Beautiful dreamer: Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo in Slumberland'
By Michael Browning
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 02, 2005
Winsor McCay dreamed in rainbows, rainbows almost measurelessly
large and lovely, shapes outswept in perfect perspective across
spacious pages of newsprint in a Sunday comic strip that is still
regarded as a sustained pinnacle of fantastic design and
imagination: Little Nemo in Slumberland.
He did it a hundred years ago, from 1905 to 1912, before TV, almost
before movies, when the comic strip itself was only eight years old,
and was regarded as just a gag and a novelty. He worked modestly and
dutifully all his life, drawing, drawing, drawing, riding the El
train from Sheepshead Bay to Manhattan every day, laboring in a
shabby office, always wearing his hat, even indoors, even while
He was silently working wonders. Practically plotless as a dream
itself, Little Nemo is today regarded as the most beautiful work of
graphic art ever to appear in a newspaper.
The mechanics of it were simple. It would begin with a fanciful
frame, exquisitely drawn. Then McCay would go to town, building the
fancy to impossible heights, ever-more-marvelous reaches of visual
imagery, until at last the whole thing collapses and, in a tiny
frame at the lower right-hand corner, Little Nemo wakes up and
realizes it was all a dream.
It was visually astounding. It still is. Yet people wrapped fish in
McCay's masterpieces; they lit stoves with his pages. Little Nemo
was never much appreciated at the time it appeared, though today
original printed pages go for $30,000 or more.
Now, thanks to an extraordinary new book, it is possible to
appreciate what McCay had in mind, what he wrought. A selection of
the best of his work, actual size, has come out at last. Nemo hasn't
looked this glorious in a hundred years.
Peter Maresca, a former Apple computer designer who idolizes McCay,
has published at his own expense a huge handsome book, Little Nemo
in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!, which costs $120.
Done to honor McCay on the centenary of Little Nemo's first
appearance in print, the mega-volume measures 21 inches by 16 inches
and weighs more than 8 pounds. It was printed in Malaysia, on paper
laboriously sought out from Japan. It is so big it had to be
hand-bound. It exceeded the capacity of commercial bindery machines.
It reproduces faithfully, and in their original size, McCay's
astounding visions in color and reproduces them "down to the last
pixel," the publisher says.
"This shows you the insanity of my mind," Maresca said. "I wanted to
get the exact look of the newsprint. I didn't want pristine white
borders, and I didn't want the yellowed Scotch-taped effect. So we
took five background pages and blended them to get the right visual
texture, the grays and greens that real newsprint has, and then we
had to blow it up twice to get the exact grain. I wanted a very
Even after a century, the splendor of McCay's work has the power to
take your breath away. His huge, columned, sapphire-domed,
night-clad cityscapes, his fantastic beasts, sparkling ice-caves,
outsized butterflies, tremendous fireworks, dizzying perspectives,
his giants, his gems, his multicolored mushrooms and airships and
skyscrapers and elephants -- all these were outpoured weekly in a
tremendous, wide-irised, full-spectrum rush of perfect draftsmanship
that still exceeds the special effects in most movies today.
"He anticipates the wide screen," Maresca said. "He loved the
theater. He captures a lot of the exploding technology of his time.
He was working when the Wright brothers invented the airplane, when
the New York subway system was being built."
Nowadays Nemo is revered by illustrators like Maurice Sendak, whose
magic island in Where the Wild Things Are owes a debt to McCay's
Slumberland. He also influenced Bill Watterson, whose Calvin and
Hobbes also has a small boy who dreams wild dreams.
At the time, though, it was just one more comic strip in a host of
high-quality offerings being put out daily by furiously warring New
York newspapers. It was never syndicated. It played only in New
"It never was all that popular," said Mickey Finn cartoonist Morris
Weiss, 90, of West Palm Beach, who met McCay in New York in 1934,
the year before the artist died. "It never really took off. It was
Weiss was scarcely 20, McCay was nearly 68 when the two met. McCay
died shortly afterward, in July 1935.
"He was a slight man, very quiet. He always wore his hat while
working," Weiss remembered. "He didn't have a big, palatial office.
"He was very nice to me. He gave me an original of one of his
political cartoons. If you look at it, it's incredibly detailed. You
look at something like that up close and you think: 'Wow, the
effort! The work!' But if you're a cartoonist, that's what you do.
It isn't work. You are completely into it, and you do it."
