Thursday, December 27, 2007


Stripper's Guide Bookshelf: A Winsor McCay Threesome

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend - The Saturdays
Checker Books 2006
Hardcover $29.95
Softcover $19.95
192 pages, 12.25" x 9.25"
ISBN not listed

Little Sammy Sneeze - The Complete Color Sunday Comics 1904-1905
Sunday Press Books 2007
Hardcover $55.00
96 pages, 16" x 11"
ISBN not listed

The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend 1904-1913
Ulrich Merkl 2007
Hardcover $114.00
464 pages with CD-ROM, 17" x 12"
ISBN 978-3-00-020751-8

Once again Christmas Day has come and gone, and we comic strip fans are left with a little touch of melancholy. Whether your Christmas swag consisted of tube socks or a nice new yacht to replace last year's model, you didn't get what you really wanted, which is, of course, comic strips. Oh sure, maybe some well-meaning relation who thinks they 'get' you wrapped up a couple of Archie comic digests and you had to thank them for their thoughtfulness. Do they really think you're twelve years old?

But Christmas is all about giving, not receiving. So feel free to twist that sentiment to your advantage and give yourself the sort of Christmas gift you're really pining for (better late than never, right?). And what better Christmas gift could there be for the comic strip aficionado than a heapin' helpin' of that master of the form, Winsor McCay. The past year has seen a trio of McCay books hit the market. With prices ranging from Ramen noodle level all the way up to champagne and caviar, there's one to fit every wallet.

At the low end we have the latest entry in the Checker Books McCay reprint series, this one reprinting a large batch of McCay's Saturday Rarebit Fiend strips. McCay produced two to three episodes of this strip per week for much of its run. On weekdays the strip was typically a ten panel affair while Saturday episodes were expanded to 15-20 panels. This book prints a large batch of these larger Saturday strips. According to the minimal front matter the strips are from March-October 1906, but a strip about President Taft (page 128) shows that claim to be off base. The strips are undated in the book, and that's a shame since McCay's subjects were often oblique commentaries on current events and it would have been fun to see if I was correct in my guesses about the veiled subjects of certain strips.

The reproduction quality in this book varies widely, right along with the source material which was the microfilm of the New York Evening Telegram. I've seen (and indexed) the Telegram microfilm and I have to hand it to these guys for putting a lot of work into restoration - the film I've seen isn't very good. The quality of that restoration work varies quite a bit, though, and some strips are pretty hard on the eyes. The worst quality strips tend to be hidden in the latter third of the book -- I guess they figured we'd tire of reading by then. Because of McCay's sloppy lettering these strips are hard to read even when the restoration is better than normal. It never ceases to amaze me how McCay, truly a wizard with the pen, and a fantastic letterer when he put in the effort, could stand to see these masterpiece strips go out with such sloppy lettering. The strips are reproduced at a perfectly reasonable size, but the lettering issue makes me wish it were a bit bigger, or that the restoration folks had, in some of the worst cases of sloppy lettering, relettered it so that it could be read more easily.

After reading nearly 200 Rarebit Fiend episodes I am left gasping over McCay's graphic virtuosity, but that's no surprise at all. What really did surprise me were two aspects of his work. First, that these strips are an incredible snapshot of the human condition in that long-gone time. Through a distorted comedic lens, of course, but still remarkably telling. Despite all my reading about this era, through comic strips and otherwise, I'm left feeling that I don't have a true gut feel for the way these people thought and lived. McCay affords us a deep and meaningful look rarely found in other sources. Odd, isn't it, that a book about bizarre dreams would give such insight into the reality of those days?

That was the positive surprise. The other isn't nearly so complimentary. The more I read of McCay's strip the more I found his dialogue intensely grating. McCay seemed obsessed with having speech balloons in every panel of his strip. There are many strips in this book that would have been perfectly understandable (and far funnier) with much curtailed dialogue. Instead McCay has his characters chattering along for no discernible reason. Was the guy being paid by the word? Worse yet, his characters often spend their time describing a scene that is perfectly obvious from the drawing. How could such a master graphic artist as McCay have had such a mental blindspot that he couldn't see he was shooting himself in the foot?

Here's a sample. A man's bed turns into a racing car and goes roaring across the landscape in an auto race. Our dreamer gives this soliloquy in the course of his adventure:

"Oh! Eh! Ah! Where am I? Oh? Huh!"
"Ah! Now I know! Gosh!! I thought..."
"...I was in bed. Wow! But that was..."
"...a narrow escape! I must have..."
"...fallen asleep! How lucky I was..."
"...not to have ran into some thing. This..."
"...machine going 98 miles an hour and me..."
"...asleep. I must not..."
"...fall asleep again if I expect to win this..."
"...race! I wonder if I lost..."
"...any laps! I wonder how long I was..."
"asleep! I might have not been, eh."
"I might not have been asleep long and..."
"...then again I might have been..."
"...asleep a long while. At any rate I am..."
"not going to go to sleep again..."
"...If I can help it!"

