Dream on

This bit of video for a never-realized film version of Little Nemo in Slumberland, which would have been directed by master animator Hayao Miyazaki, is enough to inspire long stretches of musing over What Might Have Been. The little bit I’ve seen of the film that actually was made looked pretty undistinguished — so undistinguished, in fact, that I’ve avoided watching the rest so that it doesn’t track mud through the section of my brain where Winsor McCay’s astonishing comic strip resides.

This excellent post from Cartoon Brew will fill you in on the background. As to why I consider it a big deal, here’s my take on the fall 2005 publication of So Many Splendid Sundays, the oversized collection that finally allowed McCay’s meticulously detailed panels and layouts to be seen in the correct form. If nothing else, it gives me an excuse to rescue the article from the archives of the original StevenHartSite, a handcrafted affair that preceded the current incarnation.

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Imagine you’d grown up admiring films like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey but had only been able to see them on a medium-sized television screen. Or you’d always loved the Ode to Joy but had only been able to hear it on a boombox or a small radio.

Now imagine seeing the films at a top-line movie theater with a big screen and excellent sound, or hearing Ode to Joy in a concert hall with a great chorus and a superb orchestra. Sheer physical impact is a legitimate artistic tool. Any work of art has its value regardless of the way it’s presented, but for some things, proper scale is needed to put across the necessary feeling of grandeur.

Bear this in mind when I say that even though I’ve admired Winsor McCay and his fanciful comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland just about all of my conscious life, the new book Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays makes me feel I’m looking at McCay’s pioneering artwork for the very first time. In its quiet way, this book took me back to the afternoon at the movie palace when the planets all lined up on the screen and the low rumble on the soundtrack surged into the triumphant Also Sprach Zarathustra, or the breathtaking transition when Peter O’Toole blew out a burning match and the immense screen at the Ziegfeld erupted into a blazing desert sunrise. I’m not saying that So Many Splendid Sundays is how Little Nemo ought to be seen. I’m saying this is how it has to be seen.

So Many Splendid Sundays does something that is both very simple and very difficult — it reproduces the strips in the exact same 16-inch by 21-inch size readers of the New York Herald would have seen them in 1905, albeit on heavier paper stock than tissue-thin newsprint. One result is that So Many Splendid Sundays is a coffee table book that’s bigger than many coffee tables. Another is that the reader finally gets to enter and appreciate the meticulously detailed empire of dreams that Winsor McCay created for his audience. There have been other beautiful and lovingly compiled collections of McCay’s work, but all of them reduced the size of his panels — often drastically. Those books gave you a seat way back in the theater. So Many Splendid Sundays puts you in the front row as Yo-Yo Ma runs his fingers up and down the cello. It makes for an expensive book, needless to say.

McCay (1867-1935) wasn’t the first comic strip artist, but he was certainly the first great one. In a section of the newspaper reserved for raucous slapstick acts like The Yellow Kid, McCay offered surrealistic dreamscapes and immense halls of glass, all rendered with a master draughtsman’s eye for composition and layout. Blessed with a quick hand and cursed by a constant need for money, McCay also produced a stream of separate comics (most notably Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, produced under a pseudonym for a rival paper) and editorial cartoons.

Winsor McCay was the first and probably only cartoonist who could be described as a superstar. For several years in the early 1900s he augmented his considerable income as an employee of William Randolph Hearst by touring the vaudeville circuit, where he wowed audiences by dashing off impeccably rendered sketches of selected couples aging through courtship and parenthood and old age, all rendered with phenomenal speed as the pit orchestra played “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” In 1911 he added a new dimension to the show by incorporating his pioneering work in animation, particularly his short films with Gertie the Dinosaur — a friendly Diplodocus carnegii whose expressiveness made her the first personable cartoon character, years ahead of Mickey Mouse. Ever ambitious, McCay turned the screenings into multimedia affairs in which he stood on the stage and gave carefully timed instructions to Gertie, who would appear to be responding to the man on the stage. The cartoons — collected on the DVD Winsor McCay: The Master Edition — are full of magically smooth animation with tricky perspectives that contemporary cartoonists would leave to the computer animation staff. McCay drew them all by hand, and the results are still pretty impressive.

If McCay’s writing had been as inventive as his artwork, Little Nemo would have been a strong contender for the title of greatest comic strip ever created. But we never learn much of anything about Nemo; after spending years as the centerpiece of extraordinary visuals, he remains a generic Small Boy. McCay could take us into a child’s dreams, but it took somebody like Bill Watterson with Calvin and Hobbes to take us into a child’s soul.

But among his many other achievements, Winsor McCay also paved the way for inspired eccentrics on the nation’s comic pages, and the grand loons who followed — from George Herriman (Krazy Kat) to Charles Schulz and the aforementioned Watterson — owe him a debt of gratitude. Slumberland is still a place I like to visit from time to time, and if you go, too, chances are you’ll come back better for having had the experience.

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