Thierry Smolderen and Jean-Philippe Bramanti’s McCay suffers no shortage of ambition. The book purports to be a life, of sorts, of Winsor McCay – the “of sorts” being the operative phrase here, as incidents and themes from McCay’s life are drawn together with a handful of fantastic elements to create a portrait of the artist not as he existed but as he cast a long shadow from the dawn of the twentieth century.
Strangely, McCay begins with a quote from French theorist Paul Virilio – I say strangely simply because Virilio just died literally weeks before US publication, and that’s the kind of coincidence that pops out at you. (Certainly not the kind of coincidence Titan Books was planning to celebrate the release of this volume, certainly, but such is life.) The quote introduces the theme of disappearance that recurs throughout:
For these absences, which can be quite numerous, hundreds every day most often pass completely by others around – we’ll be using the word ‘picnolepsy’ (from the Greek, picnos: frequent). However, for the picnoleptic, nothing really has happened, the missing time never existed. At each crisis, without realizing it, a little of his or her life simply escaped.
The figurative ‘picnoleptic’ of Virilio’s epigram is McCay’s eternal protagonist, the sleeper, be it Nemo or the Rarebit Fiend, tumbling out of bed each morning with a stomach full of cheese, toast, and ennui. Much like Marvel’s Sleepwalker, from the reader’s perspective the most consequential thing that happens in Nemo’s life is that he falls asleep. It would be strictly incorrect to say that McCay’s characters lack any kind of rich internal life, since every square centimeter of their stories are precisely the stuff of their rich internal lives. While the dreamscapes with which Nemo and Fiend interact are rich and full, however, the characters themselves are ciphers, supporting players to their own wild imaginations.
While I’m certain that, whatever the context, Virilio wasn’t referring to McCay, it’s a good summation of the kind of themes to which McCay was attracted. His work was built on the juxtaposition between the epic unfettered freedom of sleep and the quotidian demands of the waking world. The present volume offers a view of McCay as a liminal figure, as typified with an exchange he has with a driver early in the book, after he has already become famous for Little Nemo: “Had my brother-in-law over the other night,” the driver says, “he couldn’t get over it when I told him how much money you made just drawing your dreams. Wouldn’t believe that was all you did with your life – just drawing dreams!”
Winsor McCay as he appears in Smolderen and Bramanti’s account appears almost to be sleepwalking through the narrative of his own life. The most consequential thing that McCay does is draw, after all, and that takes up most of his time (which, to be fair, it does for most cartoonists). But as with his real life, the slightly fictionalized McCay we meet here also meets the likes Houdini, William Randolph Hearst, and George Herriman. Honestly, the narrative through-line is a bit difficult to follow without already knowing the contours of McCay’s career, so if you don’t remember which years he worked for which tabloid you will probably need a refresher.
But that points back to the weaknesses of the present volume, which can probably best be summed up by referring back to the book’s significant ambitions. McCay wants very badly to be a worthy tribute to one of the great cartoonists, one of the very founders of the modern art form. However it is also built around a plotline where Winsor McCay learns how to harness his psychic powers and travel in and out of the fourth dimension, AKA the dimension of dreams. In order to solve a crime involving ghost anarchists. Whether or not you appreciate that kind of fantastic insertion will indicate whether or not you finish the book or throw it across the room in disgust, but it is pervasive.
The book really wants to take off here and be the kind of stylistic tour de force that would serve as a fitting tribute to its namesake – and, well, it does, whenever it incorporates McCay’s work directly. Anytime we see McCay working on his strip or talking about art – there’s a fine scene where he takes a walking tour of the Egypt wing of the Met, for instance – the book perks up. Anytime the narrative falls into extended passages involving visualizing sections of the hypercube, I feel like I’ve accidentally picked up a Grant Morrison comic and need a lie-down.
It’s hard cheese to point out that Bramanti is setting himself up for failure in illustrating a book about one of the most brilliant cartoonists in history, but the book maybe needed like 75% less ambition in terms of plot and 50% more in terms of visuals. That the most interesting sections are those where McCay’s work is incorporated directly into the narrative doesn’t resound to the book’s favor. There’s a drabness to the narrative that works against any accumulation of momentum that might occur from the procession of events. In simple terms? It’s hard to follow in a lot of places.
The most interesting section, for me, was a mock-up cover gallery in the back, which breaks the book’s plot down along what would have been episodic increments had it been originally serialized. Unmoored from the strict panel grids that dominate the actual interiors of the book, these layouts are loose and interesting. At his best Bramanti fits halfway between Guy Davis and Jerry Moriarty, not bad but a far cry from McCay. The effect is obviously intended to make McCay’s drawings pop against the drab backdrop of “reality,” and at least inasmuch as I want to continue looking at McCay instead of Bramanti, one supposes that a desired effect has been accomplished.