Clam up already! Such verbose prattling might seem quaint in small doses, but I was ready to throttle McCay long before I finished the book. Granted the strips weren't meant to be read one after another, but the dialogue so often serves no purpose other than to fill up the panels that it's hard to believe -- could McCay not sense that he was hampering his strip's effectiveness with all the senseless blathering?

The second McCay book is from Peter Maresca's Sunday Press imprint. It may seem a little on the expensive side for its page count, but the book is in full color throughout (which can't even be said of the twice as expensive Merkl book). Little Sammy Sneeze reprints the McCay Sunday strips of that title from 1904-05. This doesn't constitute the entire series (according to Ken Barker's New York Herald index the final episodes appeared in 1907) but its more than enough episodes of this one-joke strip to sate most any fan's appetite. The strip is very much an exemplar of its time, a one-note offering that was milked from every conceivable angle and then unceremoniously dropped in favor of the next gag mine. McCay starts the strip off with a bang when Sammy, a kid entirely devoid of personality, accompanies mama to the grocery store and proceeds to blow the whole place to smithereens with one of his superhuman schnoz siroccos. This turns out to be one of the best episodes in the series -- McCay lovingly draws every little detail of the store's well-stocked shelves, and then interprets the apres-sneeze flotsam and jetsam as if he were drawing the scene directly from life. Not only do we get an intimate almost photographic look at the interior of a 1904 grocery store, interesting in itself, but Sammy gives his most entertainingly destructive sneeze ever. It's odd - after that bravura episode Sammy's sneezes for the most part become quite a bit weaker -- he blows some water in the maid's face, he knocks over some circus tumblers, etc. Rarely does the boy's dynamic beak ever fire off another real tornado-class shot.

Maresca must have sensed that he was dealing with somewhat weak material here in Sammy (weak by McCay standards, anyway), and he came up with an absolutely brilliant solution to the problem. Rather than filling the book with page after page of Sammy, he breaks it up on each page reverse by including another comic strip from the same funnies section of the New York Herald. How cool is that! Not only do we get Sammy, we also get several episodes of The Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffarroo, that infamous Gustave Verbeek reversible strip. Then there's some episodes of The Woozlebeasts, a static but fantastical strip about mythical creatures. The star of the reverses, though, is a complete reprinting of McCay's The Story of Hungry Henrietta.

The Henrietta strip is not among McCay's more graphically interesting works, and the few episodes I'd seen before didn't seem particularly memorable. But reading the series all together is an entirely different experience. McCay has produced a remarkably melancholy and moving story about a little girl with an eating disorder. Poor little Henrietta is a quiet, introspective child and simply can't handle the constant fussing and fawning from her parents and relatives. Each strip finds Henrietta, whose age advances three months between each epsiode, being beset by her overzealous elders. At first, as an infant, the attentions result in her crying, which prompts the adults to shut her up with offers of food. The child, looking utterly pathetic, ends up alone in the final panel, drowning her sorrows in the proffered treats, a large tear always rolling down her face. As she gets older her parents no longer need to offer her the treats -- she knows how to assuage her insecurities, and when beset by the adults sneaks off to steal food from the kitchen. Unlike Sammy, who is an overblown caricature, Henrietta is an all too real little girl. Her food addiction doesn't play out as a slapstick gag -- there's no punchline where she eats a side of beef or polishes off a barrel of cider. No, little Henrietta just slinks off to a dark corner to indulge in her perfectly realistic addiction. There's no ridicule, no gag, just an empathetic McCay telling parents a cautionary tale, but one without a saccharine moral delivered on a scroll after the last panel. The reader is left to their own devices, free to understand or miss the point.

It is amazing that the Herald printed such a strip. In amongst the sneezing kids, the prank-pullers, the yokel farmers, the wacky animals and all the rest it's hard to imagine that McCay could convince an editor to give space to this profoundly heartbreaking story. I can't even say the strip is ahead of its time because it wouldn't be welcome in today's Sunday funnies. Who would have guessed that Winsor McCay, that graphic genius, immortalized for his carefree flights of fancy, would also be responsible for a story, coming so completely out of the blue, that stands utterly and truly alone in the vast field of newspaper comic art. There is nothing with which to compare it. Sheer genius. What more can I say.

