Winsor McCay’s Adventures in Hearstland

Sg, Ian gave you a collection of Winsor McCay‘s 1905-1914 “Little Nemo” comics for christmas. It’s in a big red book printed under Taschen‘s Evergreen imprint, which I can’t seem to find a website for. Anyway, we’re going to start reading it soon. As a matter of fact, I’m reading it now. I’m about 100 pages in, which amounts to about two years worth of a weekly strip. I’m enjoying it. I have more nuanced views on the subject, and that’s where this blog post was headed. But then….

Well, OK: actual war didn’t happen. But I did run across this collection of Winsor McCay’s later political cartoons at the inimitable Golden Age Comic Book Stories blog.

It was a bit of a shock. And I was stress out. And I was not only stressed out, but also taken aback. And gobsmacked to boot. Here I’d been engrossed in McCay’s saga of whimsy and fantasy, and (without any warning, thank you universe) I run smack into cartoons like the one above. It’s not just the dreary subject matter that set my teeth on edge, for I’m usually up for adding a measure of darkness to something good to see whether it makes it better.

What astounded me about the McCay political cartoons was the ham-handed way in which the reader was bludgeoned by artless symbolism. E.g. (x2):

Also, the lack of imagination would be striking if these were presented as cartoons by, say, random political cartoonist X. Coming from Winsor McCay — Little Nemo! — it is positively stunning. I’ll leave skimming the political cartoons as an exercise for the reader, but if I had seen even one more gigantic Uncle Sam protecting huddled masses, I probably would have cried.

The introduction to the Nemo book says this of McCay’s move from the New York Herald to William Randolph Hearst’s New York American:

With Hearst, McCay was in for an experience that was not particularly wonderful, and one that he may have wished on numerous occasions was only a dream — a dream in which he was bound by a golden paycheck to an oligarch’s whim. … Apparently McCay drew only so many Wonderful Dreams pages, probably being stopped by Hearst at a reasonable wrap-up point some time in 1913, the publisher then undertaking to turn McCay’s talents entirely to political cartoons. It was a murderous decision.

I took this with a grain of salt when I first read it — the Nemo book introduction is unsourced and a little hyperbolic (“murderous”?). But I give it a bit more credit after seeing the political cartoons. They are not the work of a genius at play in the fields of creativity. They aren’t even the work of someone who seems to care very much about his work.

And, in fact, there’s reason to believe that McCay wasn’t the one making decisions about the content of the cartoons. McCay’s political cartoons reflect Hearst’s pre-WWI isolationism, for example. But McCay himself later put together an animated retelling of the sinking of the Lusitania intended to make the viewer mad enough to go support war with Germany.

In conclusion, I do not like the political cartoons. They are not good.

And now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I’ll happily return to reading Nemo and will try to forget I ever saw the political cartoons.

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