Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Winsor McCay (II): Unreal City

McCay's work had its limitations. His dialogue is, for the most part, utterly lifeless, and displays none of the dazzling wordplay and pitch-perfect ear for the rich variety of American dialects displayed by his contemporary George Herriman, the brilliant creator of Krazy Kat. And there's no getting around the unfortunate racial stereotype represented by Nemo's sidekick Impie, who with his grass skirt, grunting gibberish, and apelike features actually predated Little Nemo, having first appeared, with his fellows, in McCay's early feature A Tale of the Jungle Imps. Some of the thematic material he worked into the strip -- the dragons, princesses, beasts, and savages -- was drawn from the stock situations and characters of adventure and fantasy stories, even if it's true that later creators (notably Walt Disney) would in their turn draw heavily on McCay for inspiration. Little Nemo debuted just a few years after the first Oz stories, and at its weakest it has some of the same preciousness without any of Baum's talent for spinning out a sustained and coherent narrative. But for imaginative daring, and above all for the originality and vitality of his artwork, McCay had few peers. At his best he leaves clichés and stereotypes behind and brings us into a world that is entirely his own.

The above strip is particularly interesting both for what it is and what it isn't. The surreal menace of buildings that sprout legs and chase the children is perhaps not completely unprecedented (one thinks of Baba Yaga and her house with chicken legs in Russian folklore), but it's unexpected and uncanny nonetheless, and the way McCay slowly draws us into an awareness of what is going on is masterful. But there's something noteworthy about the exterior scenes, which is that they don't show any indication of the cosmopolitan cityscape that, c. 1909, was sprouting up in Manhattan, Chicago, and other great metropolises. Street scenes like this still existed in every large city, of course, as they continue to do in sections of New York City (though the absence of parked cars tips us off that this is not 2009), but there's nothing in the lower eight panels that could not have been drawn, say, fifty years earlier.

But then there is this sequence; fleeing from a pair of red, bearded giants, Nemo and Impie, transformed into giants themselves, are, in a deft bit of visual sleight-of-hand, suddenly carried aloft. They race over farms and suburbs, finally coming to rest in the center of an ethereal city.

In the next panel, which again is brightly illuminated, a crowd gathers around the pair in the heart of what must have been a fairly realistic depiction of Manhattan in McCay's heyday, but as they scale the surrounding buildings and make their way to the harbor one tall structure after another sprouts up, until they are surrounded by a dense forest of skyscrapers that stretches right to the water's edge.

The interesting thing is that the Manhattan skyline that these images suggest -- and surely Manhattan, where McCay worked, was the inspiration -- did not yet exist (and arguably still doesn't). New skyscrapers were being constructed at a rapid clip in various parts of the city, but the New York waterfront still retained a mix of low buildings and high rises. Here, for instance, from the New York Public Library's collections, is a photo of the North River (Hudson) piers, from 36th St. to 48th St., taken just months after McCay's drawing appeared:

We see a few large buildings relatively close to the harbor, but most of them are set well inland, and the immediate waterfront skyline is like a mouth with missing teeth. And only a few years before an Edison photographer had shot this moving picture footage of lower Manhattan, from Fulton Street to the Battery, recording the condition of the other portion of the island that was undergoing rapid modernization:

McCay, a superb draftsman, was perfectly capable of drawing realistic cityscapes. Here's a fine sequence of views of Chicago as Nemo and his companions approach it by airship.

And here, in a bird's eye view, is how Manhattan probably did appear, more or less, in the first decade of the 20th century -- bearing in mind that neither McCay nor likely anyone else would as yet have had the opportunity to actually view at from that angle.

Now it could be argued, and is doubtless true at least in part, that McCay was simple looking ahead and extrapolating when he drew the scene of Nemo and Impie emerging from the columns of towers. But I think it's at least equally true that he had no intention of drawing a literal city, either an existing one or one projected for the decades to come. Instead, he captured the psychological and social effects that the 20th-century city created, the sense of vastness, of totality, it provoked. We are no longer in the Dickensian warrens of the 19th-century metropolis. Seemingly self-created, looming out of all human scale, this new city is neither horrifying nor sheltering, but it will be an inescapable organizing and centering presence in the lives of all who live in it. It will be in cities like this -- not in aristocratic palaces or Rockwellian small towns -- that the course of the years that lay ahead will be determined. The century that he heralds, though McCay does not know it yet, will be a century of cities, of urban high-rises, subways, and expressways, of mass movements and mass production, of Stalinism and Fascism and the bombing of cities from the air, of Beirut and Grozny, and, just beyond its final cusp, of the fall of the Twin Towers.

