Bruce McCall was a Canadian illustrator and essayist. He gained notability with his futuristic depictions of cars, airplanes and dystopian cities. Spoofing the carefree optimism of early to mid-20th century science fiction illustrations, his work blossomed in magazines like Playboy, National Lampoon and The New Yorker.

Early life and career
Bruce Gordon McCall was born in 1935 in Simcoe, Ontario. His father was a civil servant who later became public relations manager for the car company Chrysler in Canada. He was usually only home on weekends, where he spent most of time playing music or golf. McCall remembered him as a short-tempered man who felt his six children were a nuisance he had to get away from. McCall's mother was a housewife who simply couldn't take care of all these kids on her own. She drowned her sorrows in alcohol. In 1947, the family moved to Toronto, relocating again to Windsor in 1953. In Toronto, the family lived in a cramped apartment, making life even more miserable. McCall found escape in reading and drawing. Novels, comics and magazines opened windows to different, more exciting worlds. Growing up in a provincial Canadian society, the United States seemed like a place with a lot more promise. Or at least, that was the impression he got from gazing at the dreamlike illustrations and advertisements in glossy magazines.

McCall never went to any art school, being completely self-taught as an artist. Dropping out of high school, he became an illustrator for a local advertising agency. The company produced ads for Dodge and DeSoto. By 1959, he became a photo retoucher for A.V. Roe & Company in Toronto, where he had to focus on pots and pans in their advertising illustrations. A year later, he was hired by Maclean-Hunter to write articles for trade magazines like Pit & Quarry. Together with a friend, McCall launched his own magazine, Canadian Driver. Although its first issue was also its last, it did get him noticed by the magazine Canada Track & Traffic, where he rose from writer of articles to editor-in-chief. Despite his high position, he looked back on Canada Track & Traffic as "the world's worst magazine." None of these early jobs pleased him in the slightest. In the 1950s and 1960s, advertising illustrations slowly but surely were replaced by photography, giving McCall fewer opportunities to draw and paint. Instead he was working long, boring hours on projects he didn't believe in.

McCall's fortune changed in 1962, when David E. Davis, head of the Campbell-Ewald agency in Detroit, Michigan, hired him to write for Corvette and Corvair ads. Now in the United States, McCall later worked at J. Walter Thompson for the car company Ford. Hired by Ogilvy & Mather, he was in charge of the agency-office of Mercedes-Benz in Frankfurt, Germany. In the late 1970s, McCall became creative director for Mercedes advertising at McCaffrey & McCall, moving up the ladder as executive vice president. He left the advertising industry in 1993.

Futuristic car by Bruce McCall, published in the April 1972 issue of National Lampoon.

Futuristic illustrations
As an artist, Bruce McCall is best known for his futuristic landscapes, inspired by images he saw as a child in magazines like Collier's Weekly, Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post. The Great Depression and World War II were bleak times, when many print media speculated about a better future. In the post-war period, Western citizens had a more optimistic outlook, since peace had returned and their living standards had improved. Throughout these periods, illustrators envisioned happier, carefree times, when all of today's problems would be solved by technological advancement. Cars would fly, robots would do all the dirty work and people would colonize the Moon. Many science fiction media from the late 1940s until the early 1960s saw a bright, technological paradise ahead. As a young boy, McCall was enthralled by these images, made more believable by the realistic drawing style. Later, he grew more skeptical. It amused him that these naïve visions of the future were "always (...) hilariously, optimistically wrong." All the technological progress suggested by these illustrators never took logic into consideration. The emphasis on happiness through materialism seemed like a typical marketing lie. Every wonderful promise about the near future would have been very expensive and impractical in real life.

McCall had mixed feelings about these graphic future predictions from the past. On one hand, he felt cheated. Having been an automobile illustrator and advertising automobile copywriter himself, he had actively participated in lying to audiences and therefore a "lot of revenge to take on the subject". It also worried him that many people, including himself, had a nostalgia for this kind of art. As McCall put it: "It's the achingly sentimental yearning for times that never happened. Somebody once said that nostalgia is the one utterly most useless human emotion - so I think that's a case for serious play." On the other hand, he did enjoy the wonderful imagination displayed in these old-fashioned science fiction illustrations. He became a lifelong collector and kept them as a reference guide.

'RMS Tyrannic: The Biggest Thing in All the World'.

McCall's own gouache paintings show a fantastical but realistically drawn future, where airplanes, cars and other vehicles have magnificent designs. Everybody is wealthy and happy. Though, contrary to the artists who inspired him, McCall has a more ironic approach. He embraces the corniness of these infantile dream worlds. The technological progress in his art is so far-fetched that it becomes laughable. In one illustration, he shows a parking spot for zeppelins. The huge blimps are apparently able to park next to each other in a huge city with skyscrapers. Another drawing by McCall, 'RMS Tyrannic: The Biggest Thing in All the World', is a parody of a brochure for an ocean cruiser. The image shows a ship that is so long that it takes up several pages. Apparently by the time steerage passengers have checked in their rooms "the voyage is already over." The brochure also claims that this ship is "so safe that it carries no insurance." McCall often added extra comedy in enthusiastic advertising promises like these. He also snuck in jokes on signs and billboards. McCall called his work "retrofuturism". It "looks back to see how yesterday viewed tomorrow." One of his art shows also summarized his illustrations as "serious nonsense". As McCall explained it: "On the serious side, I use a technique of painstaking realism of editorial illustration from when I was a kid. I copied it and I never unlearned it - it's the only style I know. And it's very kind of staid and formal. And meanwhile, I use nonsense."

