'Mr. Slim's Experience at Sea' (Harper's New Monthly Magazine #9. 1855).

John McLenan was a 19th-century American illustrator and caricaturist, best remembered for livening up the pages of Charles Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities' (1859) and 'Great Expectations' (1859-1861). In case of the latter title, he was the original illustrator. McLenan was furthermore one of the house cartoonists of Harper's Weekly and Harper's Magazine. Some of his cartoons are interesting because they make use of the text comics format, like his series about 'Mr. Slim' (1855) and 'Mr. Elephant' (1857-1858). Unfortunately McLenan's professional career lasted less than a decade, since he died at a young age.

Life and career
John McLenan was born in 1827 in Philadelphia, but grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked in a meat packing company. According to legend he was discovered by engraver DeWitt C. Hitchcock, while making drawings on top of the barrels. In reality McLenan's drawings already appeared in the Enquirer in the mid-1850s when Hitchcock offered him a job at Harper's Weekly. During the 1850s and 1860s, McLenan's illustrations could be seen in The New York Picayune, the Jolly Joker, Harper's New Monthly Magazine and Harper's Weekly. Especially in the latter magazine McLenan was one of the main cartoonists and illustrators, alongside Theodore R. Davis, Winslow Homer, Livingston Hopkins, Henry Mosler, Thomas Nast, Granville Perkins and Alfred & William Waud.


Illustration from 'Great Expectations'.

Book illustrations
While first and foremost a widely read news magazine, Harper's Weekly also prepublished novels by established authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens. One such book was Charles Dickens' historical novel 'A Tale of Two Cities' (1859), which is set during the French Revolution. In the United Kingdom this story had been serialized in the magazine All the Year Round, where it was illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne, aka Phiz. Since U.S. readers hadn't read it yet, it was easy for Harper's Weekly to just let one of their own artists, namely McLenan, create new illustrations to the story when it ran in Harper's Weekly between 7 May and 3 December 1859.

The same happened when the magazine obtained the rights to another Dickens classic, 'Great Expectations' (1860-1861). Since the prepublication of 'Great Expectations' in All the Year Round had appeared without illustrations, it made McLenan the novel's first original illustrator. Yet when 'Great Expectations' appeared in book form, Marcus Stone was the illustrator. Later artists who've livened up the pages of this timeless story about Pip the orphan have been Henry Louis Stephens, F.W. Pailthorpe, Matthew Bock, F.A. Fraser and Harry Furniss. John M. Burns adapted 'Great Expectations' into a comic for DC Thomson in the 1960s. Compared with other Dickensian illustrators like Robert Seymour, George Cruikshank and John Leech, McLenan never reached the same amount of fame, though he remains notable as the only original Dickens illustrator who hailed from the United States rather than the United Kingdom.

McLenan also illustrated Wilkie Collins' novels 'The Woman in White' (1859) and 'No Name' (1860-1862), previously prepublished in All the Year Round, though without illustrations. McLenan's final illustrated novel was Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 'A Strange Story' (1862). His talent drew comparisons with Hablot Knight Browne, aka Phiz, and some even nicknamed him "the American Phiz".


'Life Insurance, A Dream' (1856).

Humor comics
During his short career and lifespan, McLenan still found time to be a comics pioneer. The text comic 'How Mr. T. Square Prepared His Picture For The Academy' in the first volume of The New York Journal (August-December 1853) is attributed to him. The story features a comical character, T. Square, who goes through absurd lengths to have his portrait painted for the Academy. Only one sentence appears underneath each image, allowing for an easy read, but also a very outstretched story which lasts five pages.

In the September 1855 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, McLenan drew a humorous comic strip titled 'Mr. Slim's Experience at Sea'. It features the unpleasant travel of a certain Mr. Slim, who suffers from seasickness and bumping into things by the shaking ship. The unlucky Mr. Slim reappeared in another humoristic comic strip that year, 'Mr. Slim's Piscotorial Experience', where he goes fishing. All things considered the character seems to be a genuine landlubber, unfit to be near water.

In 1856 Harper's ran 'Life Insurance, A Dream', a text comic poking fun at what can can go wrong despite being insured. McLenan followed this up a year later with 'Elephantine Metamorphosis' (1857), starring an anthropomorphic elephant in various comedic situations. He reused this elephant comic character a year later too, naming him 'Mr. Elephant'.


"Mr. Elephant at Mrs. Potiphar's Grand Soiree" (Harper's New Monthly Magazine #10, 1858).

Political comics
During the late 1850s and early 1860s McLenan's comics became more satirical. In 1858-1859 the U.S. led a military expedition to Paraguay, after Paraguayan soldiers had fired upon an American ship and killed one U.S. crew member three years earlier, in February 1855. Many expected a war, but once the troops had arrived in the country, a peace settlement had been reached. Paraguayan president Carlos Antonio Lopez gave a public apology for the 1855 shooting, compensated the slain sailor's family and signed a commerce and navigation treaty with the U.S. McLenan made a sequential cartoon about this military conflict for the 30 April 1859 issue of Harper's Weekly, titled 'How the People At Home Supposed The War Would End'/'How It Did End'. The first panel shows a war, the second shows the peace agreement. 

On 9 February 1861 Harper's Weekly published a one-shot comic by McLenan titled 'The North and the South'. It depicts the U.S. North and South argueing while a black slave looks on in the background. In the final panel they all embrace in agreement, because Harper's wanted to stay neutral in the whole real-life argument about the abolition of slavery. Unfortunately real life was less idyllic and a mere two months after this comic strip was published the U.S. Civil War broke out.

The Flight of Abraham Lincoln, by John McLenan 1961
"The Flight of Abraham" (Harper's Weekly, 9 March 1861).

On 9 March 1861 John McLenan made a comic strip for issue #219 of Harper's Weekly titled 'The Flight of Abraham (As Reported By A Modern Daily Paper)'. The four-panel story was based on a real anecdote about U.S. president Abraham Lincoln when he visited Baltimore. A stranger told him that there was a plot to assassinate him and that it would be advisable to instantly leave the city in disguise and return to Washington D.C. Told in a text comics format, all texts underneath the panels are direct quotations from a newspaper article. The illustrations themselves are more comical, complete with dialogue in speech balloons drawn from McLenan's own imagination.

McLenan made another sequential illustration for Harper's Weekly, published on 12 July 1862. A "before/after" cartoon, it references U.S. general Benjamin Butler whose troops occupied New Orleans at the time. Most citizens naturally didn't like this fact and there had been reports of women showing their contempt to the soldiers by demonstrably avoid looking at them, turning their back sides, walking away and even spitting. On 15 May 1862 Butler therefore issued a general order (no. 28) which instructed his troops to treat any woman in New Orleans who insulted them as a prostitute. The cartoon depicts women spitting on Butler in the first panel, "before Mr. Butler's proclamation" and then acting normal to him in the second panel after the law went into effect.

Death and legacy
John McLenan died young. He was only 37-38 years old when he passed away in 1865. His early death likely contributed to his current obscurity.

The War with Paraguay, by John McLenan 1859
'The War with Paraguay', Harper's Weekly, 30 April 1859. 

www.harpweek.com

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