McCay was born Sept. 27, 1867, in Spring Lake, Mich. He was the son
of an indulgent merchant-father who early recognized his talent.
"I never saw a tramway or an electric light before the age of 15,"
McCay said later. "But I loved to draw."
An art professor named John Goodeson taught McCay the power of
perspective. His lessons would result in some of the most dazzling
drawings in newspaper history. Using perspective, McCay was able to
suggest limitless distance in the space of a few inches.
The young man went to Detroit and became a quick-sketch artist in a
local "Dime Museum," a sort of vaudeville fun-house. He enjoyed the
applause and for the rest of his life would seek fame and public
approval that always seemed to elude him by a hair's breadth.
At one point McCay was doing three separate comic strips a week as
well as appearing in a nightly vaudeville show, where the audience
would challenge him to draw anything in a few seconds. He would. He
was a slave to his pencil.
He went to Chicago in 1889, Cincinnati in 1891 and New York in 1903.
There he would work at a pace so prodigious, turning out drawings so
prolifically, that their sheer volume is still staggering. They were
all done from scratch: No celluloid overlays, no Adobe Photoshop.
He began with strips titled The Jungle Imps, Mr. Goodenough,
Sister's Little Sister's Beau and The Phurious Phinish of Phoolish
Philip's Phunny Phrolics. McCay finally arrived with Little Sammy
Sneeze, a running gag strip that built up to a huge climax in which
a child would sneeze and blow everything and everyone away.
He struck a vein in 1904 with Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, which
presages Little Nemo and which purists still consider his cleverest
work. Every strip begins with an ordinary situation, which gradually
gets warped, magnified, pushed and shoved out of all recognition. In
the last frame, the hapless dreamer awakens and swears never to eat
Welsh rarebit (a toasted cheese sandwich) again.
The crazy dream, followed by the rude awakening, became the pattern
for Little Nemo In Slumberland, McCay's masterpiece, which debuted
on Oct. 15, 1905.
The first strip began with Nemo flying through the air in a
snowstorm, meeting strange winged animals including a kangaroo. The
very second episode was one of McCay's masterpieces, reproduced in
the new book: A forest of multicolored mushrooms whose tall stalks
break at last and whose caps fall in a soft avalanche. The third
episode had Nemo surrounded by storks on impossibly tall, glassy
legs that gradually become entangled chaotically.
On it went, getting more and more magnificent. The modest little
draftsman from Michigan produced Nemo every week for just over seven
years, ending on Dec. 29, 1912.
As time went by, Nemo gradually took on social issues, going to Mars
in a huge, beautiful airship where he finds that a rich mogul has
bought up all the air and charges people to breathe it.
"You have to buy your words," said Maresca of that particular story.
"The culture is completely overcrowded and polluted on Mars. On air
vending machines you have signs like 'CUSS WORDS WILL NOT BE SOLD TO
MINORS.' People are shipped off to work in tin cans. I find it not
unlike the times we are living in now."
The air-monopolizing Mars-mogul was a subversive comment on the
excesses of the Gilded Age, when huge amounts of wealth seemed
concentrated in the hands of a very few people. One of them,
publisher William Randolph Hearst, was to become McCay's employer.
He clipped the cartoonist's wings gently, directing him to do
political cartoons on subjects that Hearst decreed. Nemo was
resurrected in paler and paler versions as late as 1924 to 27, but
the brilliant fire of the early strips looked more and more like
McCay meekly obeyed all his bosses. The last part of his career was
a falling-off. He showed up for work each day, put in his hours,
drew industriously. But apart from a foray into animated film (his
Gertie the Dinosaur was one of the first cartoon movies), he never
again produced anything as fantastic as Little Nemo.
The first 5,000-copy press run of So Many Splendid Sundays is
already practically sold out, with orders coming in rapidly from
everywhere, France in particular.
"I'm having to ration them out," Maresca said. "I'm trying to be
fair. If demand warrants, I will try to do a second printing late
"This heartbreakingly beautiful book... " "This stunning volume... "
"This beautifully done book... " ù cartoonists Art Spiegelman, Garry
Trudeau and Patrick McDonnell have raved over the new, gigantic
There is a sense of justice at work here. At long last, thanks to
modern computer technology and Maresca's own personal collection of
McCay pages, it is possible to time-travel back to those splendid
Sundays when you could buy a masterpiece for a few cents.