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.

Monday, April 20, 2009

J. G. Ballard (1930-2009)

J. G. Ballard died on Sunday. The BBC, in its report of his death, refers to him, perhaps a tad dismissively, as a "cult author." The label is actually a fairly amusing one, though probably not in the way it was intended. The image of Ballard the author as the central figure of an curiously focused, obscurely depraved post-apocalyptic cult would have fit comfortably into several of his curiously focused, obscurely depraved post-apocalyptic novels, and I think the description might well have raised a wry chuckle from the man himself.

As far as I can figure, of the sequence of his most typically "Ballardian" novels, which make up a substantial but not exhaustive subset of his output, I've read The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World, Concrete Island, and The Day of Creation. Each is essentially a variation on a single theme: a hero, who may be a physician or other professional (Ballard had some medical training), is thrust into a situation defined by extreme environmental distress, either because of some global catastrophe or because of some freak local occurrence. Events take place, characters come and go and return again, all more or less without discernible pattern. These books have a great deal of affinity, in their basic premises, with H. G. Wells's science fiction or with John Wyndham's wonderful novel The Day of the Triffids. But the sense of aimlessness and the emotional detachment in Ballard's narratives are very much his own, and may incidentally go a long way towards explaining his appeal to postmodern audiences.

Among his other works, I read The Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, both of them at least semi-autobiographical and drawing (the former in whole, the latter only in part) from Ballard's experiences as a civilian internee in Japanese-occupied China during the Second World War. (Spielberg adapted The Empire of the Sun as a flawed but respectful movie.) I didn't much care for the brief suburban nightmare called Running Wild, which felt too much like Ballard was only going through the motions, and I never got very far into Crash -- frequently cited as one of his most iconic works -- which was filmed, rather tiresomely, by David Cronenberg. Ballard also wrote a number of tight, venomous stories, some of which are quite good indeed.

His works are sometimes described as prophetic, in that they addressed issues like global warming long before most people were aware of them, but Ballard was not for the most part a speculative writer. His gift was not so much the ability to peer into the future as it was the knack of looking at the present world and seeing things that most of us are unable to discern. In any case, much of what he saw belonged to internal, not external, landscapes. As is often the case with prophets, his insight carried a bit of a downside: it was to be waved off as a genre writer, a "cult author." And yet his influence on younger writers has been widespread and profound.

It's a bit of a cliché to say that the barren, devastated geographies through which many of Ballard's fictional characters wander were influenced by the wasteland he lived in during the war, but there's no question that going, for instance, from The Empire of the Sun to The Drought does not entail a major shift in style or theme. Of course many people -- including some writers -- had similar wartime experiences, but they didn't write J. G. Ballard novels.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The rower

One warm August night, unable to remain asleep, I rose, dressed, and went outside, hoping that a walk by the water's edge would help calm my thoughts. I set out along the gravel path that leads to the bay, my footfalls crunching on its pebbled surface, guided forward by moonlight and memory. Not until I had passed the last house did I begin to hear the faint lapping of wavelets on the rocks along the shore. Ahead of me, across the water, stretched the long, low peninsula on the other side of the bay; if anyone out there was, like me, stirring at that hour, their lights were too distant and too dim to be seen from where I stood. There were lobster boats moored here and there alongshore, bobbing in the waves as if rocking in their cradles, but the only sign of maritime activity in the offing was far out, beyond the limits of the bay, where one or two large vessels, with drafts too deep for our little harbor, were churning through the open sea, parallel to the coast, bound for Boston or Halifax.

