There is only one genius who has ever written a comic strip and his name is Winsor McCay. I know this is a bold statement to make, but I’m going to make it anyway. And I also realize that writing about a comic strip in a literary magazine may seem a bit odd, but indulge me a little and let’s see where we get to.
I first came across the work of McCay while browsing in one of those bookshops that only sell remaindered books. If I have a literary guilty secret it is that I am addicted to these establishments. The lure of a cut-price book, the siren call of an unfamiliar, intriguing title, and the utter lack of pretension of these places are irresistible.
On this particular day what caught my eye was a large-format hardback entitled The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland, Volume 1: 1905–1907. I picked it up, opened the cover, and fell into a magical world.
The premise of this comic strip is simple. In the very first frame, Morpheus, the King of Slumberland, ‘requests the presence of Little Nemo’. The strip then consists of what happens to Little Nemo when he leaves the safety of his bed and travels through Slumberland to meet the king. The last frame of every strip always has Nemo waking up back in the reassuring familiarity of his bedroom. Often he finds that he has fallen out of bed. And sometimes his mother or father is there to welcome him back to reality.
I bought the book.
The simplest description of what lies within the pages of McCay’s books is given in a caption that sits underneath the fourth panel of that very first strip. Here the Oomp who acts as Nemo’s guide states: ‘Slumberland is a long way off through many miles of weird scenes.’ He then adds, ‘But be good to your horse, and you will arrive there safe and sound.’ And there are, indeed, many miles of weird scenes.
In one strip Nemo is woken by his worried mother who tells him their whole house is shaking. Peering out of the veranda he finds the hou
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There is only one genius who has ever written a comic strip and his name is Winsor McCay. I know this is a bold statement to make, but I’m going to make it anyway. And I also realize that writing about a comic strip in a literary magazine may seem a bit odd, but indulge me a little and let’s see where we get to.I first came across the work of McCay while browsing in one of those bookshops that only sell remaindered books. If I have a literary guilty secret it is that I am addicted to these establishments. The lure of a cut-price book, the siren call of an unfamiliar, intriguing title, and the utter lack of pretension of these places are irresistible. On this particular day what caught my eye was a large-format hardback entitled The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland, Volume 1: 1905–1907. I picked it up, opened the cover, and fell into a magical world. The premise of this comic strip is simple. In the very first frame, Morpheus, the King of Slumberland, ‘requests the presence of Little Nemo’. The strip then consists of what happens to Little Nemo when he leaves the safety of his bed and travels through Slumberland to meet the king. The last frame of every strip always has Nemo waking up back in the reassuring familiarity of his bedroom. Often he finds that he has fallen out of bed. And sometimes his mother or father is there to welcome him back to reality. I bought the book. The simplest description of what lies within the pages of McCay’s books is given in a caption that sits underneath the fourth panel of that very first strip. Here the Oomp who acts as Nemo’s guide states: ‘Slumberland is a long way off through many miles of weird scenes.’ He then adds, ‘But be good to your horse, and you will arrive there safe and sound.’ And there are, indeed, many miles of weird scenes. In one strip Nemo is woken by his worried mother who tells him their whole house is shaking. Peering out of the veranda he finds the house is being carried in the beak of a giant turkey that strides above the rooftops of the sleeping city. Nemo leans out too far, falls, and splashes down into a lake of cranberry sauce. He clambers ashore and searches for his parents, wailing, ‘I’m lost. I’m lost.’ Then he wakes to find himself standing on his bed being comforted by his Grandpa. In another strip that ran at the end of 1905 Father Time is dispatched by Morpheus to fetch Nemo. The old man flies with Nemo to his home where one never-ending wall is covered with dates that stretch from 1905 off into the distant future. Nemo finds that if he touches a particular year he becomes the age that he will be then. So, with Father Time overseeing things, he touches the number 1915 and becomes a teenager. He also tries 1925 and 1948. Then, when his tutor steps out for a minute, he decides to try 1999. The small boy is transformed into a bent, blind old man with a feeble, pitiable voice that can barely call for help. Thankfully, by the last frame he is back in bed being hugged by his Mamma. If the stories in the strip are incredible in their invention then Winsor McCay’s rendering