My latest discovery is Winsor McCay's A Pilgrim's Progress by Mister Bunion. So, for Thanksgiving 2012, I'll appropriately share with you a selection of my favorite Pilgrims.
McCay, famous for his Little Nemo In Slumberland comics (which ran concurrently with his Pilgrim series), was incredibly hard-working and productive. As such, there are hundreds, if not thousands of fascinating, lesser-known comics by this master (dare we say genius?) of the form to discover. Of these, A Pilgrim's Progress (which McCay signed with the pen name Silas, apparently for contractual reasons) is certainly one of the strangest -- and, in my opinion, one of the most wonderfully screwy comic strip series ever done.
According to Allan Holtz's American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide (University of Michigan Press, 2012), A Pilgrim's Progress by Mister Bunion was entirely written and drawn by Winsor McCay and ran on weekdays in the New York Evening Telegram from June 26 1905 to May 4, 1909, with a 4 month hiatus in early 1906.
my previous post, McCay's strip was inspired by the 17th century allegorical novel, A Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. Like Bunyan, McCay is interested in exploring the human condition (and in some strips, the canine condition, and others). In a bizarre and entertaining way, these strips are filled with wisdom about how life seems to work for most of us.
The strip's anti-hero, Mister Bunion, is aptly named, for he seems to be forever walking through cities, countrysides, American landmarks, shops, theaters, and just about anywhere you can imagine. Bunion is tall, thin, dressed in a solid black suit, and wears an impossibly high stovepipe hat. McCay used a short, fat version of this character design for Dr. Pill in Little Nemo.
|A still image from the 1911 film, Winsor McCay and His Moving Comics|
in which Dr. Pill is quickly sketched.
I love that silent last panel. In some of the strips, Bunion seeks Glad Avenue in a continual futile but fascinating search that would be echoed generations later in the Foozland strips of Gene Ahern's The Squirrel Cage, in which the anti-hero seeks escape from an alternate universe. It may only be co-incidence that Ahern's character is also named Bunyan -- Paul Bunyan, the mythical lumberjack. In the next example, Bunion is walking down Rocky Road, seeking Glad Avenue. In the process, he finds some relief from his burden, but it only temporary.
McCay's forgotten comic resonates with a notable episode from the early Julius Knipl strips by a similar-minded comics creator, Ben Katchor. Consider this strip in which photographer Mr. Knipl finds a place to relieve himself of his "negatives" for perpetuity (or, say, 30 years), reprinted in the great 1991 collection, Cheap Novelties (I highly recommend this book).
|A modern comic strip allegory by the great Ben Katchor, similar in tone and approach to McCay's|
The Buddha taught we create our own suffering through desire. Buddhism teaches us that it is our reaction to something that makes us happy or unhappy. In other words, there is nothing outside of us that can actually create happiness or unhappiness. There is an essential truth to this, I think -- and I find it useful. However, if I were in a Nazi concentration camp in WWII, I seriously doubt that I would be able to find a way to not suffer and make my reaction peaceful -- although perhaps some did. In any case, McCay's strip, not Buddhist, but also not explicitly Christian, is concerned with the suffering of a mundane life and how to escape it. In the strip below, Mr. Bunion, inspired by spiritual advice, decides to see his valise in a new light.
The man that Mr. Bunion meets in the above comic thinks of himself as a good person who is sincerely interested in the affairs of others, but in reality, he's fearful, grasping, and selfish. In the above comic, I am also extremely fascinated by the very tall and narrow chapeau Mr. Bunion dons.
In his Progress towards spiritual growth, Mr. Bunion also encounters animals. In the brilliant strip below, Bunion learns that not even a dog is free from suffering.
In this next episode, the DULL CARE valise is X-rayed, with predictable but still funny results -- offering a comment on the inability of technological progress to help with spiritual advancement. Note how Bunion's comments morph from excited sincerity to barely veiled disgust. McCay's lettering is surprisingly poor and hard to read for such a precise artist, suggesting his dialogue is an after-thought. I've discovered that it's worth taking the time to carefully read his dialogue, as it's quite good.
Another favorite episode of mine in this screwball series is the one where Mr. Bunion visits his family home, and we learn about his ancestors, each one of which had their own burden to carry...
There is the idea, in some spiritual works, that emotional pain is accumulated throughout life and inevitably passed on from parent to child. McCay's strip above is a delightful play on this idea. IO love the room fullof family "heirlooms" that include debts, anxiety, and bad luck.
In this dreamlike comic, in which we can jump around in time and space, Mr. Bunion also appears to have a "normal" life, with a wife. In my last episode, McCay is particularly inspired. Mr. Bunion tries a scheme to rid himself of Dull Care at a pawn shop....
"You find only pain if you seek aftee pleasure
You work like a slave if you seek after leisure
Watch out for
the trap door."
Lastly, I offer the observation that McCay's allegorical comic strip is echoed in his editorial cartoons, in which people and objects are labeled as various symbols. Here's just one example of hundreds, this one from 1928, almost 20 years after McCay stropped creating his Pilgrim strips.
In any case, I've noticed that the Checker Winsor McCay books are currently available on Amazon and Ebay for a mere fraction of their original retail prices. I bought a few volumes for less than a dollar! Given that Checker is no longer in business, and these books must have had small print runs, I'd say that it's a wise move to snap these up and stash them in your own Dull Care valise.
I am also thankful for Reid, Claire, Olivia, Zamfir, and all my wonderful friends -- you guys are the best!
I'm Thankful I Can Still Carry My Own Suitcase,