Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania

The first two chapters of Hillary L. Chute’s new study of comics as “visual witness” to wars and atrocities are a brief but informative tour of the history of narrative visual depictions of wartime trauma. After beginning with Callot and Goya, Chute describes the development of the form in fits and starts from the nineteenth century to the 1960s. Her story includes the work of cartoonist Winsor McCay, best known for his surreal comic series Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland. An early experimenter with animated films, McCay created an animated documentary of the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania in 1915. The Sinking of the Lusitania is about nine minutes long, including intertitles and an interesting live action introduction that explains how McCay drew the cel animation of the film.

I’m hardly the right person to judge the craftsmanship of McCay’s animation, but I’d second Chute’s judgement that his renderings are “detailed, proportional, and realistic.” McCay carefully balances the desire to horrify with the need not to alienate the viewer. His “long shots” of people jumping from the deck of the ship into the sea are still pretty powerful in the grainy versions you can see on YouTube.

I was already familiar with many of the images that Chute discusses, from the Miseries of War to Maus, but The Sinking of the Lusitania was new to me. It’s an interesting precursor to Second World War animated films like Victory Through Air Power.

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