When a child picks up a newspaper, it is often to see the wacky adventures of Snoopy or if Garfield still hates Mondays. Flashback to 1902, children who expected the funny pages instead found the scary drawings of Walt McDougall.
In the history of American newspapers, McDougall was one of the most accomplished cartoonists. He began his career as an engraver for The New York Daily Graphic while freelancing for other outlets like Harper’s Weekly and Puck.
McDougall got his big break at the New York World, where he collaborated with Mark Fenderson on the first American color comic strip “The Unfortunate Fate of a Well-Intentioned Dog.” He was also the first syndicated cartoonist through his work on Bill Nye’s (unrelated to the Science Guy) editorial column for the American Press Association.
The Monster in Politicians’ Closets
During his time at New York World, McDougall drew many political cartoons. One of his cartoons, “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings,” was instrumental in influencing the 1884 presidential election. In this cartoon, McDougall created a parody of Belshazzar’s feast from the bible, comparing it to Republican nominee James. G Blaine’s feast with wealthy benefactors before the election.
Spread across New York billboards, the cartoon scared Blaine out of key votes to win the state, which resulted in his loss to Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland.
Besides his work in politics, McDougall’s body of work expanded to “Walt McDougall’s Good Stories for Children,” published in the Herald. In addition to a misleading name, the series consisted of children interacting with monsters in perilous situations.
The stories included text with a lesson or dialog from the strange creatures, which gave some context to the disturbing images oozing off the inked pages. McDougall created this series to show children that despite the wonders of the world, there is always danger afoot.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
While many were frightened by McDougall’s work, others were engrossed with his work. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, clicked his heels three times to collaborate with McDougall on a comic strip.
Together the two created Queer Visitors from the Land of Oz, which saw various Oz characters adventuring around the United States. The purpose of the comic strip was to promote The Marvelous Land of Oz, a sequel to his smash hit.
The Fascination of Childhood Horror
Whether it be the monster in their closet or the desire to see a scary movie, children are fascinated with horror in some shape or form. Nowadays, children may not rush to read a newspaper filled with monsters, but books like Goosebumps and video games like Five Nights at Freddy’s show McDougall was onto something in his horror compositions. He managed to tap into a timeless and infinite resource: fear of the unknown.
By James Whelan, contributor for Ripleys.com