Kirsten McKinney, GC'15

June 26, 2014
A class project leads to independent study and, ultimately, a resource for comic arts researchers everywhere

Most of the time, a student's project ends when the grades are handed out. For Kirsten McKinney, GC’15, that was just the beginning.

It all started in the Sleuths to Cyborgs: 20th Century Popular Culture class, taught by American studies professor Meghan Rosatelli. As a Master of Liberal Arts student, McKinney must apply an individual focus area — in her case, 20th century American art and its effect on culture — to the subject of every class she takes. She was searching for a research topic when Rosatelli’s class turned to comics and, specifically, comic artist Winsor McCay.

“Winsor McCay is actually one of the first really well-known comic artists,” McKinney says. “He did a tremendous amount of ground-breaking work, artistically. He used perspective, where it hadn’t really been used in comics before. His talent is just phenomenal.”

Rosatelli put her in touch with Cindy Jackson in special collections at Virginia Commonwealth University library, which houses a comic arts collection with more than 40,000 comic books. “It was the best afternoon ever,” McKinney says. “I spent the whole afternoon in the library in the silent archives with all these gorgeous books.”

She spent the early summer researching McCay’s adult comic series, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and its connection to the culture of the time. But when the assignment was finished, McKinney knew she wasn’t.

During her research, she also developed an interest in McCay’s commentary on the Gilded Age and wealth in America. Experts previously stated that only Dream of the Rarebit Fiend had self-referential content. But McKinney argued that the content of another series — A Pilgrim’s Progress by Mister Bunion — included social commentary and references to McCay’s own struggles with social class differences.

“I really thought that Pilgrim’s Progress was much more a diary for McCay,” she says. “He drew two Dream of the Rarebit Fiend comics and one Pilgrim’s Progress comics each week for the New York Evening Telegram and he drew a Little Nemo in Slumberland for the New York Herald every Sunday. He worked all the time, and his art became his monotony. If you look at Mister Bunion, he’s always looking for Easy Street, he goes to Restville, Comfortopolis, and Pleasant Park. And he’s always trying to get rid of his valise.”

As her researched progressed, though, McKinney struggled to find a similar definitive resource on Pilgrim’s Progress as the one she used for her previous work. Without a complete, dated catalog, McKinney couldn’t link the content of specific cartoons to major cultural events.

That was when McKinney realized, if she was going to do the research, she was going to need to complete the collection on her own. Using the University library’s interlibrary loan program, she requested microfilms of the New York Evening Telegram, which the New York State Library sent — five reels at a time.

As she received the microfilms, she started cataloging. Every cartoon was logged, scanned, transcribed, dated, and keyworded.

Again, when the semester was over and the research complete, McKinney still felt there was more work to do. She knew how challenging her own research had been and wanted to make the process easier for the next person.

Enter: Chris Kemp. Head of discovery, technology, and publishing in the library, he and the rest of his team have helped faculty find ways to display large quantities of content online in a usable way.

“Most of the people that come in to the library are students, but behind the scenes, we end up working with a lot of faculty members,” Kemp says. “It’s not every day that we in technical services, the backend of the library, get to work with students. For a lot of us, we kind of miss that.”

Using Omeka, a content management system for digital collections and museum archives, Kemp helped McKinney take her spreadsheet of content and create an online archive of Pilgrim’s Progress — the first of its kind.

Since the launch this spring, McKinney has been spreading the word among the sources she relied on for her early research, and Rosatelli already uses the website as a primary text in her summer class on the American dream, where McKinney was also a student.

“The students were asked to look through the archive and read at least three strips, and then Kirsten brought some materials to class and gave her presentation,” Rosatelli says. “Some of the work she presented wasn't in the archive or in her essay, so it was new to me as well as the students.”

That new awareness of McCay and Pilgrim’s Progress is just what McKinney hoped would come of the project.

“Meghan [Rosatelli] calls it a gift to the comic arts world,” she says. “I don’t own it. It was never mine. I just don’t want the next person who researches Winsor McCay to have the same frustrations I had.