In 1970, McCall was hospitalized in Frankfurt, Germany. Having a lot of spare time, he wrote letters to his friend Brock Yates, editor of Car and Driver. Their correspondence resulted in a series of pseudo-scholarly articles about non-existing airplanes, complete with sketches and descriptions of their history and technological know-how. In January 1971, their article was published in Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine under the title 'Major Howdy Bixby's Album of Forgotten Warbirds'. It won the magazine's annual humor award. In 1973, two similar illustrations ran in Playboy's pages, followed by occasional new articles.

"Times Square Clean Up" (National Lampoon, 1977).

Having found a successful formula, McCall joined the satirical magazine National Lampoon in 1972, where he wrote and drew several similar tongue-in-cheek "guides" about "too good to be true" automobiles, airplanes and other inventions. To him, it was the happiest time of his life. Surrounded by kindred, creative spirits, he enjoyed writing and illustrating numerous humorous, satirical articles. He was also involved with various side projects of National Lampoon, including their sketch show 'The National Lampoon Radio Hour' and the 1976-1977 season of their TV sketch show 'Saturday Night Live'. However, he felt happier working for magazines than for radio and TV.

Starting in 1980, McCall was a regular contributor to The New Yorker, where he wrote humorous articles for their 'Shouts and Murmurs' column. From 1992 on, his futuristic art decorated pages in the magazine, usually on the cover. It also explains why many of his illustrations are set in New York City. McCall once said: "Urban absurdism - that's what The New Yorker really calls for. I try to make life in New York look even weirder than it is with those covers. I've done about 40 of them, and I'd say 30 of them are based on that concept. I was driving down 7th Avenue one night at 3 AM, and this steam was pouring out of the street, and I thought: 'What causes that? And that – who's to say?'." One of his fans was the New Yorker's new art editor, Françoise Mouly. Another celebrity admirer was comedian Steve Martin. In 1982, Grateful Dead lead singer Jerry Garcia was photographed holding a picture of McCall's 'Zany Afternoons'. His art has also appeared in magazines like Automobile Magazine, Car and Driver, Esquire, Golf Digest, The New York Times, Vanity Fair and The Walrus. For The New York Times, he wrote op-ed pieces.

The New Yorker cover of 1 December 2014.

Other artwork
While McCall is mostly associated with futuristic art, he could also make illustrations of a different kind. For The New Yorker cover of 1 December 2014, he addressed the controversy surrounding the American football team The Washington Redskins. The term "redskin" is a derogatory nickname for the indigenous people of North America, or Native Americans. Despite a lot of pressure to change their name, the club refused to do so, since polls had proven that a majority of Native American citizens weren't offended by it. In McCall's drawing, a group of Native Americans are welcomed inside a log cabin by Red Skin supporters. Judging from the guests' faces, they are quite appalled at this offensive greeting. In 2020, the Washington Redskins renamed themselves The Washington Commanders.

Another memorable cover for The New Yorker (21 January 1995) depicts three giant gorillas near the Empire State Building, auditioning for the role in 'King Kong'. McCall received a phone call from Fay Wray, the lead actress from the original 1933 'King Kong' movie, who told him that she loved the drawing.

'The World's Shortest-lived Comic Strips', The New Yorker, 7 December 1998. 

McCall was active as a children's book illustrator. He wrote and illustrated the children's book 'Marveltown' (2008) and livened up the pages of Adam Gopnik's 'The Steps Across the Water' (2010). Together with TV host David Letterman, he worked on the satirical book 'This Land Was Made for You and Me (But Mostly Me): Billionaires in the Wild' (2013). In 2006, he illustrated the cover of the album '1000 Years of Popular Music' (2006) by Richard Thompson, Judith Owen and Debra Dobkin.

McCall was author of 'Sit!: The Dog Portraits of Thierry Poncelet' (1993), 'Sit! Ancestral Dog Portraits' (2001), 'Viagra Nation: The Definitive Guide to Life in the New Sexual Utopia' (1998) and '50 Things To Do with a Book' (2009).

Between 23 April and 15 August 2021, McCall's art was featured in the exhibition 'The Fantastic City: Bruce McCall's New York', organized by the New-York Historical Society.

Final years, death and legacy
In 1997, McCall published his memoir, 'Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Canada' (1997), which received a sequel three decades later: 'How Did I Get Here?' (2020). Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, McCall eventually died in 2023 in The Bronx, New York City. He was 87 years old. His work is available in 'Bruce McCall's Zany Afternoons' (1982), 'The Last Dream-o-Rama: The Cars Detroit Forgot to Build, 1950-1960' (2001) and 'All Meat Looks Like South America: The World of Bruce McCall' (2003).

The New Yorker cover, 16 April 2012.

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