The Real McCay

by by Daniela Postigo

In 1955, Walt Disney took Robert McCay, the son of American cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay, on a guided tour of Disneyland (it had just opened). He told Robert, "You know, this should really belong to your father."

McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland appeared in newspapers between 1905 and 1914, with a brief revival between 1924 and 1927. The subjects are surreal and nightmarish, the technical skill on par with fine art illustration, with a tinge of the same rumblings of the fantastical that were beginning in Europe around that time. Each week the strip detailed the dreams of Nemo, a young slumberer, before he tumbled out of bed into waking life in the last panel. Some of the early strips contained serious consequences for Nemo upon waking: he was turned into a monkey or crushed by giant mushrooms. Little Nemo ranks high among the works that validate comics as a 'proper' art form. It is hard to dispute the sophistication of McCay's form, which remains unmatched by the trends of the comics industry that came after him: the standardization, visual and narrative, of an all but automated superhero comic genre.
McCay's comics explored the conceptual possibilities of their medium and the physical limits of the newspaper page. Little Nemo and McCay's decidedly more morose Dreams of a Rarebit Friend, along with George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Lyonel Feininger's The Kin-der-Kids, and are admired as groundbreaking works in the history of the American comic strip. In an act of remarkable foresight, William Randolph Hearst wrangled all three artists under restrictive contracts that at one point forbade McCay from pursuing his work in animated film.
Feininger went on to hobnob with the German expressionists in the Blaue Reiter circle and Die Brucke movement, while Herriman devoted his life to a lovesick cartoon Kat; McCay, released from Hearst's contract, finally went on to actively pursue the animation work that would earn him Disney's esteem. McCay's 1914 Gertie the Dinosaur was the first animated short to use keyframe animation, which engineered its characters to react realistically, with human personality. Gertie, a diplodocus endowed with all the endearing responsiveness of a character out of The Land Before Time, weighs at number six on the authoritative 50 Greatest Cartoons as Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals; it would take Disney, MGM and Warner Brothers until after 1928 to gain the same level of achievement as Gertie. The Gertie project was originally conceived and executed as a vaudeville act in which McCay interacted with Gertie who responded on screen with emotional vivacity and sincere charisma.
The elegance and innovation of Little Nemo and Gertie lives on in the work of some of today's best visual storytellers, like Dan Clowes's Ghost World and Ice Haven or the colorful, cerebral layout in the pages of Chris Ware, who works in the extended "graphic novel" genre. Of McCay's work, Chris Ware has said: "Impeccable draftsmanship. Firmly rooted in the principles of realism and Renaissance perspective, invariably to stunning effect...Every time I look at it, I get inspired." McCay's comic strips are precious examples of the artistic innovation that fueled the early years of the American comic form and that still inspire the successes of today's graphic novels.
Perhaps it's unfair to spotlight a specific aesthetic that began with McCay and continues with today's notable comic book artists. The lineage of comic artists that claim McCay as an influence share a very specific aesthetic, which isn't to say they're any more valid than the styles that depart from that thread. It's been said that comic artists' devotion to the medium springs first from a love of narrative and, as they develop a personal style, an interrogation of how their chosen aesthetic transforms stories. It should go without saying that each artist's chosen transformation is as legitimate as the next. Let's not forget the greats that lurk on the opposite side of McCay's fantasy world--the crude, hypersexualized underground comix of R. Crumb, Grant Morrison's drug-infused series The Invisibles and the legions of countercultural pulp that takes their cue from the pages of Mad Magazine. One way or another, they all owe their existence to his Slumberland.

DANIELA POSTIGO B'10 is a diplodocus.

Check out Chris Ware's animations for the Showtime edition of This American Life. Google it.

Greetings from COCONINO COUNTY
Following a similar narrative rhythm to Little Nemo, Krazy Kat follows the love triangle between a cat in love with a mouse called Ignatz, who regularly pelts her with a brick in the last panel of every strip, only to be jailed by Officer Pupp, a dog who harbors secret feelings for Krazy. The dialogue exchanged in Krazy Kat, inflected in Herriman's special brand of ebonics, has Krazy Kat's characters execute poetic ruminations on topics as varied as the inadequacy of language, the nature of reality, art, and love, against the pictorial backdrop of Herriman's beloved Coconino County, Arizona. His later work particularly foregoes the inky textures of the early loose sketching in favor of a deeper concern of basic design principles and an increasing abstraction of the scenery. The moon becomes a sliver of surrealist biomorphic matter, the Arizona horizon line ever ambiguous and shifting. Krazy Kat is one of the early instances of a comic experimenting with, in, and out of the comic frame (at times abandoning frames completely), and probably one of the few instances of a Sunday strip approaching such metacritical views on art.