Hidden Treasures: The Socio-political Cartoons of Winsor McCay

5 August 2014

Winsor McCay, cartoonist and animator died in 1934 but he set the standard in animated movie making that others, including Walt Disney, were duty bound to follow.

He was also well known for his newspaper comic strips, Gertie the Dinosaur and Little Nemo in Slumberland. However, his socio-political cartoons have been somewhat overlooked, perhaps because of the success of his strips and animations.

Here is a selection of those cartoons from the years 1929 and 1930 – in some ways very similar to our own. 80 years may separate the days the cartoons were drawn but has so much really changed?

The debate still rages today (both at home and abroad) about US interventionist policies in other countries.  At the end of the 20s isolationism - almost the opposite - took a significant hold on both the people and the politicians.  The crash of '29 made the country more inward looking and determined to fix its own problems rather than interfere with those overseas.  For McKay, who spent the last eight years of his life at The American newspaper creating editorial cartoons for Arthur Brisbane, his flair for cartoons put him in the right place at the right time. His job was to engage the reader’s eye and so persuade them to read the editorial. As such he was to tackle many of the social issues of the day, including the economy, prohibition and human nature in general.

The United States had undergone what was called The Noble Experiment of prohibition of alcohol in 1920.  By the end of the decade the social problems that this had caused were coming to a head, not least of all the production of illegal and often dangerous bootleg alcohol.  This and the associated rise in criminality are succintly drawn here by McCay who is pointing out that whereas legal alcohol killed in large numbers, perhaps it was a lesser of two evils.

As an employee, McCay had to keep to the political agenda of his employer, Arthur Brisbane.  Brisbane has been described by WA Swanberg (Hearst's biographer) as a liberal who had grown conservative and there are the occasional flashes of light political schizophrenia: while most of the cartoons are right of center they sometimes veer to the left in terms of demanding an end to capitalism gone mad and criminal.

Equally as important as pointing out the injustices of the day at the end of the twenties was to celebrate the American propensity towards optimism and to present celebrate the nation, particularly in times of economic misfortune.  The New Year of 1930 gave McCay the opportunity to symbolise sanguinity and buoyancy of the American spirit which has always been one of its most attractive features.

The Great Depression was a time of great austerity andthe laws of supply and demand were at their lowest ebb for decades.  McCay had a way to put very complex economic principles over in his cartoons in as simple a way as possible.  Yet even at its bleakest there was always hope that the Great Depression would at some point end.  McCay encouraged people to not give up hope - even though the road ahead was pitted with obstacles.

Any look at the 1920s could paint a miserable picture but there were also grounds for optimism.  The age of the motorway was upon America.  The US Highway System had been approved in November 1926 and transportation of both goods and people around the country was becoming significantly easier.  McCay reflected the changes in his work with the stock before and after scenario.

McCay was critical of some of the government's spending policies, drive of course by editorial content.  Here he juxtaposes the hardworking American with the governments ability to be profligate - yet notably he represents both sides of this using the same caricature.  Yet he would reserve his most caustic cartoons not for politics but as an illustration of some of the worse aspects of human nature.  These, more than any of his cartoons, still resonate today.

The editorial which accompanied the cartoon above, Trying to get there is so prescient about our age of instant celebrity that it could have been written today. It is quite remarkable to think that it was written over eighty years ago.
"This is the age of notoriety and struggle.  The scientist and artist that once worked in cloistered seclusion now work largely on the front page of newspapers.  The world's sturggle is to 'attract the public eye' that Mr McCay shows in this cartoon.  It is a ceaseless struggle and many are the strange roads by which men travel to reach their goal, real FAME or mere NOTORIETY.  For the goal worth while there is only one road, the same old road painfully travelled for thousands of years.  It is not popular, it is not crowded.  Its name is HARD WORK."
Yet he is at his best when celebrating the human spirit, the urge to learn and the power of self improvement.

The editorial caption underneath this cartoon reads:

"You see above a little man and some giants.  The little man is really the BIG man and the giants are the LITTLE creatures.  For there is no real bigness except in THOUGHT.  Thought is in the brain, has no size, occupies no space.  It is the mystery of mysteries, the only real power existing on earth.  Thought cannot understand itself.  Man does not know what it is.  But what HE is depends on his power of thought.  The last become first if they THINK HARD while they are the last.  And the first are last if they lose the habit of thinking."

This article has only touched the surface of the works of Winsor McCay, concentrating as it does on his lesser known career as a socio-poliltical cartoonist.  Although Wikipedia covers him in its usual dry but useful manner, here is another article that employs a much more human approach to the rest of his work and serves as a great introduction. We think he would approve.



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