of them reveals the work of a master. The colours are subtle yet vibrant. The use of perspective adds depth to what is, essentially, a two-dimensional form. And there is something undeniably cinematic in what he chooses to draw, and from what angle, in order to propel each storyline forward. Equally imaginative is the way he varies both the size and the shape of the frames he fills with his illustrations. In the strip with the giant turkey, the scale of the bird is only revealed in a circular panel that shatters the conformity of the grid of rectangular frames and dominates the centre of the full page on which the strip runs. Cleverer people than me have also noted that McCay’s work was influenced by Art Nouveau, Aubrey Beardsley, Japanese graphics and the irrational colour sectioning of Gauguin. All this is no doubt true, but my response was, and still is, much more basic. I think what he drew looks wonderful. The kingdom McCay creates is surreal. In one strip the legs of Nemo’s bed grow so much that the bed can clamber out of his bedroom and start walking across the landscape. In another, Nemo rides in a car that has a croaking frog at the front as a horn and, instead of wheels at each corner, four fleet-footed goats strapped to its sides. In yet another, the solid trunk of a vast tree gradually morphs into a rhinoceros. What’s truly startling is the date of these works. Surrealism only got going in Europe in the 1920s. Yet here we are, fifteen years earlier, in the fledgling United States of America, and we find that in terms of surrealistic invention Winsor McCay got there first. In fact the more you delve into the life and work of Winsor McCay, the more you realize that he got almost everywhere first. The adventures of Little Nemo are an exploration of the world of dreams and of the subconscious self that creeps out from under the covers as we sleep. Yet Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was only published in 1899, on the other side of the Atlantic, in German, and it took many years to sell out its initial print run of 600 copies. Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland covers much the same ground but has funnier gags and much better pictures. Even the form in which McCay chose to express himself was relatively new. While the comic strip’s roots can be traced back to the illustrated narratives of Rodolphe Töpffer and Wilhelm Busch, produced in nineteenth-century Europe, the comic strip as a massmarket form was being invented as McCay worked. And because his mind was more imaginative than those around him, most of the invention was his. Winsor McCay’s life is just as fascinating as anything he drew in a comic strip. And discovering more about it is, once again, just like tumbling into a whole new, incredible land. Zenas Winsor McCay was born on 26 September 1871 in Spring Lake, Michigan. However, his grave marker gives his year of birth as 1869 and another account states that he was born in Canada in 1867. Clearly, even at this early stage, he was a hard man to pin down. His father, a second-generation Scottish immigrant, started off as an unskilled ‘teamster’ leading a team of horses that hauled lumber. By the 1880s he had begun to deal in real estate. By all accounts Winsor was a scrawny kid, but he had a sense of humour, and from an early age an innate ability to draw. Family legend has it that Winsor’s first drawing occurred one night when the family home burned down. Sheltering at a neighbour’s the boy picked up a nail and etched the catastrophe on the frosted window-pane. Soon Winsor became obsessed by drawing. ‘I just couldn’t stop drawing anything and everything . . . I drew on fences, blackboards in school, old scraps of paper, slates, sides of barns . . .’ His parents hoped he would have a conventional career and sent him to business school, but he often bunked off to Detroit to soak up the attractions of a dime museum called Wonderland, a mix of vaudeville, funhouse and circus freak show. Soon he was sketching what he saw, including the patrons of the museum, and selling the drawings for a quarter each. He was spotted by John Goodison, a professor at the Michigan State Normal School, who believed in the teaching of perspective and had a vast knowledge of colour, for he had once been a stained-glass craftsman. McCay had found a mentor for whom perspective and colour were important, and who was steeped in a form of expression in which stories are told in panels. After all, what were stained-glass windows originally if not a way of telling stories to a largely illiterate population? McCay’s first job was in Chicago working for a company that specialized in printing illustrated posters for travelling circuses. At that time a large circus could need up to 8,000 posters printed for each city in which it played. But before long he was poached to produce work that glorified the attractions of Kohl & Middleton’s New Dime Museum in Cincinnati. For nine years his livelihood depended on creating images of wonder, strangeness and vitality. And whatever he drew had to grab the eye, to entice