Comic Book Legends Revealed #522

COMIC LEGEND: Winsor McCay's animated propaganda film, The Sinking of the Lusitania, helped inspire the United States to join World War I.


Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the German Navy sinking the passenger ship the Lusitania, killing over 1,000 people (including over 100 Americans) an action that sparked a good deal of American interest in going to war with Germany in World War I.

Travis Pelkie wanted me to feature Winsor McCay's response to the sinking in CBLR, so, well, here we are!

Winsor McCay, of course, was the acclaimed cartoonist whose comic strip, Little Nemo (and his adventures in Slumber Land), that ran from 1905-1926, is one of the most celebrated and acclaimed comic strips in the history of comics.

McCay was far more than just a cartoonist, however, as he was a talented vaudeville performer (he would do performances involving him drawing sketches for the audience) and an innovator in the field of animation.

His main gig, though, was as a cartoonist for William Randolph Hearst's newspaper syndicate. Under this job, he was beholden to whatever views Hearst wanted him to express. When the Lusitania sank, Hearst's position was isolationism, so Hearst did not want to make such a big deal out of the event. McCay differed from him greatly, and so he put together an epic 9-minute cartoon about the event, intended to serve as propaganda to drive an isolationist United States into action.

The finished film was a masterpiece, using techniques that were so ahead of their time that no one could even follow it up, and we wouldn't see films made to this level for another decade or so.

However, history has somewhat lost track of the timeline when people talk about the film. Yes, it was a masterpiece of propaganda. However, it also debuted in the Spring of 1918...over a year AFTER the United States went to war with Germany.

You see, the project was SO ahead of its time that McCay worked on it for over two years.

So it really didn't end up being all that important as a piece of propaganda. People also often misrepresent it as being the first depiction of the sinking of the Lusitania. This is also not true, as again, the time it took to make it meant that by the time it was released, many short films had been released that depicted the event. One of them even starred a SURVIVOR of the actual attack, actress Rita Jolivet.

The film was still acclaimed for its time (although it did not do all that well at the box office)...

And surely it did its part as propaganda for the war effort in general, but its impact has often been misstated by people who have run afoul of the timeline. I guess people figured that the film was released closer to the actual sinking of the Lusitania, which was nearly two years before the United States actually joined the fray.

As it turned out, McCay's attention to detail actually ended up killing his animation career, as Hearst was irked that he was spending so much time on animation that he forced him to quit doing animated films (just like he made him quit doing much of his vaudeville work) as he felt it distracted from McCay's main job drawing for him. McCay was highly compensated at the time financially, of course, it's just a shame that he wasn't able to continue his groundbreaking work in the field of animation.

Thanks for the suggestion, Travis!

Okay, that's it for this week!

Thanks to the Grand Comic Book Database for this week's covers! And thanks to Brandon Hanvey for the Comic Book Legends Revealed logo!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is cronb01@aol.com.

As you likely know by now, at the end of April, my book finally came out!

Here is the cover by artist Mickey Duzyj. I think he did a very nice job (click to enlarge)...

If you'd like to order it, you can use the following code if you'd like to send me a bit of a referral fee...

See you next week!

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