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Little Nemo in Comicsland

ISSUE:  Spring 2006

At the beginning of the last century, a little boy named Nemo was haunted by recurring nightmares of a bizarre and unruly land where the conventions of everyday life were turned upside down. By day, the boy was firmly lodged in the respectable and decorous world of middle-class white America. His frumpy parents kept up appearances in a solidly genteel household, complete with a white picket fence on the outside and an African American maid toiling away in the kitchen. The family’s regular rounds included hosting cousins and in-laws, going to church on Sundays, and making the occasional jaunt to the department stores—which were just starting to emerge as palaces of consumption.

Nighttime allowed Nemo, a shy seven-year-old whose hair became rumpled as he tossed and turned in bed, to escape into the fabulous and slightly sinister realm of Slumberland. Unlike the daytime republic governed by President Theodore Roosevelt, Slumberland was ruled over by King Morpheus, a Jove-like patriarch whose furrowed brow and Old Testament beard commanded respect. In the echoing hallways of Slumberland, Morpheus was constantly receiving curtseys and bows from courtiers draped in colorful attire that combined the fripperies of eighteenth-century Versailles with the colors of a circus. Slumberland even had slaves, a profession recently abolished in the daytime America. There were other signs that Slumberland was hardly an ideal egalitarian society, including the rough treatment meted out to African “jungle imps.”

These slaves and imps were among the more disturbing oddities that Nemo encountered during his nocturnal voyages. Slumberland also abounded with butterflies large enough to umbrella you during a rainstorm, a giant turkey that gobbled up houses for Thanksgiving, a glass princess who shattered if you kissed her too passionately, carriages that were pulled along by horse-sized rabbits, and airships that could carry you to Mars.

Of course, once you got to Mars, as Nemo did in 1910, you might have noticed that the line between fantasy and reality was not so firm as you had first thought. The red planet turned out to be ruled by a ruthless capitalist who owned not just every square inch of property, but even the air. Polluted by industrial emissions, populated by genetically modified monstrosities, and papered over with gaudy ads, Mars was the ultimate corporate dystopia. The poor Martians had to pay for the privilege of breathing.

Like Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver or Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Nemo was a sober and innocent soul who traveled to a bizarre fantasyland which on closer inspection turned out to be a parody of the home that was left behind. Yet there is a significant difference between Nemo and his distinguished literary ancestors. Gulliver and Alice gained a foothold in our imaginations thanks primarily to the writerly skills of their authors (assisted in Carroll’s case by some charming John Tenniel illustrations). Nemo, by contrast, was a comic strip character whose newsprint universe was constructed by the pen of a cartoonist, Winsor McCay.

As imaginative a fantasist as the United States ever produced, McCay created unique effects that could only work in the art form of comics. Take as an example the famous Sunday page that ran on July 26, 1908. The early panels show Nemo snuggled in bed and ready for sleep, wearing pink-striped pajamas. Nemo is startled to find he’s not alone, since he hears the voice of Flip, his flippant, cigar-chomping Slumberland companion. Before he can even adjust to Flip’s presence, Nemo is amazed by the fact that the bed he’s been sleeping on is starting to grow. Along the first, squat row of four panels the legs of the bed slowly rise, taking Nemo and Flip closer and closer to the top of the page.

In the next tier, the panels have lengthened to accommodate the new size of the bed, which has decided to take Nemo and Flip outside. By now the bed is so big it has to crouch a little just to get outside the front door. As it struts across the streets of New York, the bed dwarfs all the startled onlookers, including a police officer and a horse that raises itself on its hind legs in fright. (The horse is a visual pun for the magical bed, whose motions have an equine gallop.) By now, Nemo and Flip are so high in the air they are level with the full moon that follows their progress from panel to panel. Bright yellow, the moon is a colorful counterpoint to the evening gloom of the outdoor scene.

In the third and final tier, the panels are as long as stilts, which is what the legs of the bed resemble. We no longer see Nemo and Flip in profile; rather, they are charging toward us at full speed. Losing its steady serenity, the moon bounces up and down in sequence with the out-of-control bed. Finally the legs of the bed are entangled in a church steeple, causing Nemo and Flip to hurl downward. (A freethinker, McCay was perhaps making a subtle joke about how religion hinders the flight of the human imagination.)

