McCay was fascinated by the theatre and by the circus in particular; his early professional work was to paint posters for a dime museum. This can best be described as an amusement arcade, variety hall, circus and fun fair all under one roof. There was, alas, no equivalent on this side of the Atlantic. It was here that he expanded his style, adding “precision and patience to his repertoire (and he) expanded his feeling for line, space and colour… his work abounds with clowns, acrobats, dancers and fantastic animals, trick mirrors and grotesque creatures… McCay’s greatest comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland recalls the design of theatrical and circus posters. The frozen action of the characters’ poses suggest the spirit of kinetic live performances by people and animals.”
We learn how McCay progressed from working as a reporter cartoonist on the Cincinnati Enquirer to the New York Herald and Telegram. Later he was to move to Hearst’s New York American where his genius would be sadly curtailed. But in the early days his work — such as the cartoons he did for Life – shows that he was at least the equal of his contemporaries and Mr Canemaker reproduces a sequence of pictures entitled Saved, from Life of 5th November 1903, which anticipates the quality of Little Nemo and the total control of movement as well as fluidity of style that was to emerge m the animation. We need only look at the detail and frozen energy of the Red Indians who, in the first panel, are diverted from their hold-up of a motor car, by the appearance in the distance of a second car. In panel two the Indians gallop towards the newcomers and by the sixth and final panel the second car has blown up, scattering Indians and horses, leaving a terrified and huddled bunch of motorists to continue their journey. The sense of continuous movement, the graceful rendering of horses and men within each frame, the cinematic shift of attention from right to left as well as shifts of focal depth anticipating wide screen camera angles, the relationship between horses, riders, motorists and vehicles in not one but six swiftly changing perspectives is masterly. The sequences repay endless study.
McCay drew Little Sammy Sneeze and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend before Little Nemo and there are some splendid examples of those strips here, but Mr Canemaker rightly, I think, concentrates on Little Nemo (1905-11) because, as he says, it was “a cartoon epic of sustained drama both visually beautiful and compelling.” McCay, who inked the drawings in black on white bristol board, was at the height of his powers and he chose the daring colours for the skilled Herald printers, writing notes for the colour department and requesting specific tones and hues for skies, props, clothing. We can see here total conviction in draughtsmanship, design and colour, the panels themselves changing shape to fit the subject matter, Nemo’s dream world expanding and contracting according to its own laws of weightlessness and illogicality.
On page 29 there is a good example of some of these qualities, though this episode is by no means one of the most fantastic. Here the linear design transcends the strip panels and takes the reader beyond the curtailment of conventional comic strip story telling. Nemo and his friends are visiting Jack Frost’s castle of ice and in the bottom panels we follow them up a huge staircase at different levels so that we can animate them, as it were in our mind’s eye as they progress upwards, while we are at the same time entranced by a typical McCay art nouveau confection of domes, arches and columns reminiscent at once of the giant Grosses Schauspielhaus Theatre of Berlin and of some gigantic stage setting by the Bibiena family. The staircase sweeps up through three panels to a terrace and then flows down and round again to the left, coming to rest out of sight at the bottom of the triptych. The graphic control is total, from the muffled and restricted movement of the characters to the architecture of the icicle dripping dome, chandeliers, lamps and balustrade. Icicles cling to the edge of the steps and a wintry sun shines through the arches on to the scene.
Mr Canemaker points out the influences on McCay of Grandville, Frost and most importantly of the art nouveau artist Mucha. The dialogue balloons too have an art nouveau charm. Mr Canemaker neglects to comment on their formal speech patterns interspersed with a variety of exclamations from “Ah!” to “Oooooh!” and from “Bing!” to “Wheo!” Words are sometimes broken quite arbitrarily forcing the reader to pause over the short lines, sometimes physically enacting the breathlessness of the characters. These dialogue balloons are an integral part of the whole strip and do add to the McCay charm.
The story of how he presented his lightning blackboard drawings on the vaudeville stage, in turn leading to animation and the feat of completing his first animated film entirely by himself is all told in this sumptuous and beautiful book. The development of “personality” animation in Gertie the Dinosaur, the macabre intensity of How a Mosquito Operates, the breathtaking documentary quality of The Sinking of The Lusitania, funnel smoke and explosions uniting in a death pail of tragically poignant patterns, are all given proper attention.
McCay died in 1934, individual, compulsive, workaholic artist to the end. This book is a labour of scrupulously researched love by a practising animator of distinction about a practising animator of genius, and is a just tribute to a giant of popular art. How tragic it is that we still await a similar study of the genius who acknowledged and paid generous tribute to the influence of McCay – Walt Disney.
Review by Robin Allan.
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Printed in Animator Issue 24 (Winter 1988)