Winsor McCay has long been considered one of the masters of comics, and this year there is increased attention on his work. This fall, Locust Moon Press is publishing “Little Nemo: Dream a Little Dream” with more than one hundred creators taking crafting broadsheet-sized strips, while Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez are offering their own take on the character in IDW’s “Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland” miniseries. A new book about McCay offers some answers as to why he remains such an important figure even 80 years after his death.
Katherine Roeder is a adjunct professor at George Mason University and has written essays for “The Comics of Chris Ware” and “A New Literary History of America” in addition to “The Comics Journal” and “American Art.” An art historian by training, the University Press of Mississippi has recently released her first book as part of their Great Comics Artists series. “Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay” looks at the artist known for “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and places him in the context of popular culture at turn of the century America, drawing on many sources from outside of comics including vaudeville, poster art, early cinema, photography and motion studies and transformed comics forever.
Roeder spoke with CBR News from her home in Virginia to talk about the intersections of art and comics and culture, why McCay remains such an important and interesting artist, teaching comics and doing research in comics at the Library of Congress.
CBR News: You have a degree in art history. What first made you interested in studying comics?
Katherine Roeder: I was interested in comics since I was a kid. I have fond memories of reading “Bloom County” and “Calvin and Hobbes” every Sunday, and leafing through my parent’s compilation of Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons. Some time in high school I began reading Lynda Barry and Neil Gaiman, and a few years later became a fan of Chris Ware and the “Acme Novelty Library.”Â To be honest, comics were a hobby but I had no intention of focusing on them when I went to grad school in art history. I knew I wanted to study 20th Century American Art, and I was interested in the intersection of art and popular culture, but it wasn’t until I discovered McCay that my interests in art, history and comics all came together.
When did you first come across the work of Winsor McCay and what about it really fascinated you?
I took a seminar called Art and Class at the Dawn of Mass Culture, taught by my grad advisor, Michael Leja, and “Little Nemo in Slumberland” was tucked in among the many images he showed us on the first day of class. It immediately grabbed my attention, and made me think of Chris Ware, as well as Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” (I was, and continue to be interested in children’s literature and illustration as well). As I saw more and more works by McCay, I wondered why he was not taught in art history courses as one of the great American artists of the early 20th Century. While McCay is highly regarded in the comics world, I found that his notoriety did not necessarily extend beyond comic art circles. I thought that by applying the tools of formal visual analysis to his individual art works, their art historical significance would become self-evident. In the decade it took me to research and write my dissertation, I fell in love with several other artists from McCay’s era, people like Walt McDougall, Gustave Verbeek, Charles Forbell and Peter Newell, as well as slightly later folks like George Herriman, Ethel Hayes and Cliff Sterrett.
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“Krazy Kat” has always been discussed as the great modernist comic, but you really make the argument that McCay is really emblematic of modernism and this period of American history and culture. How much of that was a surprise to you as you studied it and how did your understanding of him change over the years?
This was an entirely unexpected conclusion. As I began studying McCay, I thought his work was beautiful but also stylistically conservative in relation to what was happening in the art world at that time, and certainly in comparison to the modernist antics of “Krazy Kat” which would emerge a decade later. As I worked on my dissertation I began to question aspects of the high art, formalist definition of modernism.Â Studying McCay’s self-reflexivity, the way that he repeatedly broke the fourth wall, emphasized process and an attention to the comic form, while also critiquing modern life and remixing so many aspects of early 20th Century visual culture, I realized my preconceptions about McCay, about comics, about art and about Modernism all needed to be re-thought. Yes, McCay’s visual style was realistic and illustrative, but he was every bit the modernist in terms of a sophisticated engagement with modern life, and a self-aware approach to his chosen medium.
You make the point that McCay is a major transformational figure as far as thinking about the comics page. “Krazy Kat” launched a decade after “Nemo” and McCay was very different from people like A.B. Frost and Richard Outcault.
There’s so much talent and interesting work coming out of the 19th and early 20th Century, but I believe McCay fits in as being particularly influential because of his ability to draw from all these different sources. He was drawing from the newly forming comics tradition, from TÃ¶pffer and Frost, and he was incorporating elements of them into his work, but his influences weren’t just limited to comics. He was looking broadly at the culture, looking at everything from advertising to early films to photography to Coney Island to department store displays and bringing together all these different aspects of the larger culture. He was creating images that seemed both fantastical, but also very relevant to people’s lives because they could draw those connections for themselves. It contained both an element of escape but also an element of reality as well. He was playing around with page design, manipulating the size and the format of the panels in such a way which helped to change the pacing and alter how the stories were unfolding. He pioneered a lot of those techniques that people continue to use to this day.
I was fascinated to read in your book that McCay didn’t read Freud. This was a period was Freud was hugely influential but it was a period where dreaming and subconscious were so pervasive in the arts and culture. The fact that McCay and others were doing all this work without ever reading Freud is fascinating — though I’m not exactly sure what that means.
