Little Nemo In Slumberland from April 23rd-July 23rd, 1911. Winsor McCay.
For all that Winsor McCay's Little Nemo is one of the most influential and talked about comics in history, it's got plenty of relatively unexplored pockets. Nemo had a long run -- a broadsheet every Sunday for a solid decade between 1905 and 1914, and then a revival from 1924 to 1927 -- but the first four years or so of that run are so ridiculously front-loaded with brilliance that it's easy to simply overlook everything else in the effort to mine everything from the richest seams. And while the Nemo of the 1910s and'20s isn't as visually mighty or formally dazzling as the earlier material, it's still one of comics' all-time greatest artists plying his trade in high style.
Despite his gargantuan influence, McCay is kind of an anomalous artist in comics history. His work displays much more interest in architecture than the human figure, his stories (such as they are) are light as taffy and rarely make sense, let alone mean anything, and his most famous work is years on end of a little boy's bemused wanderings through a gallery of fantastic, strangely immaterial visions. Hardly Kirby's Fantastic Four or Spiegelman's Maus, you know? The closest comparison to the kind of comic Little Nemo is is probably George Herriman's Krazy Kat, which places a similar premium on atmosphere over comprehensibility and features a constantly mutating, logic-free setting. But Krazy Kat is legitimate literature, poetry in comics form, and Little Nemo, content-wise, is a curio at best. What makes McCay so important is his devastatingly gorgeous visual style, a sumptuously detailed, strikingly composed, formally audacious mix of Art Nouveau whimsy, unparalleled technical drawing chops, and a rough but highly effective feel for pure cartooning.
But with McCay the fact that the stuff looks good is just as important (if not more so) than the reasons why. A century and change after Little Nemo first rolled off the presses, the comics medium has produced very little indeed that can lay claim to the same immediate visual appeal shimmering across McCay's pages. It's an appeal that hits before story comprehension, before the eye can even register the page as being composed of separate panels -- hits as pure, beautiful image. And that appeal is all down to the colors.
Despite the advances computers have brought to comics production methods over the past decade or two, nothing digital has yet caught up to the subtlety and harmony and range of expression captured in the colors of early newspaper comics. And for all his skill as a mark maker and a designer, McCay's greatest talent may have been using his era's marvelous palette with greater verve and appeal than just about anyone else. McCay's black and white drawings speak boldly; his color work sings, walking the comics medium's fine line between depictive realism and stylized fantasy without ever really putting a foot wrong. McCay's color panels are swollen with soft, brilliant light, the full spectrum of hue represented in shades that never fail to complement one another. McCay is certainly one of comics' greatest artists, but he is no less one of our greatest colorists. And that's why the Little Nemo of mid-1911 is so interesting.
At the time the strips in question -- fifteen of them, total -- were published, McCay was transitioning. For those fifteen weeks, McCay was drawing not one, but two Little Nemo strips for publication every Sunday: one of them for the New York Herald Co., which had published Little Nemo from its beginning six years previous, and one for William Randolph Hearst's American-Examiner syndicate, which had just acquired McCay's services and would retain them for many years to come. The strips show their artist's strain and lack of time in different ways. The early Hearst strips are simply weak, with uninteresting compositions and sloppy (though still incredibly fine) drawing blanketed in bold, utilitarian-but-effective color compositions. The drawing on the final Herald strips is a bit better, though it too tapers off toward the end -- but McCay, the unparalleled colorist, apparently couldn't find the time to color them. The result wasn't pure black and white, but a hasty two-color rendering of the strips, with raw black line work suffused here and there in variations of a single pastel tone. It's hardly the highly saturated, pre-psychedelic look McCay was and is known for, but the strength of his drafting and the placement of the single tones gives the one-color strips a stark, bold appeal whose distance from the typical Little Nemo material is interesting to contemplate.
