This is a short essay on Winsor McCay that I wrote for the gorgeous catalog (published by Yale University Press) released in tandem with the Masters of American Comics exhibit that originated in 2005 at the Hammer Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and later traveled to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Jewish Museum in New York, and the Newark Museum. The exhibit was organized by John Carlin and Brian Walker with Cynthia Burlingham and Michael Darling; the catalog was edited by John Carlin, (the great) Paul Karasik, and Brian Walker. The first novel in my Derby Dugan Trilogy, Funny Papers was set during the tumultuous newspaper era of the 1890s that spawned McCay as well as Richard Outcault, George McManus, Fred Opper and others who, together, created the grammar and the vocabulary of the American comic strip. It was fun and a real honor to be included in such an auspicious enterprise and to find myself in the company of fellow essayists such as Jules Feiffer, Matt Groening, Pete Hamill, Jim Hoberman, Dave Eggers, and Francoise Mouly.
THE MASTER’S HAND
But for the occasional “Little Nemo” panel—decontexualized, reduced, always in black-and-white—that I came across in the few histories of the American comic strip I kept borrowing from my public library as a kid, the first real sampling of Winsor McCay’s work that I ever saw was published in, of all places, a sleazy back-of-the-rack girlie magazine. (It must have toppled into my hands as I was reaching for a “National Geographic.”) This was sometime in the late 1960s, and McCay’s by-then 50-plus-year-old newspaper strips were trotted out to illustrate an article about “dope in the comics.” The article itself, as I recall, stubbornly implied that this bourgeois family man and loyal Hearst chain employee had been—must have been!— a subversive seminal Head slipping drug imagery into his once-celebrated funny sheets like the Beatles and Bob Dylan presumably sneaked them into songs. How else explain all of those giant mushrooms (ha!) growing wildly in the spongy forests of Slumberland, those sleigh beds sprouting legs to walk, or French horns raveling out like taffy, all of that endless shape-shifting, resizing, free-falling—all of those good and bad psychedelic trips?
Winsor McCay was many things during his lifetime—poster painter, artist-reporter, editorial cartoonist, pioneer animator, and creator of the first incontestable comic-strip masterpiece—but a Progressive Era Timothy Leary he most definitely was not. And as for his personal addictions, there were cheroots and there was drawing, there was drawing, there was drawing. Which he usually did with his hat on.
He was a slight, small, moon-faced fellow of immense self-discipline and enormous vitality, always serious about his career, always striving, yet almost always the goat in his business dealings, unlike far less talented contemporaries like Richard Outcault and Bud Fisher who got wealthy capitalizing on their celebrity and merchandising their characters. If you saw him on the street in New York City circa 1905 (and if he didn’t happen to be carrying a portfolio) you might have thought “senior clerk” or “glove salesman at Macy’s,” and then glanced quickly past him. He was quiet, given to worry, inclined to melancholy, slightly corny whenever he’d crack a joke, and more than a tad bit “henpecked” (as they called it Back Then) by a zaftig pretty wife who towered over him and weighed likely half again as much as he did.
Don’t get me wrong, though. McCay was no milquetoast and he certainly wasn’t boring. Except for one crash course in perspective, he had no formal art training; whatever he learned, he taught himself. (The only craft elements that he never mastered were lettering—it was legible but stiff—and executing talk balloons with a sensuous scallop. Well, nobody’s perfect.) As a young man, he was quite the footloose bohemian, quitting business school (and thereby crossing his father) to travel to Chicago and Cincinnati where he hung around the dime museums selling instant portraits at two-bits apiece and soaking up all of that freaky Barnum stuff which served him so well later on. And long before Jerry Lee Lewis did it, he ran off and eloped with a 14-year-old girl. (When he was 24.)
But all of that scarcely matters. It doesn’t matter. What matters is this: Winsor McCay was the finest draughtsman the comic-strip medium has ever produced, and its single greatest fantasist, and the man who synthesized the chaotic vocabulary of the early funny papers, devised and developed a sustaining, flexible grammar and created the fluent common language of the comics. Since McCay, the basic unit has been the page, the page, and not the panel. He was essential. And he was a genius. And who needs hallucinogens, who needs hookahs, when you’re one of those?