Yes, that’s a whole other book but it’s an important question and it’s an interesting one. Why are all of these people thinking about these ideas of dreaming and the subconscious at the same time. From everything we know there’s no reason for us to think that Winsor McCay would have known Freud’s work. There’s no connection I could find. It seems like there are these periods in history, and you see it with the development of film and the development of photography, where people are working around the same ideas and the same philosophies in totally different places without knowledge of each other. In terms of this interest in dreaming and inner life and subjectivity I feel like you can see that exploding in the 1880s if you look at the symbolist painters and the symbolist poets. They were looking at dreaming as this way of expressing subjectivity. For some reason there are certain cultural moments when everyone seems to be reflecting on certain ideas in different ways.
Look at McCay’s interest in the depiction of motion and movement, and how he draws attention to the picture plane. The Futurists and Picasso are doing that elsewhere — not to say that he’s influenced at all by Picasso — but this is a period of rapid change, industrialization, urbanization where ideas start percolating and expressing themselves in different places. Everyone’s reacting to the same cultural changes and expressing them in slightly different ways but they’re all engaged with the present. I feel like we can’t ignore McCay just because he’s on the comics page. It’s just as valid an articulation of these ideas as elsewhere — and in fact it’s more interesting because it has this wider reach.
It’s been fascinating to see the interest in late 19th and early 20th Century comics in recent years — the incredible books that Pete Maresca has assembled, Thierry Smolderen’s book, various other scholarly works. What do you love about this period of work and why do you think that people should pay attention to and care about these comics?
I agree, the Maresca books are just incredible and I am thrilled to see the Smolderen book as well — I confess I have not read it yet, but it is at the top of my list. The reprints and translations are a fantastic way to bring these materials out of the archives and allow everyone to see just how groundbreaking this work is. I think it was an incredibly significant period in terms of formal innovations, because comics had not been defined in the way that we now understand them — the art form was not codified and so the artists had the freedom to make up the rules as they went along. The result was an unselfconscious quality and an air of experimentation.Â They also allow us to see that comics did not develop in a straight trajectory by any means, and it is the messiness of that early history that opens up so much possibility for the comics that followed in their wake.
“Little Nemo” is the work that McCay is most associated with but I’d also like to talk about the other two strips you consider incredibly important, “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” and “Little Sammy Sneeze,” because both are really fascinating for different reasons.
Indeed, I love “Little Sammy Sneeze,” because it is the same joke repeatedly endlessly — boy explosively sneezes, causes a ruckus and get his comeuppance, and yet McCay uses the stock scenario to riff creatively in all sorts of interesting ways, like a vaudeville routine, going so far as to break the fourth wall by literally shattering the comic panel and confronting the audience head on.Â While “Sammy” relies on slapstick and juvenile humor (Sammy traditionally gets kicked in the pants in the final scene of the comic), “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” is a much darker and more sophisticated satire of neurotic city dwellers. Like “Little Nemo,” “Rarebit Fiend” ends with its protagonist in bed, waking from a dream. But whereas Nemo’s adventures were fantastic, the “Rarebit” dreams are nightmares of urban life gone out of control, of being swallowed up by crowds of bargain-chasing shoppers, or being torn to pieces by urban transportation, or even being buried by family members who are so excited about their relative’s passing that they fail to take notice that the man is actually still alive. It is deeply disturbing stuff, which serves as an incisive commentary on contemporary life and modern anxiety.
In “The Origins of Comics” by Thierry Smolderen, his last chapter is “Winsor McCay: The Last Baroque” and I wanted to get your reaction to something he wrote: “The series are two faces of the same coin and their differences can be explained by a simple shift in strategy: ‘Little Sammy Sneeze’ is an extremely insightful parody of the popular comic strip of the time, while ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland’ develops a genuine counterproposal.”
I really like the way he frames that. It’s true, “Little Sammy Sneeze” and that type of one joke repeated ad infinitum was a standard starting point for any number of comic strips at this time period. Little Nemo as a counterproposal. I like that idea that he was playing around with the form and in a way parodying it with “Little Sammy Sneeze” and then offering a whole new window or opportunity for other artists with “Little Nemo,” that is terrific. I think he’s dead on there. It’s a great way think about what he was doing. I didn’t necessarily think of it as a parody, but I like that idea. I saw it more as a working through. He decided he was going to take this established medium and use it as a way to experiment in all sorts of different ways and play around with the form, but it becomes even more interesting if you think of it as him riffing on all these other artists who use that same format. And certainly I like that idea of “Little Nemo” as the counterproposal, as if to say, “Okay, this is the established way of doing things but here I’m opening a door and showing you this whole other world of possibility with ‘Little Nemo.'” That’s exactly right, I think.
I’m curious what it was like studying comics as an academic pursuit. How does one go about studying comics?
I tried to examine as many originals and old newspapers as possible, which meant spending quite a bit of time at the Library of Congress. I also visited the New York Public Library, the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State, the Smithsonian Institution libraries and archives, and the National Gallery of Art.Â Unfortunately, bound volumes of newspapers are hard to come by, way too many libraries discarded their newspapers in favor of microfilm which simply does not compare to the original, full-color newspaper broadsheets.Â I should say that I was very lucky to secure funding for my research through fellowship programs like the Swann Foundation Fellowship for the study of caricature and cartoon art at the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution’s predoctoral fellowship program — both are great resources for any grad students pursing comic art research topics.
