Sunday, November 1, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 Winsor McCay on Election Day.

Rick Marschall.

Short and sweet this week, and I ask the indulgence of readers around the world, who might have heard that the United States is enduring another pandemic this week – a presidential election.

… followed by a quick apology for a cheap joke. Elections are not plagues; or are not supposed to be. There are plague-like aspects, as flies surround a corpse: corruption, lies,  dirty money, uncountable brochures and robo-calls. Democracy is the worst form of government, except, as Churchill said, when you consider all the others.

Elections have also kept alive the profession of political cartooning, the illegitimate father of the comic strip. I was always interested in comic strips, and the very earliest of comic strips, but I began my career as a working political cartoonist. (“Working” always seems a strange word when we enjoy it so much…)

Winsor McCay was a working political cartoonist long before he created Little Nemo. He was a working political cartoonist after he drew his last Little Nemo page; in fact when he died, he left a partially inked political cartoon on his drawing board, and his editors ran it as “finished” with touches by a cartoonist friend. His first work for national magazines was political cartoons.

A legend has arisen (“legend” being a professionally courteous word for “lie”) about Winsor McCay and his political and editorial cartoons. Scholars and fans have been led to believe that McCay was a kind of indentured servant in the employ of William Randolph Hearst; that when McCay joined Hearst after drawing for the New York Herald, he was not an unfettered star but consigned to churn out political cartoons in addition to the revival called In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. Here, the story goes, he was under the whip of the editorially eccentric Arthur Brisbane, Hearst lieutenant; and he eventually abandoned his Sunday page to dutifully produce turgid pictorial political polemics.

This version of history, itself, belongs in a land of wonderful dreams, for those who wish that Winsor McCay, fantasist, was a 21st-century flower child, mistreated by corporate overlords. Fueling such distortions, I have wondered, might be the contemporary disdain for Hearst – borne, perhaps of peoples’ affection for the Citizen Kane version of events, as well as prejudice against Hearst, whose career ended as a notable conservative (having commenced as a radical Socialist).

But Winsor McCay was his own man. He was a celebrity who was lured to Hearst, not kidnapped. It was clear he “wrote his own ticket” – when Hearst discouraged other of his cartoonists from producing animated cartoons independently, he either constrained them, or roped them into his own International Studio. But McCay fathered animation on his own, independent of Hearst, while working for him.

Brisbane was known as a brilliant and persuasive essayist, and his editorials often ran full pages on the back of newspapers in the Hearst chain and beyond. He was Hearst’s right-hand man, and books reprinted his editorials. Yet when McCay’s cartoons accompanied Brisbane’s essays (which was more than any other cartoonist) McCay was the horse and Brisbane the cart. That is, it frequently was made clear that the day’s editorial agenda was set by McCay’s cartoon, to which Brisbane added comments.

… hardly the position of a poor cartoonist chained to his drawing board., the chattel of Massa Brisbane.

And when McCay returned to the Herald (then the Herald-Tribune), 1924-27 for yet another revival of Little Nemo color Sundays… he drew political cartoons again. For syndication. Daily. No record of a gun to his head.

No, Winsor McCay was a man of pronounced political and social views. He clearly relished the opportunity to expound his views, and he poured as much work into his political cartoons – detail, anatomy and perspective, sweeping concepts – as any other work he did in his remarkable career.

And this aspect of his career would be better known, and more honored, today, if not filtered through retroactive and politically correct lenses. His views consistently were anti-war, isolationist, nationalist, anti-immigration, and Christian. When he waxed philosophical, which was frequent, he was a cynical but moralistic old-fashioned preacher.

In 1914 when war broke out in Europe, Winsor McCay drew a black and white cross-hatched masterpiece for the anti-intervention New York American. Recently I discovered a painted version that appeared on the cover of CARTOONS Magazine that I restored and copyrighted, and will be issued as a poster.

Like all of McCay’s work – but no less than his strip, animation, or illustrations – it is part of his enduring legacy. And it speaks to us especially as we plan to vote.



  1. Where can one see McCay's political cartoons?

    1. I don't know of any holdings but a number of McCay's political cartoons are here >

  2. Editorial cartoons were more important and highly regarded then comic strips for a long time, and taken more seriously. Editorial cartoonists are journalists.

  3. I reprinted some of McCay's political and editorial cartoons in the book DAYDREAMS AND NIGHTMARES. And the new Nemo Magazine will have a portfolio of them, with a downloadable link to more...

  4. Daydreams and Nightmares is well worth while scoring, Robert Gluckson!