In 1973 the National Lampoon, then an engaging American humour magazine, ran The Shame of the North, a mock report on a Canadian border town. It brought something fresh to Canada’s image, an endearing celebration of the bland. The National Lampoon implied that if Americans sought wickedness in Mexican border towns, they found the opposite by crossing into Canada. A two-page drawing showed the attractions available: the Kit-Kat-Klub, with shuffleboard, a live organist and free mints; a movie theatre advertising “Eskimo Love Orgy: Nose Rubbing”; a chapel ready to perform quickie baptisms; and a snack bar where the only ice cream sold was vanilla.
This portrait of Canada was of course grossly unfair, defamatory and delightful. It was also my introduction to Bruce McCall, a New York cartoonist, adman and writer who was then starting to carve out a place of his own in American published comedy. McCall has become better known since the publication of his memoir, Thin Ice, in 1997, and will be better known still when the National Film Board releases its sparkling film adaptation of that book, with the same title, directed by Laurence Green and produced by Gerry Flahive.
In the film we glimpse McCall’s great comic illustrations, the best of which also appear in the book Zany Afternoons. Three years after the border-town item, Esquire published his seven-page Mementos and Memories of the 1936 Cairo World’s Fair. There was no Cairo world’s fair in 1936, but McCall’s account was so true to the Expo spirit (his imaginary fair had history’s first giraffe rodeo) that it seemed entirely credible. That piece established his unique talent for depicting, with straight-faced plausibility, incidents in history that never happened and pastimes that never existed.
Over the years he has reported on polo played in surplus tanks from the First World War, Zeppelin shooting as a sport, the string quartets that used to play in the New York subway, and American stamps issued to celebrate inventions such as cheese-flavoured dog food and static-free socks. In August, 1998, he imagined that we had become a blimp-flying society, so his New Yorker cover showed a blimp parking lot, advertising “self-park U-moor-it.” (Blimps, Zeppelins and dirigibles are a McCall obsession.) In May, 1999, he did a New Yorker cover showing Times Square as nostalgia mongers of today imagine it existed in the past, with high-toned artists like Sophocles dominating the theatre billboards.
His illustration style owes a little to Art Deco and a little more to the advertising of the 1940s. He developed it for magazine comedy, but now his paintings are on the walls of the James Goodman Gallery in New York, priced at US$6,500 or US$7,500.
—from Robert Fulford’s column about Bruce McCall. (The National Post, September 26, 2000)