As a comics scholar, how much does what you teach relate to your background and your work?
I am teaching one class on the art of comics that’s basically looking at comics history from an art historical perspective, so looking at the interactions between comics and art. We start with William Hogarth and we continue up to the present day. Of course I do my fair share of entry level survey classes, but I have been able to teach a fair number of courses of my own devising. I’ve taught a bunch of 19th and 20th Century American art courses and I included sections on comics within that, in addition to more focused seminars which I’ve been able to do on comics.
I would say that when I can I try to teach about comics. As an academic there really aren’t many programs that are specifically focused on comics. You have to find your slot in your department and, if you can, bring the material there but it seems to fall traditionally to English departments to teach comics and graphic novels. For some reason art history has been more resistant to the topic. That’s part of the reason I feel like I personally need to push it and I find the students really respond to it. The students in my comics class are always fantastic and I learn a tremendous amount from them. Usually they sign up for the class because they’re already a fan and they have an area of interest that they know well and are really enthusiastic about. It’s just great for them to bring that enthusiasm and ownership of the subject matter to the classroom. It makes the dynamic not quite so authoritarian. I’ll learn a ton from them about webcomics or superhero comics, subjects which I’d like to know more about but haven’t been able to find the time to explore extensively myself.
I ask this in part because as you mentioned, most of the people who study comics seem to be part of the English department.
That’s been true for a few decades now and that’s great, but if you come from an English background, you tend to be more concerned with narrative as opposed to the visual analysis of the images. That piece comes out of art history. I think there needs to be more representation of art historians in comic art studies because we can add to the mix more visual analysis, cultural context, relating it to other visual material as opposed to textual analysis that comes out of a narrative studies background.
Your book was just published, but I am curious what else you’re interested in and what you want to study more of right now.
Right now I’m working on a few different things. I’m writing an introduction to a book on the early 20th Century comics artist named Ethel Hays. I met Joe Procopio at the Small Press Expo two years ago. He runs a small press called Lost Art Books and he’s putting out a collection of work by Hays. I remain interested in how comics and other mass produced objects contributed to the development of modernism. I’m also particularly interested in understanding the bodily relationship between the viewer and the object. What does it mean to hold a comic book, to bring it close or hold it at a distance, to carry it with you and feel the texture of the pages. To that end I’m also interested in children’s literature and children’s books and illustration.
I gave a conference paper in February on the work of some early 20th Century children’s artists, Peter Newell, and looking at these early 20th Century interactive children’s books. I’m interested in the idea of visual literacy and how children learn to read visual images as well as reading text and how the interactive component of these early experimental children’s books fit into that. There’s a lot of crossover between comics and children’s books, in terms of the need to navigate both image and text, and in that both require a viewer to activate the experience. It feels like a natural transition.
You wrote an interesting essay in “The Comics of Chris Ware” and I remembered it even though I didn’t know at the time because you wrote about the references in Ware’s work to Richard Scarry, which I thought was dead-on. I loved those as a kid, but I think Scarry’s pages are very similar to early comics by Outcault and others.
Scarry is playing around with the whole page. He’s playing around with the combination of image and text and introducing different ways of reading the page, the diagrams and the cut outs. There’s something really interesting about that and that idea of visual literacy. As a child you have to learn not just how to read the words but how to read images and what images specifically teach you and what the full page can teach you. I thought the same thing, that link between him and something like “Hogan’s Alley,” that dense page where your eye has to travel around the page. I see that when I’m reading “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go” and “What Do People Do All Day.” Part of this is because I have young children so I’m spending a lot of time looking at these books, but I think there’s something so primal about that. When I see someone like Chris Ware making obvious references to the Golden Books in “Building Stories,” but also to Richard Scarry, I think that’s very deliberate. Ware is so interested in the idea of nostalgia and childhood — it’s fascinating to see the ways he incorporates these references. That’s what I’m really excited about nowadays but I haven’t figured out how to formulate that into a book proposal yet.
One thing I am wondering, could you explain just what “Welsh Rarebit” is and why eating cheese before bed is thought to be bad. I’ve heard the term before but never paid much attention to it — most likely because I’ve never had British cooking.
“Welsh Rarebit” is essentially melted cheese, mixed with a bit of ale and served on toast. The name began as “Welsh Rabbit,” and it was an ethnic slur, the implication being that the Welsh were too poor to serve rabbit and had to make do with melted cheese on toast instead. The idea that eating cheese (and other rich food) before bed could cause nightmares dates back to 17th Century British sources. At the same time, it was common in New York and other cities for folks to have Welsh Rarebit after a night on the town — it was a popular dish in taverns, men’s clubs and restaurants. Basically, after imbibing all evening you might sit down to a late night dish of Welsh Rarebit, just as college students today might go for a jumbo slice of pizza after barhopping. As such, it is no wonder that people associated it with bad dreams!
“Wide Awake in Slumberland” is on sale now.