Visually, at least, McCay's work has aged extraordinarily well when considered up against virtually every other comic strip of its time, and though the man's prodigious imagination deserves a good amount of credit for that, it's mostly -- again -- due to the effortless virtuosity of his color. Most Little Nemo strips certainly look different than the printed material of today, but they don't really look old. The same can't really be said of the one-color Nemo pages, in which the high-contrast, deep-focus immediacy of the color pages fades into the black and white of yesteryear, the tints of cerulean or goldenrod lending them more of a nostalgic, turn-of-the-century-ad-art look than any extra realism. The sudden lack of pictorial believability is especially notable in the first few strips, which finish out the airship-journey plot McCay had been working on since the beginning of the year. Looking down from the zeppelin's observation deck at the same stunning architectural vistas Nemo's dreams have showed us for more than five years, something is obviously missing. The opulent visions of Edwardian-era urban America that looks like a pure, magical fantasyland beneath McCay's full-color treatments suddenly resembles a vintage postcard more than anything else, black shadows and white light and orange-sepia in-betweens. It's still beautiful to look at, but the transcendent radiance, the harmony that glows beyond the panel borders is gone.
I suspect the first two monochrome strips, which wrap up the aerial adventure plot, were intended for full color. The drawing is much finer, the staging more seeping and dramatic. They're also the final strips to use the classic Little Nemo title script. Finally, after them McCay seems to have really hit crunch time and gotten down to the business of making gorgeous hackwork. The third of the one-color strips unceremoniously dispenses with the zeppelin setting, as Nemo goes to sleep and falls into a dream-within-a-dream, only to be quickly snatched up by the Greek god Mercury, who takes him on a quick tour of the outer cosmos. The choice of setting is telling: space is about the easiest background to draw, and the strip must have come like clockwork to McCay after years on end of thick jungle and meticulous cityscaping. The layout pares down to a simple twelve-panel grid, which it would more or less stick to until the end of the Herald run. The story ends with the page, and the next week a new, completely unrelated one begins.
In essence, McCay's lack of drawing time was forcing him into the pattern of his era's more typical newspaper cartoonists; for a few weeks he produced corner-cutting work on schedule, relying on closing punchlines over engrossing story material and graphic boldness over top quality draftsmanship. McCay's lasting appeal lies in the bulk of his work's transcendence of those commercially-mandated norms, but it's fun to watch him put the hack hat on for a brief run of pages. McCay's work is so joyously maximalist that there's no small amount of interest to be gotten from observing the final Herald Little Nemo strips go further and further into minimalism. Backgrounds flatten out from wide open panoramas into the flat surfaces of building walls and billboards, then go even further into abstract patterns of line that we're given to understand are rocky cliffsides or city sidewalks. McCay's love of figure animation sustains a few strips, then fades into more typical comic-booky cutting between panels, the characters taking up greater and greater amounts of space with their forms.
McCay was obviously getting away with something in his last few Herald strips. The relatively low amount of effort put into them is obvious, and their slapdash, almost improvisational quality could not be more different from the painstakingly constructed feel of classic Nemo. It's a testament to McCay's consummate skill as a maker of visual stories that the strips still succeed roundly as gorgeous, eminently readable comics. Though the visual impact of the one-color strips is much more noticeable than the drawings in the panels, the penwork remains of an almost peerless quality, the cragginess that McCay's line sometimes flirted with in nature or urban decay scenes coming to the fore, making up for a good deal of the color's lost tangibility. And the one-color treatments themselves still showcase a masterfully subtle touch at work, halftones and quarter tones emphasizing the spaces of pure color's segues into the white areas. There is a certain quality to McCay's best Nemo work that isn't quite apparent until one has seen these strips: that of a quiet, desolate loneliness. Little Nemo's world is that of a dream, after all, and apart from the characters and objects that are direct parts of the action, it is always a frozen, static world, the backgrounds existing only as visual information, never influencing the stories one way or another. It's easy to miss when those backgrounds are massive banks of buildings or sprawling crowds of courtiers, but when they narrow down to a few string-thin lines they almost hum with a melancholy radiance. These are still beautiful comics, but their beauty is about as far from that of the better-known Little Nemo material as can be.