Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay
By Katherine Roeder
Univ. Press of Mississippi. 221 pp. $60
“The High Sign,” a silent Buster Keaton movie, opens with the great comic sitting down on a park bench with a newspaper. He unfolds it, notices it has to be unfolded again, and once more after that, then again, on and on, the newspaper expanding in his hands until it’s as big as a bedsheet and he can’t give it full play without climbing up on the bench.
This gag is even more outlandish today than it was in 1921 because in the interim, newspapers have shrunk. Broadsheets were indeed broad then, giving illustrators lavish canvases to work on. Few artists took better advantage of that spaciousness than Winsor McCay, creator of “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” who usually had an entire page to sprawl across. For both strips, the basic framework was the same: Title character falls asleep, and his dreams become so wild, ornate, architecturally complex and downright thrilling that they practically engulf the reader. McCay’s playfulness suggested that he had kept a direct channel open to his childhood imagination. And as Katherine Roeder points out in her introduction to this generously illustrated study, “He experimented with the comic strip medium from the very beginning by dismantling conventions and exploring new points of view, as on one occasion when a Rarebit Fiend comic strip was drawn from the perspective of a man being buried alive.”
At the end of every Nemo episode, the boy dreamer was awakened and jerked back into reality: a sometimes rude ending to an adventure that might have taken him — and readers — to a palace with a vast interior framed by monstrous pillars, or might have landed him in the seat of a chariot pulled by gigantic peacocks, or plopped him on a bed whose posts grew into long, gangly legs that taxied him all over the city.
In the course of a variegated career, McCay made animated cartoons (including a 12-minute film, “consisting of 25,000 drawings,” about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915) and, at the behest of his boss, William Randolph Hearst, switched from drawing comic strips to editorial cartoons.
His influence has been felt by — and has elicited tributes from — the likes of Art Spiegelman (“Maus”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”). The Washington area’s own Richard Thompson gave Winsor a shoutout in his strip “Cul de Sac” by having a character express a fondness for “Little Neuro” comics.
In tallying up the influences on McCay, Roeder conjures a bygone world of popular entertainment: “[His] comic strips reflected the modern consumer culture of the early twentieth century by tapping into the exuberance of the circus, the appealing chaos of the amusement park, and the abundance of the department store.” In this joyful book, the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo sleep and dream again.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of