In the final panel, squirreled away at the bottom right-hand corner of the page, Nemo awakes to find he’s fallen out of his actual bed. In color and size, the bottom panel mirrors the opening shot of Nemo at the top left-hand corner of the page: it’s the visual equivalent of a poet’s ending a sonnet with an echo of the opening word.

This little story of the walking bed can be described, with more or less skill, in words, yet as a work of art it can only have an impact as a comic strip. The blending of words and pictures, the sequencing of images to tell a story, the use of the page as a unit of attention, and the shifting of panel size to match the narrative: all of these are comic strip effects. A prose or film version of this story would have to be structured very differently, just as a comic book adaptation of a good movie or novel would inevitably involve a reinvention (not to say flattening) of the story.

A hybrid form that merges words and pictures to create a new visual language, comics have their own special rules. More than any artist before him, Winsor McCay intuitively grasped this fact and allowed it to govern his aesthetic. His early mastery of the special language of comics explains the pride of place that McCay enjoys in the current celebrations of narrative cartooning as a distinct cultural form. As comics enter into museums and literary magazines, the form runs the risk of being categorized as a subspecies of either fine art or literature. Little Nemo reminds us that while comics borrow from both illustration and prose narratives, they also have unique properties worth exploring and celebrating.

Ten decades after Little Nemo was first summoned to Slumberland, McCay is at the center of a storm of publishing and curatorial activity. In the fall of 2005, the Hammer Museum gave McCay his own room as part of an exhibit on “Masters of American Comics.” The accompanying catalogue by Yale University Press strongly focuses on McCay, not only for chronological reasons but also because of his pervasive impact on all subsequent cartoonists. This same year, Abrams Books brought out a revised and expanded version of John Canemaker’s biography Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, which is far and away the most scholarly and intelligent biography ever written about an American cartoonist. Two smaller presses, Checker and Fantagraphics, are busy reprinting McCay’s lesser-known comic strips, black-and-white fantasies that lack Little Nemo’s renown but have their own rewards. Most importantly, Sunday Press Books has released a massive Little Nemo collection that for the first time reprints a sizable sample of the strip in the exact proportions that it enjoyed in its original newspaper run. Having roughly the same dimensions as a New York Times page, Little Nemo in Slumberland: Splendid Sundays allows readers, for the first time in nearly a century, to appreciate the full scope of McCay’s art.

Amid this flurry of commemoration, the exact nature of McCay’s achievement needs to be defined. He was neither the first nor the greatest cartoonist. In terms of priority, there were other popular comic strips before Little Nemo: notably The Yellow Kid, Buster Brown, and The Katzenjammer Kids. These strips were filled with rambunctious young brats who wreaked havoc on the adult world. Little Nemo in Slumberland began, somewhat unpromisingly, as a genteel response to this tradition. It was meant to be closer to a respectable illustrated book than the rowdy free-for-alls of the other comic strips. Fortunately, McCay’s imagination freed him from the strictures of his original prissy mandate to be the virtuous alternative to the four-color bad boys. More importantly, McCay understood how to tell a story with pictures in a way that his predecessors didn’t. While we now look at The Katzenjammer Kids only out of historical curiosity, numerous cartoonists are still exploring the storytelling techniques McCay invented.

As for McCay’s comparative greatness, a strong claim can be made on his behalf, but it has to be weighed against the achievements of George Herriman, Charles M. Schulz, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. (These are perhaps the most accomplished of the fifteen “masters” honored in the recent Los Angeles exhibit and Yale catalogue.) None of these cartoonists is quite the draftsman that McCay was, but they are all much better writers, especially possessing the essential caricaturist’s gift of creating pen-and-ink characters that have the spark of life in them. Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Schulz’s Charlie Brown, Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, Spiegelman’s Vladek, Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: these are all characters that almost seem like our friends, revealing ever greater depth the more time we spend with them. Nemo, by contrast, is a colder and more remote figure who speaks in a quaint and stilted tongue.

