The city was among the pressing new realities facing Americans at the turn of the 20th Century, and the comics medium was uniquely equipped to express sensations around a novel environment. Walt McDougall (1858-1938) was among the pioneers of American cartooning who took special interest in this historic shift. His “Familiar Sights of a Great City – No. 1 The Cop Is Coming” (New York Journal, Sunday, Jan. 9, 1898) is among my favorite one-offs of the era.
Much like R.F Outcault’s visions of urban chaotic action in The Yellow Kid that I commented about earlier, McDougall signifies city life with images of antic physical energy but a highly individuate view of that crowd. Visually, this frantic flight of street vendors (presumably unlicensed) from a strolling cop is a delicious explosion. The mere presence of a virtually inert cop in the far background produces this lurch into the foreground of scurrying limbs and panicked visages.
McDougall’s cartoon stylings are so much more sophisticated than many of his peers here. The cantilevered limbs of all his fleeing vendors are all frozen perfectly at the apogee of their panic. He has a sharp sense of each character’s weight and stance, momentum and facial expression. All of these qualities foreshadow in my mind post-WWII master Jack Davis in particular. There is some wonderful detail in here as well, like the shadows cast by wagon wheels and fruit. The one newspaper reader in the right foreground is an oblivious counterpoint to the onrush, which only enhances the sense of movement and fear in the rest of the crowd.
McDougall’s reading of the city here is much like Outcault’s in that he never lets the crowd be a “crowd.” He personalizes the cityscape. It is a collection of highly distinct individuals rather than the crowd as faceless horde. The emerging medium of film, however, would soon reinterpret the crowd more as a mass.
That said, McDougall exercises ethnic stereotyping as broadly as his comrades often did in newspaper comics of the day. I presume that the handlebar mustaches, beards, fruit, figs and statuettes signify an early Italian-American neighborhood. The great migration of Italians to the US spanned 1880 to 1924 and settled principally in Manhattan, where they often occupied street vendor and dayworker jobs.
I like this image because it is a great example of the uniqueness of comic art in America. Of course many formal critics wrote extensively about the city, pro and con. Their skyscraping buildings, mass transport and increasingly organized city governments were considered icons of progress, the triumph of industry, the genius of science. At the same time angst over crime, disease, xenophobic responses to emigrees, dislocation from nature all proliferated. But illustration, especially comics that took the crowd and the skyscraper as its subject, could express and interpret the sensations of urban life. The cultural role of modern visual media like comics and film often were to help make sense of these feelings with nuance that eludes written prose.