Maresca decided not to attempt digital restoration of the material in the book, probably a good idea, so the pages are simply photographed/scanned in their existing state. That means we see the funnies just like readers did in 1904-05, complete with occasional bleed-through and off-register colors (both of which are minimal - Maresca worked from beautiful source material). Some specific pages do show their age but most are remarkably clean and bright. The strips are all presented at their original printed size. The book is nicely bound using a method I've not seen before. The guts of the book appear to be perfect-bound (meaning a glued spine) yet the pages will lay perfectly flat, which is unusual in that binding method. The hard covers are attached to the book in an odd way, sort of like a photo album. As odd a binding as it is, the result is a book that looks and feels substantial, strong and attractive. How Maresca can sell this labor of love, presumably made in a very short print run, for $55 is beyond me, but it's a bargain. Oh, and if you're on the fence throw into the plus column a Sammy Sneeze tissue box cover that comes with each copy.

The final book in our McCay threesome is the most ambitious and expensive, Ulrich Merkl's The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend 1904-1913. At $114 it's definitely fits in the major purchase category, but Merkl certainly serves up your money's worth. The book weighs in at an ungainly 10 pounds, and the opened size is so large that it's near impossible, at least in my household, to find a place to read it. I've had the book on hand for awhile now and it's been banned from the dining room, the office, and the king-size bed for taking up too much room. I'm now working through it on the only flat surface from which I haven't been evicted; the picnic table in the yard.

Although billed as complete, the rabid completist should be aware that only about a third of the Rarebit Fiend episodes are actually printed in the book. Merkl provides the complete comic strip series as high-resolution TIF files on a DVD attached to the inside back cover of the book. You should be glad that he doesn't put them all in the book -- I shudder to think how heavy it would have been. On the other hand, I really didn't appreciate having to rip holes in the endpaper to remove the DVD, which resisted all attempts to extract it through daintier methods.

All the strips that are reproduced in the book (which Merkl presumably chose as the best of the run) are displayed at full size as originally printed. This alone would make them far easier to read than in the Checker book, but in addition the strips have undergone much more thorough restoration. Many strips still bear the obvious ills of having come from microfilm, but at least they are crisp and clean despite the occasional loss of fine details. Where possible Merkl did work from original tearsheets and even occasionally from original art and these examples are particularly lovely. Each strip is annotated with background information and often supporting exhibits. For instance, along with a McCay strip about a Teddy bear Merkl not only explains the origin of the term but even reproduces classic Clifford Berryman cartoons from whence the craze got started. The annotations go on to cross-reference by subject matter, pointing the reader to other episodes that till the same soil. I can't tell you how much I appreciate such supporting documentation, and my fondest wish is that other reprint books would jump on this bandwagon. Although I fancy myself pretty well-informed about such subjects as Teddy bears, suffrage movements and shirtwaists, most readers are not immersed in such antique esoterica and it's important that they be given the opportunity to extract full enjoyment of these strips, which is sometimes only possible with a brief history lesson.

One aspect of the annotations that I did eventually find objectionable are Merkl's constant claims that various strips "may have inspired" all manner of later works. A guy whose ears grow "may have inspired" the film "Dumbo". A man whose body parts separate "may have inspired" Salvador Dali's "Madonna Corpusculaire". An elevator that ascends out the top of a building "may have inspired" a scene in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory". A man arguing with his image in a mirror "may have inspired" a scene in the film "Mary Poppins". A man walking on the walls and ceiling "may have inspired" a Fred Astaire dance number. I find most of these claims highly improbable, but I can see how Merkl, who must have practically lost himself in this ambitious project, might begin to see parallels and inspirations everywhere. Over a span of more than 800 episodes plumbing all the nooks and crannies of McCay's fertile imagination he was bound to cover some of the same ground as other artists who work in the realms of fantasy.

The book doesn't by any means limit itself to page after page of Rarebit Fiend episodes. There are all sorts of goodies tucked away in these 464 pages. Lots of rare McCay works and ephemera are exhibited and discussed, and Alfredo Castelli contributes a wonderful section titled "Dream Travelers 1900-1947" in which we are treated to samples of both classic and obscure dream themed comic strips from other creators. The overall design of the book is definitely Chip Kidd-inspired (lots of blown-up art vignettes and giant swatches of color), not a plus in my opinion. I'll be glad when this particular fad plays itself out. Fortunately most of the overblown design work is confined to the front section of the book, leaving the reprint section blessedly plain and readable.

A few minor objections aside, Merkl's magnum opus (and I do mean magnum!) is a joy to behold, and will provide you with many hours of delight as soon as you find a large enough horizontal surface on which to peruse its treasures.

It's important to reward and encourage small-press publishers like Sunday Press, Ulrich Merkl, and Checker. If you have a decent interest in McCay (and what self-respecting comic strip lover doesn't?) purchase these books. Your reward, in addition to three fine volumes for your bookshelves, will be stimulating a wider variety to be published. So find the receipt for those unwanted Chia pets and neon-colored ties, send 'em back to Wal-Mart where they belong, and invest some Christmas booty in something of lasting value.


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