Yet it speaks to McCay’s centrality that every subsequent major cartoonist has harvested from the fields he first tilled. Herriman’s full-page Krazy Kat strips played with panel shapes and sizes, just as Little Nemo did, with the entire page having an ornamental and decorative loveliness that gives cohesiveness to the individual elements in each panel. The interplay between fantasy and reality in Schulz’s Peanuts is a continuation of McCay’s work, as are the more outrageous psychedelic effects found in Crumb’s work. As for Spiegelman, his most recent full-page strips about the September 11 attack take much of their imagery from McCay’s fantasies of urban destruction. (A sample page of Little Nemo is included in the back of Spiegelman’s most recent book, In the Shadow of No Towers.) Chris Ware’s ceaseless experimentation with design and color provides yet more evidence of McCay’s inexhaustible inspiration.

In the history of comics, then, McCay was the great pathfinder, the early scout who marked the trails that others would follow. If not the greatest of cartoonists, he has a uniquely pivotal role in the history of the form. Thanks to these new books, we can gauge the heights that McCay scaled as well as the work other cartoonists have done in his wake.

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Born in southern Ontario to a middling Scottish immigrant family in 1867, Winsor McCay spent his life balancing the competing claims of childhood fantasy and adult responsibility. The need to escape the mundane monotony of conventional social life was the great theme of his life. From an early age, his supreme passion was for drawing, pen and paper being his surest route to another world. In the stuffy schoolrooms of small-town Wisconsin, where he grew up, he often risked corporal punishment because he preferred drawing in his sketchbook to any of the lessons offered by his teachers.

His father, a practical-minded real estate agent, sent the young McCay to a business college in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Rather than learn stenography and accounting, McCay fulfilled the classic boy’s dream of running away to join the circus. Cutting classes, he headed off to a dime museum in Detroit, where he drew caricatures for small change.

Inspired by the popularity of P. T. Barnum’s New York extravaganza, dime museums were of course closer to the circus and the freak show than to any educational institution. Amid dog-faced boys, bearded ladies, and carnival barkers, all plying their trade, McCay found his true calling: drawing for dollars. Aside from taking private lessons from a moonlighting art professor, who taught valuable lessons in perspective and composition, McCay was done with schooling. In truth, the dime museum was McCay’s Harvard and Yale. Throughout his life he would draw upon images taken from the big top: acrobats and clowns, parades and processions, elephants and orangutans.

In 1891, McCay moved to Cincinnati, finding employment designing posters for yet another dime museum. He not only kept company with freaks but was displayed as a curiosity himself: the locals were awed by his ability to draw lightning-fast with machinelike precision. Among those who were impressed was Maude Lenore Dufour, a flirty fourteen-year-old. Although a decade her senior, McCay wooed Dufour, quickly convincing her to elope with him. The age difference between the two might have been less shocking in the late nineteenth century than now, but it is notable that they ran off together without parental approval. Once again, McCay gave evidence of his tropism toward youthful escape.

Later in the decade, after Maude gave birth to a son and daughter, the young bohemian artist had to transform himself into a respectable family man. Leaving the shifty world of the dime museum, he found more mainstream employment as a staff cartoonist and illustrator, first for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune and then for the Cincinnati Enquirer. In an era before photographs were integrated into the news page, illustrators were on call to work as visual reporters. McCay was often sent to cover fires, court cases, lynchings, and baseball games as well as dash off editorial cartoons spoofing local politicians.

Even as a newspaperman McCay found a way to nourish the taproots of his imagination. As part of his duties for the Enquirer he illustrated a series of Kipling-inspired childhood verses that went under the title Tales of the Jungle Imp, by Felix Fiddle. Mixing racial caricatures of African tribesmen with fairy-tale stories about how animals like the giraffe and whale acquired their characteristic traits, this series gave early evidence of McCay’s skill as a children’s illustrator. Possessing the languid decorative ease of late Victorian storybooks, these early works lacked the crackling narrative drive unique to comics. However lovely, they remain apprentice work.

