by John Canemaker; Abbeville Press; 223 pages; $49.95.
Cartoon humor—like every other kind —ages poorly. The doings of Happy Hooligan are likely to bring ennui to the modern reader; those of the Katzenjammer Kids, despair. But Winsor McCay’s marvelous cartoons are as enchanting today as they were when he drew them eighty years ago. Partly this is because he relied more on fantasy than on jokes in his work, but mainly it is because McCay was a supremely fine draftsman.
He is best remembered today for “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” and he deserves to be: it was just what the author of this book says—“quite simply the most beautiful and innovative comic strip ever drawn.” Beginning in the New York Herald in 1905, the strip followed its hero through his fantastic nocturnal ramblings. But like all good fantasy, McCay’s visions were grounded in reality: even as Little Nemo and his dream friends, growing into giants as they try to escape King Morpheus, flee across the rooftops of a nighttime city, the city itself is magnificently rendered right down to the diminishing perspective on the buildings’ cornices and the streetcars beetling along far below. McCay not only gives us an exhilarating dream adventure; he gives us as good an artist’s view as we have of the turn-of-the-century American city.
McCay also did a slumberland for adults, “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” and many of these strips are genuinely nightmarish. In one, we get an unsettling corpse’s-eye view of his own burial, the mourners overhead saying things like, “Death in this case is a blessing not only to his wife but to the whole community,” and “He looks natural but who wouldn’t with the alcohol that’s in him.” Like Little Nemo, the grown-up victims always awake stunned and relieved in the last panel.
The tireless McCay also had a full career on the vaudeville stage as a “lightning sketch” artist and turned out animated cartoons of a quality not equaled until Disney’s day. Fortunately, an enormous amount of McCay family memorabilia has survived, and it is intelligently and engagingly presented in this extremely handsome book. The result is not only a portfolio of fine graphic art, but an intimate look at the tangy world of newspapering in Hearst’s day, the vaudeville stage, and American middleclass life in the first decades of this century.
The introduction is by Maurice Sendak, whose famous children’s work In the Night Kitchen is itself a book-length tribute to the enduring charm of McCay’s style.