While he usually gave his date of birth as 1871, and his gravestone in Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn gives it as 1869, Zenas Winsor McCay (he dropped the “Zenas” during his boyhood) most likely was born in 1867, and probably in Ontario, Canada while his mother was there on a visit to her parents. He grew up in the north Michigan timbering region where his father made a modest fortune in real estate. And from early on he was a drawing fool; those who knew him as a boy usually called his attraction to pencil and paper, to the act of putting pencil to paper, a “compulsion.” In a story that seems (but who can say for sure) as apocryphal as the one that has young George Gershwin sitting down and playing the first piano he ever laid eyes upon, McCay family lore has it that Winsor the whippersnapper picked up a nail one winter’s night and drew a dazzling picture of a house on fire in the frost lacing a windowpane. “I drew on fences, blackboards in school, old scraps of paper, slates, sides of barns,” he once wrote about himself in a how-to book for cartoonists. “I just couldn’t stop.”
And he didn’t, drawing virtually every single day up to and including the day that he died, of a cerebral hemorrhage, on July 26, 1934. (According to John Canemaker in his superb biography, McCay’s poignant last words, uttered to his wife Maude as he collapsed, were, “It’s gone, Mother. Gone! Gone!” And he didn’t mean his mortal life, he meant his drawing life.)
McCay’s graphic virtuosity is always, always a joy and a feast to behold. But his prolificacy, the sheer output of work, is not only staggering to consider, it is almost impossible to believe. One man did all that? So well? Besides producing “Little Nemo,” which ran weekly in the New York Herald between1905 and 1911 and then (under the title “In the Land of Wonderful Dreams”) in the New York Journal till 1915, McCay also produced, in many cases simultaneously, any number of other Sunday pages, including the remarkable, unsettling and very adult “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend.” But still the man did more, much more—editorial and political cartoons, newspaper and spot illustrations, advertising art, theatrical posters, and of course rendering, coloring, photographing and editing together tens of thousands of individual images on rice paper for his groundbreaking series of animated cartoons, which culminated in the phenomenally popular “Gertie the Dinosaur” and the spectacular “Sinking of the Lusitania”…then promoted them on the vaudeville circuit up and down the eastern seaboard. By all accounts he was a real charmer on stage. A natural. A showman.
How did he do it all? How, for God’s sake? Was time somehow—different in those days? It almost seems that it must have been: every hour longer by a day, every day by a week, every week by a month. Or maybe there were just fewer distractions. Or maybe…
I have often heard contemporary cartoonists marvel at the productivity of the first and second generations of comic-strip artists who could turn out daily and Sunday strips, and often separate Sunday topper strips as well, but still manage to make it to the race track, dance the rumba, carouse with movie stars, chase showgirls, even trek off to Monhegan Island in the summer and paint seascapes. (Art Spiegelman once remarked to me that how those guys managed their time was, along with the formula for Greek Fire and the construction of the pyramids, one of the World’s Great Mysteries.) While it’s true that a lot of them had studio assistants or used underpaid ghost artists, a surprising number, Winsor McCay included, did not. And while neither a rumba man nor a skirt chaser (he was faithfully wed, so far as we know, for more than 43 years) he did, incredibly, have a personal life, a life away from the drawing board. He dined out frequently with friends, most of whom were fellow cartoonists and illustrators, was a doting father and a splendid parent to his son Robert (the model for Little Nemo) and his daughter Marion—and he kept track, in code, of the times and circumstances of his conjugal lovemaking.
One of McCay’s favorite activities, not surprisingly, was to visit the Coney Island amusement parks not far from his big awninged house in Sheepshead Bay. He was especially fond of Luna Park and Dreamland, whose baroque architecture he often appropriated and magically transformed—using only the most basic of tools: a bottle of Higgins black ink, a Gillot #290 pen, an art gum eraser, and a T-square—into the opulent Art Nouveau palaces, courtyards, balconies, boulevards, and loggias of Little Nemo’s patron, King Morpheus.
But Winsor McCay mostly lived in his studio—or more precisely, his own head, where his visions of motion, change, and escape (from the mundane to the miraculous) never stopped till they stopped for good.