If McCall’s work could be said to have a trademark, it would be the sly and pokerfaced blending of reality with fantasy to create impossible but almost credible objects, scenes and worlds, usually in the cause of satire, and often historical satire.
A pre-adolescent Bruce McCall won the five-dollar first prize for watercolors at the 1947 Norfolk County Fair in his native Simcoe, Ontario, employing the corny trick effect of a boat reflected in still water. It was the last humor-free illustration he ever did, and from then on there was no stopping him. 23 years elapsed, however, before a McCall illustration saw publication, and 22 years more before he managed to make art more than a sideline. He dropped out of high school to apprentice in a tiny commercial art studio in Windsor, Ontario, and when the company folded and he fobbed himself off to a Toronto studio as a commercial art pro, he astonished his co-workers and himself by hanging on for six giddy weeks before being found out and bounced. It was at this point that McCall started over, this time as a writer. It would be ten years before he picked up a paintbrush again.
The idea that both could be folded into one career arrived remarkably late. The first inkling came in 1970, when McCall was tricked into painting the illustrations for a Playboy humor piece co-authored with a friend, and liked it. Deliverance arrived soon afterward, via a chance encounter with The National Lampoon, then at its peak. His humor sensibilities perfectly meshed with the editorial tone of that iconoclastic and free-spirited magazine, which was soon encouraging McCall’s double-barreled creativity and allowing his idiosyncratic enthusiasms—zeppelins, steamships, Fifties cars—to devour huge amounts of space in issue after issue. Destiny had knocked at last. McCall jumped from a lucrative advertising career to the humble but glorious freelance life.
Liberation unlocked an imagination already predisposed to the surreal. If McCall’s work could be said to have a trademark, it would be the sly and pokerfaced blending of reality with fantasy to create impossible but almost credible objects and scenes and worlds. Usually in the cause of satire and often historical satire, a genre McCall has marked out almost exclusively for himself. With none of his peers protesting.
Television was beating out of the magazine world; in the fall of 1975 “Saturday Night Live” came to do on the tube what the Lampoon was doing the old-fashioned way. America’s always modest appetite for satire was sated by SNL’s broad and almost vaudevillian brand. The Lampoon was finished almost overnight.
Back into advertising. It took years for him to recover and summon the nerve to approach The New Yorker, a lifelong grail. That magazine’s historical tolerance for the eccentric, to his shock, extended to him. He began as strictly a writer of humor “casuals,” but on the advent of Tina Brown’s editorship expanded to covers and evolved into an in-house jack-of-all writing and illustrating trades. With The New Yorker as his flagship, he also became a frequent contributor of satirical art to Vanity Fair and innumerable other major publications, with occasional dips into advertising illustration here and in Europe. He has published two collections of his work, “Zany Afternoons” (1982) and “All Meat Looks Like South America” (2003), an original book satirizing the 1950s, “The Last Dream-O-Rama.” and a serious memoir, “Thin Ice,” published in 1997 and later made into a documentary by the National Film Board of Canada.
Bruce McCall’s singular style of illustration is owed in part to a boyhood awash in popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, LIFE, Look and Fortune, where product realism amid lifestyle fantasy, as depicting in thousands of ads—all of them illustrated—seeped into his synapses. It’s owed in larger part to being entirely self-taught—which, when you don’t know anything, teaches some exhilarating lessons. He still works exclusively in gouache because that was how they did it in 1955 in that commercial art studio in Windsor.
The above explains why McCall’s illustrative style so seldom ventures beyond a laborious realism often described as “thirties-like” or “nostalgic,” as if it were a conscious choice among millions of others. The truth is that he couldn’t do thing any differently if he tried.
Luckily for him, he hasn’t.
Please note: Content of biography is presented here as it was published in 2004.