Sunday, January 9, 2011

So Many Splendid Sundays!

I have dim memories of reading the comics every Sunday morning in the living room, but I am realy far too young for this to have been any sort of integral part of my growing up. I can only be jealous of everyone who opened their papers every Sunday to find Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland. No doubt, most of them glanced at it, took it completely for granted, and then wrapped it around chicken bones and potato peelings and threw it away.

I really want to know what was in the water (or the ink) in the decades at the turn of the last century, because the talent of the illustrators defies understanding. I have lots of books I value deeply, but one that I know I'll never, ever get rid of is my super deluxe edition of Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!, edited by Peter Maresca in what was clearly a labor of love. His accomplishment is magnificent. Seeing (and owning) McCay's comics in their actual size, with color correction (but not over correction), brings tears to my eyes every time I open the book. They are so full of life and color and charm the only sensible reaction is to get up and dive in so that one can join Nemo in his dream adventures. As so often happens, sense loses out when faced by what is actually possible. There was a certain kind of imagination that existed early in the 20th century that seems almost lost now. A sense of crazy picaresque fantastical comedy that seems all but lost in these cynical times. L. Frank Baum had that sensibility in spades and John R. Neill, Baum's frequent illustrator did as well.

In reading a little about McCay a couple of things jumped out at me. First of all, he drew incredibly quickly, thereby managing his enormous workload. As I draw and write, I'm beginning to realize (unless one is some sort of kafkaesque loner who doesn't care about selling stuff) that so much of accomplishing what one wants to is contingent on working quickly, something at which I am something of a failure. At one point McCay had three comics going at once. And looking at his giant Sunday Nemo comics one wonders mostly how he could possibly have had the time. They are complex and well organized, and beautifully drawn. And written.

This is where I make a truly embarrassing confession. I haven't actually read most of them. I sit there looking at the pictures for great lengths of time, but I haven't read the words. I know. I am a complete barbarian. McCay, in addition to his fearsome output as a cartoonist, was also one of the fathers of animation. He toured vaudeville both with his films and drawing live - he started off drawing in dime museums. See his lovely dinosaur, Gertie, below:

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