Perhaps McCay’s personal life contributed to his turn toward fairy tales. After the births of his son, Robert, and daughter, Marion, McCay subtly transferred his emotional loyalties away from his wife and toward his children. Robert McCay would inspire the look of Little Nemo, while Marion served as the prototype for the less famous comic strip character Hungry Henrietta, an emotionally sensitive child who is constantly badgered and browbeaten by capricious adults. McCay doted on his children (and later his grandchildren) while becoming distant and diffident toward his wife. One granddaughter recalls that the cartoonist “was like a child himself of about eight to ten years old.” Even his physique contributed to the affinity McCay had with children: standing at five feet five inches and weighing 130 pounds, he was as lithe and slight as a small boy.

By 1903, McCay’s skills as a cartoonist had developed enough to attract big-city eyes, earning him a lucrative staff job at the New York Herald. New York in those years was in the grip of a notorious newspaper war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst (with many lesser media barons entering the fray). Cartoonists were prize weapons in the intense battle for readership, with comic strip artists receiving princely salaries for drawing the adventures of an endless succession of mischievous boys. (Pulitzer and Hearst, capricious and volatile, were themselves overgrown children, hence ideal spiritual fathers of the Katzenjammer Kids and other reckless urchins.)

Print technology had advanced to the point where color reproductions now possessed a brilliancy previously reserved for expensive art books. Both Pulitzer and Hearst believed that newspapers didn’t just exist to convey factual information: they had to be as gaudy as a circus poster in order to attract readers. They paid top dollar to engravers and cartoonists to liven up their pages. The visual splendors of this newspaper era can be seen in a gorgeous coffee-table book, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspapers (1898–1911), lovingly assembled by Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano. As this book makes clear, Pulitzer didn’t use pictures merely as illustration or decoration. Rather, visual images were a central tool for making the news come to life.

As the diminutive McCay entered into New York, a city of towering skyscrapers and overbearing press lords, he must have felt like Nemo overwhelmed by his first sight of Slumberland. Fortunately, his talent made McCay a natural fit for this visually ambitious publishing world, and he quickly rose to the top ranks of American journalism. He created a host of comic strips for the Herald, the two most important being Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (which debuted in 1904) and Little Nemo (which emerged the following year).

A black-and-white strip which ran in the daily newspaper, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend was the adult precursor to Little Nemo. Each strip followed the same general plot: a dreamer would have some sort of nightmare related to his or her daytime life and wake up at the last panel, inevitably blaming the harsh vision on ill-digested cheese (the rarebit of the title). But the nightmares had decidedly mature content: a man mocks Darwin and then turns into a monkey; a woman receives a leather purse from a male admirer which turns into an alligator eager to consume her; a parson dies but rather than receiving his eternal reward is cast into the fires of hell; a missionary finds himself turned into a meal by some ungrateful African natives, who complain that “old hard shell skinflints” are hard to eat.

Frequently tackling sexual and religious taboos, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend confronted the quintessential post-Victorian theme of bourgeois hypocrisy. All it takes is some cheese and suddenly the unseemly underside of conventional social life becomes visible. Better written than Little Nemo, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend is McCay’s most biting and satirical work. (Good samplings of the strip can be found in Winsor McCay’s Daydreams and Nightmares as well as in the multivolume Winsor McCay: Early Works. Unfortunately, this latter title is poorly edited and prints the strips as blurry images much smaller than their original size.)

Little Nemo took up the theme of nightmares but in a gentler fashion. Created for the Sunday comics section, which was primarily aimed at children, Little Nemo was much more visually intense than Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. Working closely with the engravers at the New York Herald, McCay made each Little Nemo Sunday page a distinct work of art. Eschewing the gaudiness of other comic strips, Little Nemo used colors that were delicate and evocative. Each episode offered a startling new view of Slumberland, a land that Nemo first feared but later grew to cherish.