I turned onto the narrow footpath that runs along the shore and headed away from town, keeping my chin down and my eyes on the path's uneven surface, which is broken in places by gullies, washouts, and exposed roots. The tide was high but had crested and begun to ebb away again out of the bay; only a few yards of boulders and patches of coarse sand lay between the path and the water. The wind off the bay was not particularly brisk, but even so it bore a pleasing and welcome chill, though I was not sorry to have picked up my windbreaker before I left the house. On the inland side, as I walked, I passed a succession of wealthy summer homes with long, carefully tended lawns, some of them terminating in low masonry walls adorned with electric lanterns. Though here and there a floodlight shone down on the path the houses were silent, the occupants either asleep or perhaps reading or drinking quietly in solitary inner rooms. After a mile or so the houses gave way, first to a thicket of beach rose and sumac, then beyond that to aspen and stunted white pine, the overgrowth of what had once been burned over in a great fire many years before. The path climbed away from the shore, which briefly disappeared from view, before descending again to skirt a narrow horseshoe of stony beach that was rarely discovered by visitors, even during the height of the season when it seemed that the whole area swarmed with hikers and weekenders.

It was when I had made my way around and was approaching the far limit of the cove that my eye caught something moving in the water, thirty yards or so offshore. It was low in profile and partly hidden by the waves, and at first I thought it might be either a log or a surfacing dolphin, an animal not uncommon in these waters in the summer months. I stood still and watched the shape as it glided through the reflected pallor of the moon, and only after a moment or two had gone by could I identify it as a kind of lifeboat or dinghy, in which a solitary pilot, seated at the middle bench, could be seen steadily rowing with the outgoing current. The craft bore no lantern nor any sign of cargo or tackle, and the silent figure working the oars, dressed in a gray cloak with the hood down, appeared, from its long hair and slightness of build, to be a woman. Her head was bent down from the exertion and her face was turned away from the shore; she rowed as if she had some familiarity with the task but not powerfully, pacing herself, being evidently in no hurry to get where she was going.

I continued along the shore path, matching my advance to the progress of the boat. Beyond the cove the bay widens, but the rower maintained her distance from the shore and did not venture out into the deeper channel. The wind was beginning to pick up and I zipped my windbreaker, but kept my hands out of my pockets to assist my balance on the stony path. Once or twice I stumbled and knocked loose a stone, but the sound that echoed as it struck onto the cobbles below either failed to reach the boat or did not concern its occupant. She rowed on at the same fixed pace, occasionally casting the briefest half glance over her shoulder to hold her course. I began to wonder where she could be heading at that hour. There were no docks or houses to the end of the point, and if she had been so reckless as to go boating alone, for recreation, at night, it seemed high time for her to reverse her heading and make for the shelter of the town. Up ahead, at the end of the point, barely discernible in the darkness, lay the long thin breakwater that sheltered the bay from the heavy surges and swells of the ocean. For an unaccompanied boatman -- or boatwoman -- to venture into those waters at night in such a craft, even in favorable weather, would be an act of almost suicidal folly.

The path shook off the last patches of woods and scrub and descended directly to the water's edge; at the same time it became rockier and more irregular. I clambered ahead as fast as I could manage, clearly visible now on the shore if the woman were to turn, but still she kept her head averted, tucked into her far shoulder. She began to gain ground on me; her way was smoother and she was gaining momentum as the tide drew her along. I stumbled, turned my ankle slightly, and scraped my hand on a rock, then I righted myself, rubbed off the sting in my palm, and hurried forward. She was nearing the breakwater now and beginning to veer away from the shore. I hoped that she was about to turn and circle back, but instead she rowed steadily onward, shooting towards the churning gap.

I stepped onto the breakwater and leaped along its skeleton of immense stones, keeping an eye on the boat as our courses swiftly converged. In seconds I was almost at the jetty's end, and the woman, as she hurtled forward, was now no more than ten yards away. At last I saw that there was no doubting her course, nor hope of stopping her, and in desperation I shouted to her, and at that moment, for the first time, she heard me and turned her face -- or should I say, what remained of her face --in my direction.

Below the thin and tangled filaments of her hair the woman's eyes were so deeply sunken they might well have been hollow sockets. Her nose was eaten away entirely, and all that remained of her lower jaw was a jagged shard of bone and a few exposed and broken teeth. As the craft shot through the gap into the ocean she fixed her gaze on me, but her expressionless face did not once move or twitch and no sound issued from that grotesque maw. Her hands and arms kept to the rhythm of their rowing; I turned my body and met her gaze, watched her recede into the distance, until she suddenly snapped her head down and away from me once more, vanished into a swell, re-emerged, vanished again, and was almost instantly swallowed by darkness.

