1965 he started contributing political cartoons to the Los Angeles Free Press, one of the nation’s first radical underground newspapers.
In 1968 I purchased Cobb’s first book of irreverent political cartoons titled Mah Fellow Americans. It was a searing collection of black and white drawings created and distributed by the Underground Press Syndicate; the book is out of print and now very rare. The cartoon that appeared as the cover of the book lampooned Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States (1963-1969). LBJ escalated the war in Vietnam, and his reelection bid in 1968 collapsed in the face of rising opposition to the war. Cobb depicted LBJ on a flag draped podium addressing a crowd of thuggish looking riot police.
It would be an understatement to say that Cobb’s works inspired my generation. On a personal note, his early editorial cartoons helped inspire me to pursue the difficult path of being a professional artist. As a teenager I looked forward to each edition of the L.A. Free Press just to see his lively cartoons; I took up pen and ink drawing partly because of being inspired by his works.
Cobb moved to Australia in 1972 and eventually got into production design for Hollywood movies, contributing set and conceptual design to films like Star Wars, Alien, Back to the Future, The Abyss and a bevy of other blockbusters.
While Ron Cobb is duly famous for his work in Hollywood, it is his important and groundbreaking editorial/political cartoons that continue to move me. Those cartoons seem as noteworthy today as when they were first drawn, and a cursory glance at the official Ron Cobb website will make clear the influence and importance of this unique American artist. Considering the environmental state of the world on this Earth Day, I think it’s entirely appropriate that we breathe new life into Cobb’s iconic ecology symbol.
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UPDATE: This article was edited on Earth Day April 22, 2016.