Thematically, Little Nemo is the opposite of Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. It is not about the fears and lies of adulthood but is rather the story of a child who grows confident in his imaginative powers. In one moving sequence, Nemo uses a magic wand acquired in Slumberland to transform a slum into an earthly paradise. The wand was, of course, the fictional counterpart to McCay’s magical pen, which also had the ability to conjure up a beautiful alterative reality to the ugliness he saw around him.

Created in the wake of the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, Little Nemo was as much an architectural fantasy as a fairy tale. McCay delighted in creating pristine fictional palaces, rich in colonnades and endless hallways. Like a child playing in a sandlot, he also took pleasure in tearing down what he had so quickly created. The fertility of McCay’s imagination is both daunting and troubling. His mind moved too quickly to linger over his own creations too long. His need to create a quick succession of fresh images gives his work the rushed unreality of dreams, and sometimes the insubstantiality of dreams as well.

McCay’s most important innovation as an artist was his close attention to movement. Half a generation before McCay, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge had already revolutionized our sense of how bodies move through space with his time-lapse studies of horses. McCay never directly copied from photographs, relying instead on his remarkable eidetic memory, but he internalized the lessons of Muybridge. All of McCay’s characters, from flying mosquitoes to scampering little boys to trotting horses, move with the fluency of life. Because comics are a succession of images, frozen when seen in isolation but moving as we read the page, McCay’s attention to motion brought to the foreground the distinctive aesthetic of the art form.

McCay’s reliance on memory as his chief storehouse of images is further evidence of his deep insight into the nature of comics. Chris Ware, a sharp theorist of art as well as a greatly talented cartoonist, has repeatedly argued that comics are memory-drawings rather than life-drawings. “A cartoon is not an image taken from life,” Ware notes. “A cartoon is taken from memory. You’re trying to distill the memory of an experience, not the experience itself.” Unlike a painter or an illustrator working in front of a model, a cartoonist is drawing images in sequence that must possess narrative flow. Memories, which are fleeting images in a hazy sequence, are the closest cognitive parallel for how comics work. (Dreams, of course, are nighttime memories, sharing the sequential fuzziness of retrospective thought.)

The original run of Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo, roughly from 1904 to 1913, marks the height of McCay’s artistic life. Aside from doing a daily comic strip drawing, often a full page in size, McCay had energy enough to moonlight in two other successful careers, as a lecturer and animator. In those days, cartoonists enjoyed genuine celebrity status and were frequently called upon to draw in public. It was the era when live entertainment was still part of everyday life, whether in the form of vaudeville skits or lectures by Chautauqua elocutionists. As an increasingly prominent cartoonist, McCay received many requests to give chalk talks, public lectures in which he would use a blackboard to illustrate how cartoons are made. One of the stars of vaudeville, he shared the stage with W. C. Fields and Harry Houdini, among other celebrities.

McCay’s gift for capturing motion gave him yet another prominent role in history as a pioneering animator. Working with a minimal staff in his spare time, McCay created spectacular films, including Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). In their ability to create the illusion of lifelike movement, these films were unrivaled until the efforts of Walt Disney two decades later. Whereas Disney commanded an army of assistants working full-time in a major commercial enterprise, McCay’s experiments were supported largely by his creative ambitions.

McCay was almost inhumanly productive. By one estimate he produced more than a million drawings in his life, almost all of them of a very high quality of draftsmanship, with a few possessing genius. Canemaker’s biography, rich in intimate details gleaned from personal letters and documents as well as many interviews, makes clear that McCay’s relentless productivity was partially fueled by the need to escape from a troubled marriage. Attractive and younger than her husband, Maude McCay was the subject of courtroom dramas and newspaper gossip, with stories suggesting that she enticed other women’s husbands to stray.

Ray Winsor Moniz, the cartoonist’s grandson, astutely observes that his grandfather would often “leave a group of people, excuse himself, and go upstairs to work. He avoided arguments that way with Maude. His concentration and losing himself in his drawings was almost weird. It was an obsession. [He] used it to get away from the family or a problem. He used it as a retreat as well as a love.”