I did not want to consider what errand might have brought the silent rower into town, whether she had visited some inconceivable lover there or was perhaps searching vainly for a lost paramour or child who had been dead for generations. I stood on the end of the breakwater for some time, trembling and unable to move, petrified that I might lose consciousness and topple into the water and be drowned and battered against the rocks. When I had sufficiently gathered my composure I began gingerly to retrace my steps, buffeted by the wind and the salt spray, until once again I was standing alone on the shore at the end of the point. I fell to my knees for an instant, feeling tears of horror and anguish well up in my eyes, then I collected myself, shook off the chill, and began to make my way back to town.

Monday, April 06, 2009


The building was easy to miss. It was narrow, recessed a bit from the street, and identified only by the peeling number 62 of a faded gold decal above the door. At every window, from the ground floor to the sixth, the blinds had been drawn tight and the windowboxes were empty. There were traces of ornate dark lettering across the brick face, high up, from a law office long since gone, but it was impossible to guess whether the present purpose of the building was residential or commercial, or even if most of the rooms were tenanted at all. A pair of boxy yews flanked the door on either side; they appeared to have been trimmed within recent memory but the concrete planters that held them were dotted with cigarette butts and scraps of cellophane.

The woman stepped out of the doorway, pulling on her gloves, and stepped firmly but without evident hurry in the direction of the street; then she turned abruptly to the right and joined the flow of pedestrians moving uptown. She wore a long grey coat, well-made if not particularly stylish, a dark, trim Tyrolean hat with a single woodpecker feather in the band, and black low heels. Her hair was graying and she made no attempt to conceal it, but nevertheless she appeared to be still in her late thirties at most. She walked haughtily, her chin up, towering a good two inches above the other women walking in the crowd, as well as no small number of the men.

The morning was damp and chilly, though it was no longer raining. The sky above was a uniform slate gray, and its muted tone was repeated by both the pavement and the walls of the surrounding buildings. At the intersections the perpendicular columns of traffic halted or advanced, guided by silent bursts of signals. The crowd knotted and waited, spilled tentatively into the street, then surged ahead.

The woman overtook a man who was clutching a thick manilla envelope secured with a string wound around its clasp. Heavy-set and limping slightly, laboring with the exertion, he wore a suit and tie that were indistinguishable from those of any number of his fellow travelers, but unlike them he bore no hat, not even in his hand. His hair, which needed trimming, was matted with sweat, and as the street inclined slightly up a hill he began to fall behind the other. He steadied himself against a lamppost for a moment until he had caught his breath, and then resumed.

A block ahead of him a young couple stepped out of a cab. The man was tall and almost unnaturally slender. Though clean-shaven and neatly coiffed he wore a frayed, unbuttoned bomber jacket that did not fit him well and which had certainly been bought second-hand, as well as a pair of weathered jeans and brown loafers. His companion might have been completely unremarkable -- she was wearing a simple gray jacket over a white blouse and dark skirt -- had she been neither so unaffectedly pretty nor so obviously enthralled with her surroundings. She shook her head against the chill and shrieked with delight as she caught hold of the man's hand. They paused until they could work their way across the grain of pedestrians, then darted into a storefront near at hand.

As they departed two men in their thirties stepped into the space they had occupied and strode vigorously ahead. They wore dark suits and fedoras that were to all appearances identical, and they were talking intently and rapidly in a foreign tongue. They wove around clusters of lingerers without hesitating or breaking apart, and while they waited for the lights to change they kept their eyes down and never glanced around them.

Outside a hotel two porters stood waiting as a Greyhound slowly lumbered to the curb. The bus stopped, opened its doors, and dieseled as the passengers began to disembark. The driver, in uniform and cap, stepped to the curb and opened the luggage compartment; the porters advanced while a family -- husband, wife, and two small boys -- stood by. The crowd broke around them, stepping under the hotel's marquee.

As they approached the great square, in the center of the hive, the swarm dissolved and dispersed, merged into others heading east and west. The yellow cabs slowed and lined up behind the traffic signals; the rain began to fall, but only a few drops, black on the weathered sidewalks.