Walt McDougall’s City – The Rube’s-Eye View

It is a shame that Walt McDougall has been overlooked by most comic strip history, because he left a lot of great material behind. While accounts differ over who originated different formats, everyone agrees he was among the first modern political cartoonists for the weekly humor magazines of the 1880’s and 90’s. He was among the first to create Sunday newspaper comic images in color. He visualized L. Frank Baum’s “Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of OZ” and penned “Peck’s Bad Boy.” newspaper series. And he was among the first syndicated cartoonists. His autobiography This Is The Life was one of the first lengthy chronicles of the early days of cartoon art as told by a practitioner.

But as I mentioned in my last post on one of my favorite McDougall panels, “Familiar Sights of a Great City – No. 1 The Cop Is Coming,” he was one of many early comic artists to take the new city experience as his subject, “Life in the City as the Countryman Pictures It” makes the country vs. city disjunction explicit.

Here he brings to life the “Countryman’s” caricature of city life. This one rich and very busy tableau serves up many of the age’s fears about the new city environment, and many of them have to do with deception, con games, wealth. Notice the many window signs for mail order houses and by-mail courses, alluding to many such come-ons most Americans knew from the classified ads in the backs of national magazines and local newspapers. At each corner of the panel we see rural folk as our point of identification, wary of the city’s seductions. The streets are literally paved in cash. The street sweeper complains about having to clean up the money. The loca bank is transferring moneybags down a Chouteau through the window. And Mssrs. Rockefeller and Morgan carry their own valises of “Cash” down the left sidewalk. McDougall satirizes the velocity of urban build-out and industry in the Waterstock Bldg that is under construction but advertises rooms ready today.

Starting with the multi-layered crowd-scapes of R.F. Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” the comic arts were uniquely positioned to depict the sensations of modern urban life. The full page could freeze the cityscape and let the eye travel across its multiple planes of disconnected action, dialogue and relationships. Film was good at depicting the crowd as a throng – an undifferentiated force. Artists like Outcault, McDougall and later Harrison Cady and Harvey Kurtzman instead used the large panel as a way to find order and sense, or at least meaning, in what otherwise seems like chaos when in motion.

In one sense artists of this crowd style both interpret the new masses and instruct us in how to view the urban world. These images force our eye into the the detail of the crowd, to ferret out the little stories, miniature satires, little in-joke details. They are giving us a powerful vision of how not to see the crowd as a crowd but as a glorious and exciting tableau of many small worlds all somehow going in the same direction.

Also interesting to me is how the image is about subjectivity itself. McDougall is bringing to life a specific fantasy of the new city, using the comic page to dramatize the way a particular part of America caricatures another.

McDougall’s City Vision

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.