This love of drawing made McCay one of the most celebrated popular artists of his day, but his success was also his undoing. In 1911, McCay was hired by William Randolph Hearst to be a staff cartoonist. McCay started earning an outlandishly large salary, peaking near $100,000 a year (putting him in league with movie stars and the most successful of athletes). Alas, this salary came at a high cost. After letting McCay work for a while on a relaunched version of Little Nemo, Hearst decided that so highly paid an artist belonged on the editorial page. McCay was placed under the thumb of editor Arthur Brisbane, who told the cartoonist: “you’re a serious artist, not a comic cartoonist. I want you to give up [Little Nemo] and draw serious cartoon pictures for my editorials.” Hearst further decreed that McCay should stop wasting his time on vaudeville because his “dalliance with the stage interferes with [his] regular newspaper work.”

After a lifetime of dodging adult responsibilities in order to give freedom to his childlike imagination, McCay was finally trapped. Because he and his wife were extravagant and feckless spenders, he needed the hefty salary that only Hearst could provide. But in order to earn that salary, McCay had to give up the two activities that meant the most to him: drawing comic strips and basking in the glamour of the stage. McCay did get to revive Little Nemo briefly in the 1920s, but by that time his creative fires had gone out, extinguished perhaps by the drudgery of illustrating the pontifications of Arthur Brisbane. (The platitudinous tenor of these editorials can be measured by the cartoons, technically proficient but dull, that McCay supplied as illustrations. Typically they contained such vapid titles as “Thank Heaven for Progress,” “Here God Has Placed Us,” “Who Carries the Load? Woman,” “Beware of the Word ‘Easy,’” “Our Glorious Public School,” “The Dreadful Curse of Drugs,” “Death Is Kind and Necessary: It Wipes Off the Human Slate and Makes Way for New Ideas.”) When McCay died in 1934, obituaries noted the passing of an editorial cartoonist. Little Nemo was only a dim memory.

Late in life, McCay noted, “I have never been so happy as when I was drawing Little Nemo.” This statement takes on a melancholy edge when we consider that he didn’t give up Little Nemo; it was taken away from him. The imaginative freedom celebrated in Little Nemo becomes all the more precious when we realize that it was only fleetingly enjoyed by McCay.

McCay’s life and career were rife with contradictions. His emotional immaturity allowed him to create art rich in complexity and depth. A top-notch artist, he worked in the most ephemeral of mediums: the newspaper page and the vaudeville stage. (Rather as if Michelangelo were hired to create ice sculptures.) Popular and celebrated, neither he nor any of his contemporaries did much to preserve his best work, almost all of which has been scattered and lost. Librarians tended to have a sniffy attitude to newspapers run by ruffians like William Randolph Hearst and rarely preserved the best sources of McCay’s work. (The scandal of old newspapers being destroyed and half-heartedly preserved on microfilm has been well documented by Nicholson Baker in an earlier book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.)

Only decades after McCay’s death did museums start to realize he had left an important artistic legacy. While scattered examples of his Little Nemo have been reprinted, the full body is still not available. (Although the book Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays does give some restitution. By showing us McCay’s art almost exactly as it first appeared, only on more permanent paper, the book restores the original experience of being immersed in Slumberland. This is not a book to read; it’s a book to inhabit. It allows you to spend days exploring the byways of McCay’s imagination. Quite simply, this is the most beautiful book of comics ever published.)

In sum, McCay suffered the paradoxical fate common to cartoonists: wealth and fame did little to secure his place in the cultural pantheon. McCay’s career is emblematic not only of what comics are capable of at their best, but also of the constraints that almost all cartoonists work under. Until very recently, comics have been a commercial art form, with little of the autonomy granted to the fine arts. Even so great a cartoonist as McCay operated under the tyranny of the marketplace (this perhaps explains the satirical jabs he occasionally makes at corporate capitalism).

The struggle for artistic freedom in a commercially dominated form is the central story of comics in the twentieth century. This story provides the narrative arc that governed the careers of the cartoonists who worked in McCay’s wake, inspired by his beautiful art yet afraid to suffer his ultimate fate. The canon of artists celebrated by the “Masters of American Comics” exhibition provides a good road map for how cartoonists have tried to deal with the McCay dilemma of creating art amid the bazaar bustle of the market.

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As the title makes clear, “Masters of American Comics” is very much an exhibit with an agenda: it’s an attempt to create a canon, a short list that neatly encompasses the best the medium has to offer. Aside from Winsor McCay, the masters list includes seven newspaper cartoonists: Lyonel Feininger (although best known for his paintings, he did two short-lived expressionist strips, The Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World), George Herriman (the creator of Krazy Kat), E. C. Segar (Thimble Theatre and Popeye), Frank King (Gasoline Alley), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon), and Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts). There are three comic book artists: Will Eisner (who created The Spirit in the 1940s and was instrumental in solidifying the graphic novel form in the late 1970s), Jack Kirby (who cocreated Captain America with Joe Simon and the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, and many other characters with Stan Lee), and Harvey Kurtzman (the mastermind behind MAD comics). There are also four living cartoonists, all of whom sprang from the tradition of the 1960s counterculture and have created a diverse body of work that is difficult to summarize: Robert Crumb (best known for his stories about Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat), Art Spiegelman (author of the groundbreaking graphic memoir Maus), Gary Panter (Jimbo in Purgatory, a Dada adaptation of Dante), and Chris Ware (creator of the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan and many other works).

As lists go, this is quite impressive. One might quibble about the choice of Feininger (whose strips are lovely but very few in number). He seems like a sop to art-world respectability. The rest are not only all major figures and formidable talents; they also serve as markers for larger historical movements: to pick some obvious examples, Frank King stands in for the sentimental, soap opera strips of the 1920s; Milton Caniff for the slick illustrators and adventure artists of the 1930s; Jack Kirby for superhero comic books of the 1940s and later; Robert Crumb for the freewheeling sixties. The lack of women on the list can be blamed on the sexism that governed both newspaper bull pens and comic book sweatshops (although there could have been more acknowledgment of the current generation of groundbreaking female cartoonists, such as Lynda Barry and Carol Tyler).

Yet even with this impressive masters list, we see how compromised comics have been by commercial concerns. There is a clear distinction between artists of the first rank and talented craftsmen who never quite freed themselves from the expectations of their audience or employers. McCay, we’ve seen, was an artist for a few great years but a craftsman for most of his working life. Many cartoonists have had similarly split careers. But a few rough demarcations are possible. To my mind, the true artists on the list are McCay, Herriman, King, Segar, Schulz, Crumb, Spiegelman, Panter, and Ware. The rest all did work that has value but lacks the essential jolt of personal feeling that only art possesses. However gifted a Chester Gould or a Jack Kirby might have been—and both did visually overpowering work—still they relied so heavily on the clichés and tropes of pulp fiction that it is difficult to emotionally connect with their art at any deep level of feeling. By contrast, the most offhand doodle from Herriman’s pen has the intimacy of a handwritten love letter.

Herriman, in fact, provides an object lesson for the freedoms that a cartoonist could enjoy even while working as a newspaper wage slave. In many ways, Herriman was McCay’s lucky younger brother. Born a Louisiana “mulatto” in 1880, Herriman entered the New York newspaper rat race at the turn of the century, a few years ahead of McCay. (Up north, Herriman was allowed to pass as white, a harder performance in his native state.) Like the creator of Little Nemo, Herriman ended up on Hearst’s payroll. But to Herriman, “the Chief” was an indulgent patron rather than an overbearing boss.

Herriman’s oddball strip Krazy Kat was initially popular when it emerged in 1913 but lost its mass audience as it became ever more eccentric and esoteric. But Hearst both loved the strip and valued it as a prestige winner (since it won praise from writers like Gilbert Seldes and E. E. Cummings). So he ordered his newspapers to keep running the strip until Herriman’s death in 1944. It was a rare case of an early-twentieth-century cartoonist being valued simply as an artist and not as a circulation builder. (Comic books, the plebian offspring of comic strips, were even more dismally restrictive: they were mass-produced in sweatshops by artists who had to produce hundreds of pages a year to simply eke out a modest living.)

