Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Lost Winsor McCay Screwball Masterpiece: A Pilgrim's Progress

Winsor 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.

As I discussed in 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. 
Like Dr. Pill, Mr. Bunion carries a valise. His valise is (usually) labeled DULL CARE, and it is his burden in life to carry it. Several of the episodes are built around Mr. Bunion's attempts to rid himself of the accursed suitcase. These attempts, of course, never work.  In one example, he hurls it into the Grand Canyon. In the strip below, he climbs to the top of the Washington Monument, hoping the fall from such a height might destroy the valise and free him.

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. 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.

Of course, it's no use. In McCay's Pilgrim's Progress, life seems to inevitably cycle through its ups and downs, not matter how strong our resolve to remain in the light. A pilgrim is a person who journeys to a place for religious reasons. Mr. Bunion -- like many of us -- seems to be on an involuntary journey towards an unspecified sacred place. As with any great epic journey story, many different fellow travelers are met along the way. Most of the people Bunion meets are afflicted with some form of spiritual or moral illness. In most cases, they are unaware of their illness, and the strips assume even greater depth as we move the allegory of the literal Dull Care suitcase to the hidden faults of people. In the next example I'd like to share with you, Mr. Bunion encounters "the man with the changeable face," a man who is unable to help another for fear of losing what he has got -- and a totally oblivious hypocrite.

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. If one takes the time to carefully read Winsor McCay's poorly lettered dialogue, one will discover it is quite good.

"Huh. It's a wonderful machine, it is indeed." Great stuff. McCay had as much fun with A Pilgrim's Progress By Mister Bunion as he did with his more well-known Silas strip, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. Just as he famously crossed-over his character Sammy from his Sammy Sneeze strip into another of his comics, Hungry Henrietta, McCay also effected at least one "Dream" cross-over in A Pilgrim's Progress. The strip below stars Teddy Roosevelt, President of the United States at the time of the strip's creation and original publication -- and a famous big game hunter.

It's poignant to see how Bunion daydreams that his valise can secretly help the President.  This is not much different than a kid daydreaming he's Batman.

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....

Things are rarely what they seem. In T-Bone Burnett's unforgettable song, "Trap Door," he sings:

"You find only pain if you seek after 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.

I hope these episodes of a Pilgrim's journey were entertaining. A word about the source. These were scanned in from Winsor McCay Early Works, Volume 1 (Checker Publishing Group, 2003). There are nine of these trade paper volumes in the series, most of which offer anywhere from 10 to 50 episodes of A Pilgrim's Progress, as well as many other worthwhile and forgotten comics and illustrations by Winsor McCay. When I first checked one of these books out from my public library, I was sorely disappointed in the reproduction quality and wrote the entire series off. I was too hasty. Even though many of the comics in these books do not meet the high expectations of today's readers of comic reprint books, there is great value in Checker's series. For one thing, most of this material would never have otherwise seen the light of day. For another, reproducing 100+ year old black and white line art from aged newspapers that weren't well printed to begin with (in some cases) yields far less satisfactory results than scanning full color comics pages from 40-50 years later.

The Checker Winsor McCay books are can often be found on Amazon and Ebay for a mere fraction of their original retail prices. It might be a wise move to snap these up and stash them in your own Dull Care valise.

Your Pilgrim,
Paul Tumey


  1. I have known and loved Mr. Bunion for ten years now, but never have I even atempted to write about it. I feared it would just be too much work. You have managed to do so and make it look easy. You blog remains an inspiration to me for my own Dull Care, the daily blog I have committed myself to. Because one thing McCay did not note but must have known, is that a bit of Dull Care does give every day a purpose.I hope someone will one day collect them in the same way the German collector Ulrich Merkel has collected all of the Dreams (a book you really should have, and cheap too). In the meantime I am selling all of my Checker books, because tehy do take up a lot of room. Anyone interested can contact me.

  2. Hello - thank you for writing about this important comic. A year ago I started my research on McCay and this was one of the only places where I found significant commentary on Pilgrim's Progress. I have recently completed a catalog of the strip, including transcription. The catalog is completely searchable and, thanks to the University of Richmond, free and available to anyone. Please visit Mr.Bunion at