What will today look like one hundred years from now? In the world of comics, we have no choice but to include DC Comics’ upcoming “Teen Titans #1” in a time capsule, filed under “sexism.” Many of us today see through a glass darkly. But not all of us. One hundred years ago, Windsor McCay was at the top of his game as America’s preeminent cartoonist. Attempting to see what McCay’s world was like one hundred years ago could provide some interesting perspective.
There were certainly other big name cartoonists and plenty of newspapers but there was only one Winsor McCay. He could dazzle his audience. He was part of the zeitgeist. Much like Chaplin, he did what he did with far more distinction than his competitors. In a new book that attempts to place McCay in context, we get some insights about Little Nemo, Gertie the Dinosaur, and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and how they reflected the American dream. And, among the findings, we confront a problematic character named, Impie.
Katherine Roeder embraces the comics medium as an art form, which some circles would be happy to continue to debate. Roeder also acknowledges the inroads into Comics Studies made by Will Eisner and Scott McCloud. They are both primary sources that have sometimes been given short shrift from academia. Her goal is to shed light on McCay’s work. In doing so, she manages to rid herself of much distracting dust and cobwebs. She employs a standard academic approach, repetitive and formal, but she is also fair-minded and accessible.
How did McCay come to invest his celebrated comic strip, “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” with its particular sensibility? Well, he did not work in a vacuum. He began his artistic career in the Midwest designing posters for circuses and dime museums. He knew, early on, what fascinated the general public. He was also a fan of Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum. If he saw young readers as a hot trend, is debatable. But the handwriting was on the wall: the invention of the modern childhood was well under way. The toy industry was booming. Children, as a subject, and an audience, were not to be taken for granted.
What sets McCay apart, first and foremost, is his artistry. It is McCay’s artwork that lures us in. Roeder concedes that McCay’s dialogue could be quite stilted. And the fact that the text in the word balloons is so cramped would suggest that words were besides the point. It seems that, at the heart of the matter, McCay was able to take a lifelong love of drawing, rooted in childhood, and ride it to the very heights of success. But, give an adult enough rope, and he can hang himself.
Perhaps McCay invested a little more time and thought on the text for his comic strip about dreaming for adults. “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” seems to have a sharper wit than “Little Nemo.” The main thrust of Roeder’s thesis places “Little Nemo” right in the thick of the advent of consumer culture. However, “Little Nemo” does not easily yield. As Roeder herself points out, McCay injected sly social satire whenever possible into the strip. Is it plausible that McCay was so ambitious as to take on the issue of race in America in the same spirit as Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”? This is more than the scope of Roeder’s book can sustain but she attempts to address it as best she can.
She notes that the newly born comic strips were taken to task for racist characters by critics of the day. She quotes one critic: “The offenses of the comic supplement as issued by most American newspapers have been vulgarization of serious subjects, the teaching of irreverence for parents and older people, and a hideous caricature of races and types of characters, which could not fail to breed in children the meanest forms of race and class prejudice.”
Nemo has a friend from Africa, Impie. He also had another odd little friend, Flip. Both Impie and Flip share a minstrel look to them. And to add another layer to this, Flip is cast in a shade of green. Nemo first meets Impie after a voyage to Africa. Flip smuggled a crate aboard their steamship. He pops open the crate and there is Impie. Flip declares, “Here’s the party who tried to steal me! Now he belongs to me!” Roeder concedes “the unfortunate association with America’s history of slavery is unavoidable.” However, she sees Impie’s purpose tied with a back-to-nature movement popular at the time. Of the motely crew of three, Roeder concludes:
Nemo and Flip are each marked by their distinctive class signifiers; however, Flip’s racial identity is ambiguous-in most strips his skin appears to be a shade of green. Like Impie, his lips are oversized, filling the expanse of the face below the nose. Flip wears adult clothing, sports a receding hariline, and smokes a cigar, yet he is physically the same size as young Nemo. Several apocryphal stories exist regarding the inspiration for this character. According to the artist’s son, Flip was based on “a tough newsboy midget” named Tiny Phillips that McCay knew in Cincinnati, while another source claimed he was inspired by an African American man with “a greenish cast to his face” who McCay spotted smoking a cigar on a Brooklyn street. As a result, Flip exists in a liminal space, neither black nor white, and capable of mocking both Nemo and Impie with equal relish. With the addition of Impie in 1907, the threesome forms a continuum of popular boyhood types: the innocent savage, the working-class trickster, and the genteel overcivilized boy from the suburbs. For McCay, once again the fantasy world is informed by the tensions and conditions of reality.
This is an adroit bit of academic deduction that may inspire further research. Pretty heady stuff for a comic strip meant for children. But “Little Nemo in Slumberland” was no ordinary comic strip.
“Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay,” by Katherine Roeder, is published by University Press of Mississippi. It is available at Amazon right here. Visit the University Press of Mississippi here.