Book review: Winsor McCay: The Complete Little Nemo, by Alexander Braun

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm

Winsor McCay: The Complete Little Nemo
by Alexander Braun

Place a pillow on this behemoth and it can serve as a bed for a small child - fitting given its subject matter is a once hugely popular comic strip about the dream life of a young boy.

Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland ran from 1905 to 1926, alternately appearing in the New York Herald and the New York American. All 549 episodes are here - in glorious colour and broadsheet size - in a gargantuan tome packed in its own carrying case.

Accompanying the hardback strips volume is a paperback book styled to resemble contemporary newspapers, a fascinating mélange of criticism, history and biography that attempts to put McCay in the cultural context art historian Alexander Braun feels he deserves.

The "funnies" were important drivers of newspaper circulation, providing cheap, easy-to-consume entertainment, especially for the working man who had only Sunday off and the immigrants with rudimentary English. Many creators have been forgotten, their work pulped, while others have recently been reassessed: McCay is one of the greats. Modern comics titans such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore have paid homage to McCay's most famous strip in their own work and it's immediately apparent why.

A natural talent - "I drew on fences, blackboards in school, old scraps of paper, slates, sides of barns - I just couldn't stop" - with a photographic memory, McCay's mastery of line, colour and perspective is incredible, and Nemo's world of dreams, where anything is possible, allows his imagination to take full flight.

Plot is not McCay's forte, with most strips simply an excuse to portray outlandish worlds, animals, fantastical beings, pirates, cars, machines, jungle savages, utopian cityscapes, airships, aliens, lavish costumes, dinosaurs and more before the inevitable tumult in the penultimate panel wakes Nemo up.

The rules of physics need not apply: people and objects stretch and shrink, perspective and vision can alter and deceive, while recently invented printing techniques let the images be lavishly coloured.

McCay plays with the fledgling conventions of comic art itself, stretching and warping panels horizontally and vertically to accommodate giants or expansive cities; he portrays widescreen vistas in the days when motion pictures were a new art. He even gets meta long before critics invented the term: characters occasionally "tear" the paper they're drawn on; in one strip Nemo and friends bemoan the fact the artist hasn't drawn them any food and start eating the title letters.

The biographical volume is also engrossing, because McCay was at the heart of almost everything wondrous in a fascinating time and place. He got his start drawing customers in P.T. Barnum-style dime-museums; pioneered animation ("All this should be your father's," Walt Disney told McCay's son, Robert, during a tour of his studios); and was the pictorial "voice" for William Randolph Hearst's controversial editorials about social justice, politics and the first world war.

Braun goes into fascinating detail on all of these strands and more, his arguments lavishly supported by contemporary photos, film stills and illustrations. This collection will further cement McCay's reputation.