Flashback! The Octopus as Scapegoat

The octopus has long been cast as proxy for greedy corporations, politicians, and even religious leaders. Will the gentle invertebrate ever be free from this graphic curse?

Udo Keppler’s 1904 take on Standard Oil set the standard for the “octopus-as-villain” trope.

Udo Keppler’s 1904 take on Standard Oil set the standard for the “octopus-as-villain” trope.

The most famous image of octopus-as-villain is without a doubt the one above: illustrator Udo Keppler’s 1904 depiction of an eight-armed Standard Oil strangling congress and eyeing the White House. A commentary on the monolithic corporations’ chokehold on American politics, Keppler’s image set the template for similar tropes in the decades to come. But Keppler’s 1904 work was already part of a long tradition.

One of the first such images was G.F. Keller’s 1882 work “The Curse of California,” a critique of the land-chomping, people-displacing, life-disrupting railroads.

GF Keller, “The Curse of California,” 1882.

GF Keller, “The Curse of California,” 1882.

Illustrator W.A. Rogers used the octopus to symbolize monopolistic greed long before Keppler, in an 1888 edition of Harper’s Weekly, seen here.

WMROGERS1888.jpg
Like New Yorker’s today, G.B. Luks has something to say about the subway in 1899.

Like New Yorker’s today, G.B. Luks has something to say about the subway in 1899.

G.B. Luks took aim at Tammany Hall and subway lobbyists in his 1899 rendition, “The Menace of the Hour,” seen above.

And Tammany Hall bigwig Richard Croker was singled out in the below 1901 image, courtesy of iconic satirical mag Puck’s puckish J.S. Pughe. 

Political corruption ain’t nothing new, as seen in J.S. Pughe’s 1901 take on Tammany Hall.

Political corruption ain’t nothing new, as seen in J.S. Pughe’s 1901 take on Tammany Hall.

This octopus-as-enemy trend wasn’t limited to just the domestic politics; it had a long history abroad, too: Critics of British imperialism cast the then-empire in similarly unflattering light in 1888, and with many extra arms:

An 1888 critique of British imperialism arose just as Americans were adopting the same symbolism.

An 1888 critique of British imperialism arose just as Americans were adopting the same symbolism.

And artist Fred Rose used the octopus to illustrate the Russo-Turkish War long before that, in 1877, and used the same motif to protest growing European tensions circa 1900:

English artist F.W. Rose gave Russia the octopi treatment in 1877….

English artist F.W. Rose gave Russia the octopi treatment in 1877….

…And again in 1900.

…And again in 1900.

Meanwhile, Axis artists later turned Winston Churchill into the undersea creature in World War II propaganda:

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Nor were all malevolent octopi corporate or political proxies. Or even octopi. Some were used for offensive scaremongering, as in this circa 1900 critique of Catholicism. Though the creature is actually squid, the iconographic symbolism remains the same. 

An odious take on Catholicism replaced the octopi with a squid, but the message remained the same.

An odious take on Catholicism replaced the octopi with a squid, but the message remained the same.

More recent — and less offensive — additions to this “Evil Octopi” trope include Halliburton expanding across the Middle East and artist Mark Bryan’s “The Nightmare,” which depicts Donald Trump’s many tentacles clutching Congress, nuclear warheads, fat cats, his Twitter and a mirror.

Yet as entertaining as these images are, they’re even more essential to democracy. Rogers’, Keppler’s, and others’ work established cartoons and satire as powerful forces in civil society. Then and now, they are eye-catching and innovative forms of free speech. 

But, that said, it’s unfortunate bad octopi are implicated into our messy human politics. We know today that octopi are smart, emotional creatures — You may have seen the video of Inky the Octopus making a daring escape from a laboratory to the ocean. - and don’t deserve to be cast as villains.

In that light, perhaps it’s time octopi get a rebrand: Rather than being depicted as surrogates for villains real and imagined, maybe it’s time octopi’s collective limbs be rendered as friendship, understanding, compassion, empathy, love, peace, honesty, and unity.

Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock.

Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock.