The Real McCay"Nemo? Nemo?"
A mother’s voice echoes through the pitch-black darkness as you walk inside. Then ahead of you light appears and you step out from inside the mouth of a huge green dragon onto his red-carpeted tongue. Before you, a giant white bed stretches its legs as if preparing to walk, while on one of the bed sheets stretched to the floor are projected flickering animated films. You can then walk through human-scale skyscrapers, refracted and multiplied in facing mirrors, and a forest of towering mushrooms and raspberry bushes, while all around the gallery walls are framed printed pages and rare original art.
Welcome to the extraordinarily imaginative exhibition at the 1990 Angoulême Comics Festival in France recreating the nocturnal fantasies of the first and most famous boy-dreamer in all of comics, Little Nemo In Slumberland.
A century ago, on Sunday October 15th 1905, Winsor McCay (1867-1934) introduced Nemo, his little ‘nobody’, whom he claimed to have based on his son Robert, in the comic supplement of the New York Herald. His newsprint was a vast and almost virgin territory - a picture area of some 15" by 19" (or about 36cms by 49cms) on a full page of a broad sheet newspaper. He could also devise and instruct the most eye-popping and subtle colouring effects, techniques lost to modern newspaper printing. With his background in vaudeville and circus poster design and his inventive approach to framing and layout, McCay advanced the comic strip’s potential by experimenting with scale, transformation, perspective, and above all, visionary journeys into the subconscious.
Much like the later Japanese genius Osamu Tezuka of Astro Boy fame, McCay helped to pioneer not only comics but also animation. Starting in 1911, his cartoon films brought Nemo to life in 4,000 moving frames, each drawn by his own hand. Happy to play the showman, he also performed in person, drawing and interacting with his animated dinosaur Gertie. With no photo newsreel of the tragedy, he animated the sinking of the Lusitania in 1918. McCay may have made only ten short films in all (on DVD from Image Entertainment), but modern animators from Walt Disney and Tex Avery today hail him as a founding father of the medium.
From 1911, McCay found himself increasingly pulled in different directions, by his passion for animation and live performances and by the demands of his new paymaster William Hearst, who wanted him to draw dry editorial cartoons, while continuing the Nemo-less title In The Land Of Wonderful Dreams. Hearst adored McCay’s comics, but it seems his readers, and editors, did not. Reading about McCay’s later life tenured at Hearst’s newspapers, he seems thwarted from fulfilling his dreams in comics and animation.
Sadly, after his death in 1934, his adult son Robert tried in vain to follow in his father’s footsteps and revive Nemo, cutting up the panels to reformat them for comic books. In time, McCay’s brilliance was almost forgotten. Torchy creator Bill Ward remembered "an older man trying to establish himself as a background man in the [Jack] Binder shop around 1942. His name: Winsor McCay Junior. The names meant nothing to Ward or the other 20-somethings there. "One day, he brought about 40 strips with him to work." Ward recalled that he was giving them away but not one of the studio guys took any. "These were the days before all the publicity about comics and their origins came out."
Today, McCay’s whole or restored line originals are highly prized rarities and several are on show currently in two exhibitions, as part of the Masters Of American Comics and in the restored art nouveau Maison Autrique in Brussels. The accompanying books to these shows are essential. In Masters Of American Comics, co-curator John Carlin traces the peaks of comics history from McCay to today, through 15 greats and a banquet of stunning original drawings.
In Little Nemo: Un Siecle De Reves - or A Century Of Dreams - (Impressions Nouvelles) present-day creators pay homage to McCay, from Moebius, who created initial drawings for the flawed Japanese Nemo movie, to David B., whose latest book, Les Complots Nocturnes (Futuropolis) confirms him as McCay’s greatest successor in transcribing dreams.
Other tribute projects include the evocative four-volume French ‘bio-fiction’ McCay by Smolderen and Bramanti (Winsor McCay offers extracts in English) and a new musical in development by Italian film-maker and comic creator Alberto Massarese with choreographer Bianca Falco.
In 1987, McCay was justly the subject of the most lavish biography about any American comic artist. John Canemaker’s study, Winsor McCay: His Life & Art (Abbeville) has been reissued in 2006 with more pages, 272, but smaller dimensions. It includes extra Nemo examples, pages from a film production note-book, fresh comments by and about McCay, and overall improved design and repro, so you’ll want it even if you have the first edition. One draw back might be the smaller format forcing some Sunday pages to be shown sideways and across the gutter.
By far the best way to see the colour Nemo Sunday strips is at their full printed size and thanks to the zeal of Peter Maresca of Sunday Press Books, this is now possible. He has selected 110 of the finest episodes from 1905-1910 and lovingly reproduced them in the biggest hardback book of comics you have ever seen - a whopping 16 by 21 inches! Subtitled So Many Splendid Sundays, the edition is limited to 5,000 copies priced $120, that’s about $1 per Sunday. Now this is how to reprint Sunday comics, the way they were seen by millions every week, so big you can spread them across the floor and dive into each of their lustrous, detailed panels. Treat yourself. Believe me, like Nemo, you will be transported to the wonders of Slumberland. Explore other McCay gems and obscura, notably his much darker Dreams Of A Rarebit Fiend, in Fantagraphics Daydreams & Nightmares, edited by Rick Marschall, and Checker Books Early Works series, eight to date.
For all this attention, McCay himself retains an elusive side to his character. I wondered what drove him to devote a lifetime to drawing. As he said, "I just couldn’t stop drawing anything and everything. I did not do this to amuse someone else or to show how good I could draw. I drew alone to please myself."
He died without being able to finish one last commission. In Canemaker’s biography, a family secret may provide a clue. At the age of 30, McCay’s paranoid brother Arthur, only a few months younger than him, was committed by his parents to an insane asylum, where he stayed till his death, receiving no visits from any of his family.
This is speculation, but I wonder by drawing all those dreams and nightmares in his comics, did Winsor find the perfect vehicle to exorcise his fear of his brothers ‘madness’ - and his fear of it claiming him too? What better method than repeatedly to step into the mad world of dreams and then affirm his own sanity every time his dreamers awoke safe and sane in the last panel, comforted by parent or dismissing it all as side-effects of melted cheese.
Could it be that Nemo was not his son Robert so much as the vulnerable little boy whom Winsor McCay imagined inside his shunned, locked-up brother Arthur - and perhaps inside himself as well?
Posted: December 17, 2006
The original version of this article appeared in 2006 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.