Peter Maresca began his Sunday Press with Little Nemo in Slumberland, re-publishing the work at the size it first appeared, which allowed for a re-evaluation of the strip and also inadvertently started a movement to reprint the old strips larger, and with more visual fidelity than ever before. McCay’s masterpiece was a natural fit — so much of what he did on the page was about the page itself: its scale, color range, and temporary customs. This new volume, following reprints of Krazy Kat, The Upside Downs and Gasoline Alley, is arguably Maresca’s most important work yet. It focuses on “lost” fantasy strips (generously defined, thankfully), some of which have appeared (greatly reduced in size and graphic power) in my own Art Out of Time, but many enjoying their first substantial republication. Maresca’s choices are clearly personal, and even idiosyncratic in the best, Blackbeard-ian, sense. And between the size, contents, and lavish reproduction, Forgotten Fantasy is a watershed moment — it stretches the narrative of comics history into new directions and contains among the best graphic art ever made. That’s how good it is.
There are known classics here reprinted at full size, like the complete comics of Lyonel Feininger and a healthy dose of Winsor McCay and Johnny Gruelle. And then there are full runs of The Explorigator by Henry Grant Dart, Nibsy the Newsboy by George McManus and Naughty Pete by Charles Forbell. That alone makes for a killer book. The amount of detail in Dart’s Explorigator vistas and scenarios make the current (full) size essential — you see things only hinted at in previous reprintings. But beyond those semi-known quantities, there are samplings that even surprised me: W.O. Wilson’s stunning stop-motion fable Madge the Magician’s Daughter, for example, and William J. Wells’ The Exciting Adventures of Bill and Budd: The Bird Boys, which is aggressively psychedelic. And much to my delight there are full size reproductions of four Wiggle Much strips for those of you still craving more of Herbery Crowley’s enigmatic work. Also included is a slew of smart, incisive essays on the work and its context by the likes of Rick Marschall, Thierry Smolderen, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman and Alfredo Castelli.
Maresca’s choice of time period makes sense: This was just before the language of comics really became codified, and when artists from other media could dip in and try it out without worrying about rules and precedents. And that goes to the the beauty of this particular topic: The major categories of strips here — Dreams, proto-Sci-Fi, and Fantasy — all lent themselves to radical drawing styles, color choices, formal play and a magisterial sense of space and drama. In fact, the old Sunday pages seem made for this kind of artistic stretching of panels and drawing styles. The daily life and humor strips tended towards strict grids (with some obvious exceptions), and that is also tremendously compelling, but the fantasy strips come alive as complete artworks. When I turned to the July 12, 1914 episode of Johnny Gruelle’s Mr. Twee Deedle to find Mr. himself rearing up in front of me, standing the full height of the page (child sized, in fact) in a single panel I actually sharply inhaled — it’s a visceral thing, being confronted with an image of such gravitas.
Like Gruelle, many of the artists in this book knew what to do with the scale of thing. It’s one thing to have a lot of space, but it’s another to command that space. Charles Forbell’s bold deco lines and unprecedented formal inventiveness in his 1913 strip, Naughty Pete was evident in the single strip reprinted in the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and Art Out of Time, but in Forgotten Fantasy we get to see that Forbell was creating enormous immersive prints with an internal cohesion and bold palette that used everything at his disposal, including color fades, patterns, and that sure outline of his, to bring the reader inside his world. It’s stunning — looking at Naughty Pete at full size is like seeing a Matisse painting in person after having only seen it as a 3″ x 5″ black and white copy: It’s a revelation that can actually shift the way you think about the medium.
The other lesson of this book is about the nature of the avant garde. Feininger, Verbeek, Crowley and others were making art in a way that simply wasn’t continued after this period. The language of popular continuity strips like Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy and the rest carried right on through into comic books, but these early fantasies really did get “lost”. And that makes a certain amount of sense: The kind of visionary drawing and thinking here isn’t usually sustainable, and neither is it usually character-based — two things necessary for a long commercial run. Many of these practitioners moved on, or back to, children’s books and illustration. The work in Forgotten Fantasy essentially went nowhere until the fairly recent advent of reprints, when its influence can perhaps finally be absorbed. So maybe these century-old narratives will hit their strides now, and provide context for the kind of radical fantasy inventions on the move as I write this. Maybe they won’t be so forgotten after all.