with the idea that something would happen. The images had, in short, to be dynamic. Dynamism was in the air. American cities were growing at an incredible rate through both the increasing urbanization of the existing population and the influx of immigrants. The immigrants often brought with them the skills of the Old World. Little Nemo could be reproduced with such fine command of detail and colour because the printers McCay briefed had honed their talents in Europe. When these old skills were combined with new technologies in printing all kinds of possibilities opened up. Though the immigrants brought with them talent, enterprise and drive, the fact that many of them could not speak English presented a problem for newspaper owners who wanted their custom. The solution lay in pictures. You don’t have to understand the nuances of a written language to understand a picture. Photography, still a fledgling art, didn’t reproduce well in newsprint. But illustrations did. When McCay left the dime museum he went to work for the Commercial Tribune as a cartoonist and an artist-reporter, illustrating news stories with meticulous detail. From the Tribune he moved to the New York Herald, and it was here, in 1905, that Little Nemo first saw the light of day. It was a success from the start. Within a year it had been translated into seven languages, and it turned Winsor McCay into a star. In the ruthless war waged by rival press barons in New York, poaching staff became the norm. And artists who could attract readers for whom English was a second language, or who were semi-literate, were traded the way footballers are today. Randolph Hearst, who owned the New York Journal, was not averse to waving his chequebook around like a Russian oligarch building a premiership football team. Eventually, in 1911, Hearst came for Winsor McCay. But by then the cartoonist’s triumphs weren’t only contained within the pages of a newspaper. In 1906 F. F. Proctor, a leading theatre owner, had offered him a contract to appear at his vaudeville theatre. ‘Lightning sketchers’ had been popular parlour entertainers in Victorian times and now the skill found a new outlet on the vaudeville stage. McCay was offered $500 a week to appear in two shows a day. In 1906, $500 was a lot of money. The act proved a runaway success and soon, while still honouring all his newspaper commitments, McCay went on tour with it. But the vaudeville act wasn’t the only way Winsor McCay conquered the stage. The theatrical rights to Little Nemo were optioned in 1905 soon after the strip first appeared. It took the efforts of eight playwrights, and three years’ work, before the show opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street. The cost of development, and of the New York run, was a staggering $386,000. The money went on the most amazing sets, 22 principal roles, 150 chorus players and over 1,000 costumes. Artistically it was a triumph, though after a two-year run it still hadn’t earned its original investment. While all this was going on McCay had simultaneously headed off in an entirely different direction. By 1910 he had produced the 4,000 drawings he needed to make his first film. It was a short work featuring three of the characters from the Little Nemo strip and it is commonly acknowledged to be the first colour animation film ever made. (Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can see the film for yourself. Just go on YouTube and type in ‘Winsor McCay Little Nemo’.) The film first appeared in that new palace of wonders, the movie house, in 1911. The success of the film prompted McCay to experiment further. In 1914 he released Gertie the Dinosaur. On stage McCay would stand next to the screen and give the animated Gertie instructions. Through clever scripting and careful timing, Gertie would appear to follow the instructions. At one point McCay would throw an apple towards Gertie, and as the real apple disappeared behind the screen a drawn apple would fly towards the dinosaur, who would catch it in her mouth. In the climax to the film McCay himself walks offstage only to reappear as a drawn character alongside Gertie. Even this didn’t exhaust his creative imagination. Less than a year after the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, and while America was still a neutral nation, McCay began working on a film, The Sinking of the Lusitania, which even today is an immensely powerful piece of propaganda. Winsor McCay died on 26 July 1934 but his reputation in the world of animation has lived on. In 1955 McCay’s son Robert visited the Disney Studios where a TV show called The Story of Animation was being made. As Walt Disney stood with Robert McCay in his office and surveyed the burgeoning studio complex that sprawled out below them, he said, ‘Bob, all this should have been your father’s.’ As I said at the outset, Winsor McCay is the only genius ever to have written a comic strip.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 45 © Rohan Candappa 2015
About the contributor
Rohan Candappa has written 16 books, and several articles for Slightly Foxed.