Monday, April 27, 2009

Winsor McCay (I)

Now that we may have entered the twilight of the newspaper, this may be as good a time as any to look over some souvenirs from what was, at least visually, its Golden Age.

In the course of his career, Winsor McCay (1867-1934) was a pioneer animator, a theatrical impressario, and an editorial cartoonist, among other things, but above all he was one of the supreme visionary geniuses of the newspaper comic, an art form that reached its creative peak a century ago and has -- in all frankness and despite the good work of a number of fine individual creators -- been slowly coasting downhill ever since. Imagine this in your Sunday supplement (click through for a full-sized version):

That's a sample from McCay's best-known strip (and of course the word "strip" doesn't do justice to this elaborate full-page layout), Little Nemo in Slumberland, which ran, on and off and under various names, from 1905 to the late 1920s. (All of the McCay images here are from the wonderful archive maintained at the Comic Strip Library.)

McCay, who was born in 1867 or thereabouts (the original birth records have been lost), had already been drawing cartoons professionally for several years, first in Cincinnatti and later for James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald, when he began Little Nemo. A year earlier he had begun what would become his other important newspaper project, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. The two strips would run concurrently for years, and McCay, no slouch, would continue to create other work on a regular basis as well.

Week after week the framing premise of Rarebit Fiend was unchanging: a man, or occasionally a woman, is captured in a horrifying or bizarre predicament, but in the last frame we learn that it's all been a dream, the consequence of the supposedly oneirogenic properties of the Welsh rarebit he or she has rashly consumed before retiring. The genius of the strip lay in McCay's ability to come up with an apparently inexhaustible supply of phantasmagorical variations, as both thematically and artistically he breaks new ground week after week. He plays with the dimensions of the frames, makes sophisticated self-referential jokes (one character is gradually obscured by ink blots from the artist's pen), and provokes an impressive array of unsettling horrors and fears. (The "buried alive" scenario above, of course, recapitulates Poe's nightmarish tale "The Premature Burial.")

One thing that Rarebit Fiend lacked, though, was momentum, for the strip had no narrative progression from week to week. Little Nemo, on the other hand, had a continuing story line, one which, though interrupted at the end of each week's installment, would resume where it had left off in each succeeding episode. McCay couldn't quite let go of the framing device: again we have a dreamer, this time always the same child, who awakens in bed -- or tumbling out of it -- in the last panel. But now there is a guiding narrative: at the strip's inception, on October 15, 1905, Nemo has been summoned by a messenger from King Morpheus of Slumberland, and everything that happens after that, all of his colorful, farflung adventures, will flow inexorably from that first action.

The episode below, however, is an exception, a one-off for the Thanksgiving holiday, which is why the outsized turkey is literally turning the tables, not to mention the whole house, on the human inhabitants. The lake the boy falls into is filled with cranberry sauce.

I'm not the one to provide an overall assessment or description of the riches (and weaknesses) of Little Nemo. Its best years were from 1905 to 1911, before McCay left Bennett's Herald and moved on to work for William Randolph Hearst; thereafter the strip, though still interesting, lost much of its visual daring as it became confined to a fixed grid of identically sized frames.

What I'd like to focus on, though, is just one aspect of Little Nemo at its peak, namely the way McCay imagined and depicted modern urban space. I'll address that in my next post.

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