In recent years, as new scholarship has investigated Herriman’s life and his strips have been extensively reprinted, we can see that Krazy Kat was a deeply personal, even furtive and private, work. The themes of passing and the fluidity of identity run throughout Krazy Kat, a strip about a black cat that loves a white mouse. Herriman was allowed to explore such themes because enjoyed the liberty allowed to modern artists: since few understood his work, he could do as he pleased. More typically, the other first-rate comic strip artists also had the freedom granted to clowns. Avoiding the melodrama and bluster found in more earnest strips, artists like King, Segar, and Schulz stayed in the realm of comedy, where they could speak with their own distinctive voices. King’s comedy was low-key and wry, based on a melancholy sense of the toll taken by the passage of time. Segar, by contrast, was the uproarious spinner of tall tales, with Popeye as both a parody of two-fisted heroics and an exemplar of roughneck gallantry. In its peak years, Schulz’s comedy was brassy and bitter, a closely observed vision of childhood cruelty tempered only by verbal wit. Compared to the range and intelligence of these humorous cartoonists, more “serious” artists like Caniff and Kirby seem blunt, mechanical, and all too easily imitated.

It was only with the emergence of the counterculture in the 1960s that the idea of comics as art became more than an intermittent possibility. In keeping with the spirit of the times, Robert Crumb and his peers refused to work under the strictures of corporate culture, whether for mainstream newspapers or comic book publishers. Instead, they hooked up with the underground press, or started their own fly-by-night companies, in order to produce work that was personal and completely uncensored. Of course, many of the underground comics suffered from the flaws of hippy art: they offered many pages of self-indulgent fantasies of sexual freedom mixed with druggy incoherence and a preference for sensationalism and outrage over subtlety and delicacy. However, the undergrounds freed comics from the golden cage they had previously inhabited.

If McCay was the pivotal cartoonist of the first half of the twentieth century, Crumb was the medium’s second major watershed. A maladjusted child of the baby boom, Crumb rejected the tinny slickness of postwar America and immersed himself in the rich craft values of the early twentieth century.

Thanks to his friendship with fellow record and comic book collectors, he was deeply steeped in the traditions of the past. “Little Nemo is one of my all time favorite strips,” the nineteen-year-old Crumb wrote to a friend. “McCay was a genius!” His stylistic influences are virtually identical to the table of contents for the “Masters of American Comics” catalogue: McCay, Herriman, Segar, and Kurtzman. From these predecessors he synthesized a style that combined the rich density of earlier art with stories about contemporary life.

Fearless in exposing his deepest sexual fantasies for the world to see, Crumb inspired a generation of cartoonists to believe that comics could be a personal art. As Art Spiegelman once noted, Crumb was “the most influential of the underground cartoonists” whose achievement was “to re-invent comic books. His fantasies were not mass-produced, pre-adolescent superhero power fantasies, but rather pimply post-adolescent sex fantasies—the Dreams of an Acid Fiend—with at least one foot firmly planted in the real world.”

Spiegelman himself went through a “Crumb phase” and then, as the best students do, found his own voice. Like Crumb, Spiegelman is deeply rooted in the history of his own art, possessing an almost professorial knowledge of the arcane history of comics. (It’s worth pointing out that both men gained their erudition of comics lore from the late collector Woody Gelman, who more than anyone else preserved the art of Winsor McCay and brought it back into print.) Spiegelman’s comics gain much of their density from this knowledge of comics history: even the seemingly diary-like art of Maus is actually rich with allusions to comics and other early twentieth-century art forms, the very choice of cats and mice as lead characters being an homage to the anthropomorphic tradition of Herriman and his contemporaries.

In sum, the current wave of art comics can be seen as a reclamation project: it is an attempt to redeem the art of the past, much of which was produced under commercial duress, by preserving the best that was done and incorporating it into new work. Artists such as Crumb and Spiegelman are both deeply traditional and innovative. Traditional because they have internalized the craftwork of earlier artists, and innovative because they have found fresh stories to tell with their well-honed skills. As Spiegelman likes to say, the future of comics is in the past. Or to put it another way, the spiritual children of Winsor McCay still have dreams to draw.


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