The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History

By Robert C. Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Somnambulist of a Vanished Dream Winsor McCay's Exploration of the Medium's Potential

Winsor McCay was the first original genius of the comic strip medium. Ditto for the medium of animated cartoons. No question. He did things in both media that no one had done before. There is a fine irony in the towering stature of his genius. He had no equals; he therefore had no imitators. And no legacy.

Much of what he achieved was simply lost: like a rocket exploding brilliantly in the midnight sky, his work illuminated a medium he worked in for a breathtaking instant and then faded into virtual oblivion as, one by one, the scintillating spangles of his achievements winked out, leaving his colleagues as much in the dark as before. He was so far ahead of his time that many of his innovations were beyond the abilities of his contemporaries: what he had discovered and demonstrated about the capacities of each medium had to be rediscovered decades later by the next generation of cartoonists.

McCay masterpiece in the comic strip field is Little Nemo in Slumberland. Every Sunday the cartoonist took us into Nemo's dreams, where the young boy had fantastic adventures that ended, every week, with his startled awakening safe in his own bed. In this creation, McCay's genius, his originality, is revealed at its peak. From the very first of the Sunday pages, he was a master of the comic strip form. Nemo began on October 15, 1905, and by the next week, McCay was deploying the resources of the medium in an unconventional way for dramatic effect: Nemo dreams he is in a forest of giant mushrooms, and as he wanders into the forest, the panels expand vertically, emphasizing by their elongation the lofty height of the mushrooms. At exactly that point, McCay had freed himself from the inhibiting confines of the regularly rectangular grid of comic strip panels that usually prevailed on the pages of the Sunday funnies. From then on, he varied the shape and size of his panels to fit the demands of his story, using large two-tier panels (for instance) to depict the more imposing vistas of the dreamland into which Nemo wanders every week or to show an elephant or a dragon at its proper size in relation to Nemo and his friends.

McCay's use of layout and page design to give dramatic emphasis to his narrative was unusual on the comics pages of the day. Indeed, other cartoonists would not exploit this aspect of the medium with equal effect until years later. In 1916, as we shall see, George Herriman would begin to play with design on the Sunday page of Krazy Kat, but his strip was not widely circulated and was not therefore much admired at the time. It wasn't until the thirties that such cartoonists as Roy Crane

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