Monday, June 17, 2024

Comics: Emma C. McKean, the First Woman to Create Artwork for a Comic Book

This post is dedicated to the late Trina Robbins

Emma Cecilia McKean was born on December 16, 1907, in Taunton, Massachusetts according to a birth record at Her parents were David McKean (England) and Emma Anderson (Sweden). McKean’s middle name was found in Surprise for Snoozey (1944) and The British National Bibliography Annual Volume 1954

The 1910 United States census said McKean (line 12) was the youngest of three siblings. Their father was a machinist at a spindle factory. They were residents of Taunton at 55 Grove Street.

At some point the McKeans moved to Brooklyn, New York. 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (New York), April 20 and May 18, 1917, listed McKean at the Winfield Scott School, P. S. No. 140. She was in classroom 3B1 then 3B2.

The 1920 census counted the McKean family of seven (lines 20 to 26) in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn at 843 51st Street. 

The 1925 New York state census said the McKean family (lines 37 to 43) were in Brooklyn at 930 52nd Street. 

According to the Brooklyn Standard Union, June 24, 1926, McKean graduated from Bay Ridge High School, Fourth Avenue and Senator Street. 

McKean continued her art training at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She graduated in 1929. (Two of her classmates were Myron Waldman and Cipe Pineles.)

McKean, Emma C.     Em
6716 Ridge Blvd., Brooklyn, N. Y.
A professional young woman both
artistically and transcriptionally—her 
reverse writing is just adorably accurate.

The 1930 census said McKean (line 43) was unemployed. She lived with her parents and siblings in Brooklyn at 7104 Narrows Avenue. 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 3, 1930, said McKean designed the scenery for “My Kerry Colleen,” a new Irish play presented by the Catholic Drama Guild. 

McKean’s newspaper syndicate work began in 1931. A children’s page was produced by Premier Syndicate which was part of the Hearst publishing empire. Later, her work was transferred to King Features Syndicate. 

Atlantic City Press (New Jersey), June 14, 1931

Sunday Courier and Journal (Evansville, Indiana),
September 27, 1931

Atlantic City Press, December 27, 1931

Atlantic City Press, March 27, 1932

Item-Tribune (New Orleans, Louisiana), May 8, 1932

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (Indiana), October 7, 1934

Providence Journal (Rhode Island),
March 31, 1940

Times-Union (Albany, New York),
January 24, 1943

San Diego Union (California), June 27, 1943

Brooklyn Eagle, March 5, 1944

Denver Post (Colorado), March 18, 1945

Wilmington Morning Star (North Carolina),
November 27, 1947

Detroit Times (Michigan), August 28, 1949

Daily Argus (Mount Vernon, New York), December 18, 1950

Daily Argus, May 4, 1951

Sunday Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), June 7, 1953

Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge,
Louisiana), September 20, 1953

In 1935 McKean produced three pages of art, featuring Sister and Brother and The Travel Twins, for Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s comic book, New Fun, number one, December 1935. (Reprinted in 2020; sample pages from issues one, three and four are here.) Other comic books with her art are listed at the Grand Comics Database

According to the 1940 census, McKean was a self-employed artist (line 40). She and her parents were Brooklyn residents at 77 89th Street. 

McKean was profiled in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 11, 1943.

Her Labor of Love Brings Children Joy
Young Bay Ridge Artist Works All Hours on Books, Pictures and Verse for Youngsters

Emma C. McKean, young Bay Ridge author and artist, does “nothing but work,” so she says.

If so, it must be a labor of love.

Miss McKean, a youthful dynamo, who is up at 6 a.m. and sometimes works 14 hours out of the 24, has turned out 18 or more children’s books in the past six years. She writes the rhymes or verses, illustrates them and, when the job is complete, dispenses with the services of an agent by calling on the publishers herself.

In addition, she’s a puzzle expert, has written an untold number of melodies and designs Valentines.

Her smile is ready and radiant and there’s a soft, lovely look in her bright blue eyes, the look of one who, during waking hours, is lost in a reverie of interest or absorbing work.

The source of her inspiration?

“The ideas just come,” she says.

And, again, she says, “I just work. I’m so busy doing it I have no time to figure out how it’s done.”

Miss McKean has written rhymes and verses as long as she can remember. She studied art at Pratt Institute but she’s “self-taught” in the type of work she produces. Her work sells because of the “idea” behind it.

And the “greatest thrill” is to stand at a counter in department or 5 and 10 cent store and see a customer choose her work from the other children’s books on display. 

The “Color Rhyme” coloring book and the “Surprise Party” cut-out dolls book, both of which came out in January, are enjoying brisk sales. Her very first book, the “Children of All Nations” coloring book, published six years or so ago, ran into sales of a million or more, she estimated. [Children of All Nations was published by Whitman in 1934.]

In the color rhyme paint books the little reader not only tries his hand with the paint brush but fills in the blank space in the rhyme with the appropriate word for the color—such as blue, green, pink, brown or yellow.

Miss McKean’s books, aside from the illustrations, are “illuminated” by all the feathered and furred friends that every child loves—sleepy and playful kittens, a duck swimming on the pound, a chicken poised on a picket fence or a seal bouncing a ball.

Working in a quiet little room in her home at 9417 Ridge Boulevard, that she calls her “studio.” Miss McKean remembers what she “liked as a child.” That, perhaps, is the greatest inspiration for the work she produces, for her childhood was a happy one.

Her parents are Mr. and Mrs. David McKean. 
In 1943 the McLoughlin Bros., Inc., published the Magic Fairy Tales series. Four moveable books were illustrated by McKean: Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Little Red Riding Hood

McKean illustrated these books for Whitman: Surprise for Snoozey (1944), Fluffy and Tuffy the Twin Ducklings (1947) and Pussy-Willow (1948). For Saalfield Publishing Company, McKean illustrated Things to Do for Boys & Girls of All Ages (1949) and 14 Good Little Dolls (1951). 

The Brooklyn Eagle, May 2, 1945, said
Win at Ping-Pong
The National Catholic Community Service held its annual tournament of champions and the winners were Emma McKean of Bay Ridge and John Lickorish of the U. S. Maritime Service, Sheepshead Bay.
The 1946 Brooklyn telephone directory listed McKean at 9417 Ridge Boulevard. 

McKean’s address in the 1950 census was unchanged. She was an illustrator (line 29). 

In 1953 McKean designed children’s toothbrush handles for Du Pont

McKean had the same address in the 1958 Brooklyn telephone directory. At some point she moved to Long Island, New York. 

McKean claimed her Social Security benefits on December 3, 1973. 

In the 1980s McKean illustrated several titles for Catholic Book Publishing

McKean passed away on March 7, 1992, in Nassau County, New York. The Social Security Death Index said her last residence was in Bellmore. She was laid to rest at Holy Cross Cemetery

Further Reading
AbeBooks, Magic Fairy Tales series
DC, Creative Change: The First Women to Write for DC

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