Comics College returns with Winsor McCay

Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.

After a longer hiatus than was initially intended, I'm happy to sayComics College is back and ready to give you the sequential-art schooling you so desperately need. This month we'll be looking at the output of one of the most important -- if not THE most important -- figure in the early history of comics, Winsor McCay.

Why he's important

In terms of influence alone, McCay is a BFD; he's one of a small handful of artists -- like Jack Kirby or Robert Crumb -- who has left a ginormous footprint in the history of comics, not just for having helped shape the medium itself, but for the dizzying number of cartoonists who draw upon McCay to this very day.

Beyond that, and despite their age, his strips remain as stunning as they did when they were first published a hundred years ago. McCay was able to create vast, intricate wonderlands and surreal transformations fluidly and with what still seems like a minimum of fuss. He is utterly unique among American artists -- an illustrator who found in our unconscious both terrors and delights that plague our dreams to this very day, and probably will as long as the human race is still around.

Where to start

The general consensus is that Little Nemo in Slumberland is McCay's greatest and most influential work, and who are we to argue with the general consensus? Little Nemo is a delightful, awe-inspiring Art Nouveau playground where McCay is able to indulge his interests in depicting motion, transformation and fantastic architecture, all through the adventures of a sheepish little boy set adrift in an ever-changing landscape with the only available exit to be had by falling out of bed .

The catch is that because Little Nemo, like all of McCay's work, is in the public domain, a variety of books have been published collecting various runs of the strip. So which one to pick?

If you have the cash (and sadly, if you want to read McCay's work you need the cash these days), I recommend Little Nemo in Slumberland: Splendid Sundays and Many More Splendid Sundays, both from Sunday Press Books. These two "best-of" compilations do justice to McCay's magnum opus, mainly because they're printed at the original broadsheet newspaper size, giving modern readers the chance to read the strip as originally intended.

If you're a completist like me, and a simple "best-of" book won't do, then you'll want to try to track down all six volumes of The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland, published by Fantagraphics in the early 1990s. The volumes are long out of print and -- word to the wise -- many of the later sequences aren't as transcendent as the initial years, particularly a dull 1910 storyline where Nemo and his friends tour the United States. Still, most online booksellers have the individual volumes going for about $45 a pop and up.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a simple "best-of" book that will fit on your shelves, the publisher Stewart, Tabori, & Chang put out a coffee-table sized book a few years ago, but for the price you'd pay for it, you'd be best sticking with the Sunday Press editions.

If you want to really go cheap, you can just download the entire run of the strip at the Internet Library. Reading Nemo's adventures through a computer screen just isn't the same thing, though.

From there you should read

After Nemo, McCay's most hallucinatory and extraordinary strip is Dream of a Rarebit FiendThe premise is rather simple: A man or woman (the protagonist changes in every strip) has a strange and sometimes delightful, often frightening and confusing, dream, only to wake up in the last panel, blaming it on the toasted cheese sandwiches they ate right before bedtime.

As with Little Nemo, you can download a complete run of Rarebit at the Internet Archive. If you're a print person, however, you might want to try to track down The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, a massive, oversize book edited by one Ulrich Merkl. The book is really a treasure trove for McCay fans. Not only does it provide copious indexes and notes, with comparisons to fine artists like Dali, but it also includes a DVD with every single Rarebit strip included, as well as one of McCay's animated films.

The Merkl book is exceedingly hard to find, however (and rather expensive; only 1,000 copies were printed), so more budget-minded fans might want to check out Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Saturdays which, as the name suggests, collects the Saturday run of the strip, which were presented in a larger, broader format. The book was released by the seemingly defunct Checker Book Publishing Group, and is available online rather cheaply. While the quality of the strip reproductions isn't the best (they obviously just scanned in microfiche copies with little attempt made to lean them up), it's a pretty good survey of the strip with a number of truly memorable sequences included.

Before Nemo, McCay had a minor hit on his hand with Little Sammy Sneeze, a one-joke strip about a little boy whose sneezes cause utter catastrophe, so strong are his nostrils. In one memorable and oft-reprinted sequence, his sneeze even tears apart the panel boarders of his strip. Sunday Press Books collected the entirety of Sammy, along with Hungry Henrietta, a rather sharp satire of middle-class mores in turn of the century America, with young Henrietta's family forever trying to placate her emotional needs with food, until she becomes something of an eating machine. Best of all, though, the book comes with a tissue-box cover!

Further reading

The rest of McCay's newspaper work has traditionally been presented in various "odds and sods" collections. The best of these is Daydreams and Nightmares, a catch-all compendium containing some Rarebit strips, editorial cartoons and miscellaneous strips that didn't quite take off. The highlight of the book is arguably the later editorial cartoons, which newspaper magnet William Randolph Hearst assigned to McCay partly to keep him tethered to the paper and away from the vaudeville stage. My understanding is that the actual essays McCay was illustrating are pure doggerel, but the images themselves are breathtaking. Fans of that material should check out Checker's The Editorial Works, which collects the bulk of those illustrations.

Checker also released nine paperback volumes of a series entitled Early Works. It's a loose aggregation of early newspaper work, little-known strips, some Rarebit and other material, not all of it "early" by any means. The quality of the reproduced art varies wildly and any notes or explanatory introductions are minimal. For the serious McCay completist, however, these are pretty essential. When is any publisher ever going to attempt something like this again? Thankfully, as with most Checker books, these are easily available at ridiculously low prices.

Ancillary material

This column tends to focus on individual artist's printed work, but of course McCay is renowned as a pioneer in the field of animation as well as comics. You can find just about all of his major film works on a DVD entitled Winsor McCay: Animation Legend, including the still-charming Gertie the Dinosaur. Most of his cartoons are also available on YouTube as well.

Although he remains something of an enigma, McCay's life and times are exceedingly well chronicled in Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, a biography by fellow animator John Canemaker. One of the few McCay-related books that is actually still in print and easily available, it's a very well-written book (arguably one of the best cartoonist biographies out right now and lavishly illustrated to boot.

Avoid/Save for last

Because McCay's work is in the public domain, a number of publishers have attempted to collect his work over the past few decades, and not all of them tend to be of superior quality. Checker's attempt to collect Little Nemo, for example, is problematic since some of the strips were reprinted in black and white instead of full color. You definitely want to avoid most of the e-book and Kindle editions that are out there on the Internet, as little care seems to have been put into maintaining any sort of quality.

Next month: Joann Sfar

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