Ever since the first cartoonists joined text and images together to tell stories, they turned to chess to deliver funny gags and to illustrate metaphors of power, fate, and good and evil. Now, the World Chess Hall of Fame’s exhibit, "POW! Capturing Superheroes, Chess & Comics," on view through Sept. 17, offers a rare chance to enjoy the full scope of what happens when chess and comics join forces.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the history of chess and comics are so intertwined, especially in the United States. In 1754, one of the country’s first editorial cartoons featured a severed snake with the title “Join, or Die.” It was drawn by founding father and U.S. Chess Hall of Fame inductee Benjamin Franklin.
During the early, golden age of comic books, characters and ideas tumbled out with super-heroic speed, such as “The Cross-Country Chess Crimes” in Action Comics from September 1947. In this story, Superman’s tormenter Mr. Mxyztplk kidnaps two contestants from a world chess championship and tries to use the United States as a chessboard, setting actual castles down for rooks and historic statues for other pieces.
Cartoonists have often been inspired by the treatment of chess in works of literature. Famed comics writer and editor Roy Thomas points to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1922 adventure story "Chessmen of Mars" as an inspiration for the chess scene he wrote into the comic "Arak, Son of Thunder." Lewis Carroll’s 1871 novel "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There" inspired numerous tales of human chess, which was re-popularized by J.K. Rowling in her "Harry Potter" series. Bizarre tales of human chess in the exhibit include “I Was Trapped on the Chessboard of Giants,” the cover story of "House of Mystery" from August 1958.
A favorite storyline in chess comics is the high-stakes chess game, especially when those stakes are life and death. Such duals are a twist on the late-medieval allegory of dancing with death such as a chess game against death in “Strange Rendezvous at 17 Rue Noir,” from "Hand of Fate" in Feb. 1952. A similar high-stakes game is underway on the cover of the historic, November 1960 first edition of "Justice League of America," which shows the Flash playing a game of chess with the evil Despero.
Also historic is the brilliant Pop Art-derived series "Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.," drawn by Jim Steranko. Running from December 1966 through October. 1968, the series included the first appearance of Prime Mover, a chess-playing robot invented by the villainous Doctor Doom who explains, “Even a monarch such as myself is deserving of occasional droll sport!”
Chess comics tend to reflect their times. A prime example of this is the April 1963, issue of "Mad" magazine, in which political chess is given a Cold War twist by Al Jaffee, a star writer at the publication. In “Mad’s Modern Chess Set,” fallout shelters are used for rooks and hydrogen and atomic bombs are kings and queens.
The more recent genre of graphic novels has not left chess behind either. Jane Irwin’s 2014 book-length comic "Clockwork Game: The Illustrious Career of a Chess-playing Automaton" is a remarkable work of art, history and imagination about the world’s greatest chess hoax. And in Thi Buil’s 2017 masterpiece "The Best We Could Do," a handmade chessboard is a vivid reminder of home in a tale of Vietnamese immigrant family.
There is no genre of comics that can’t be enlivened by a chess game — or even a star turn by World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, who appeared in a Norwegian Donald Duck comic. In both comics and chess, you never can be sure what the next move might be.
Michael Tisserand is the author of, most recently, the cartoonist biography "Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White." He can be reached at www.michaeltisserandauthor.com.