Winsor McCay

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Winsor McCay

Why it’s daunting: Early 20th-century cartoonist and animator McCay was a master draftsman, but his writing leaves much to be desired, and his occasional reliance on racial stereotypes can be off-putting, even if there’s no apparent malice behind them. The greater obstacle is that much of his work is out of print, or available only in costly large-format hardcovers, which is hardly the ideal entry point for the would-be convert. 

Possible gateway: Dreams Of The Rarebit Fiend and Winsor McCay: The Master Edition

Why: Little Nemo In Slumberland is McCay’s masterwork, but the Rarebit Fiend strips are more concise and tightly written, and this slim Dover Press volume is one of the few economical McCay collections currently in print. Published in William Randolph Hearst’s Evening Telegram beginning in 1914, the strips relate a series of nightmares brought on by rarebit-related indigestion. They typically begin with a simple, relatively innocuous predicament that grows more dire and involved with each successive panel, climaxing with the abrupt awakening of the troubled dreamer. Using a thick, fluid outline he developed as a dime-museum quick-draw artist, McCay develops his ideas with a fantastical verisimilitude that mimics the hyper-reality of a vivid dream.

If McCay’s pioneering work in animation is what interests you, your first and only stop is Milestone’s Master Edition DVD, which collects all his short films, including an adaptation of the Rarebit Fiend strip where a bloodsucking mosquito swells to increasingly grotesque proportions before exploding in a sudden, gory burst. 

Whether he’s depicting the sinking of the Lusitania in horrifying detail (in a propaganda film produced at Hearst’s request) or bringing life to a dinosaur named Gertie, McCay instills a sense of physical presence that others would take decades to realize. Even more impressive is the fact that McCay drew every last frame himself.

Next steps: Before you start wading through the innumerable (and wildly variable) collections of Little Nemo In Slumberland, the next best step might be John Canemaker’s Winsor McCay: His Life And Art, an insightful monograph that doubles as an impressive coffee-table overview. That will help you determine how much effort you’re willing to put into tracking down the six volumes of Fantagraphics’ out-of-print Little Nemo collection, whose reproductions surpass the more easily available hardcovers from Checker Books. (The imprint’s Winsor McCay: Early Works book are for diehards only.) Each one quickly pulls readers into the world of Nemo, a colorless tyke given to monosyllabic exclamations and dreams that form a succession of mind-warping tableaux. Invariably, Nemo tumbles out of bed just as they reach their height. McCay’s graphic imagination is practically boundless, as was the blank page on which he was free to invent without having to conform to a predetermined grid.

Where not to start: The fascinating hodgepodge of Daydreams And Nightmares, which includes an array of the gorgeous but conceptually daft editorial cartoons to which Hearst forced McCay to turn his talents after Little Nemo. For more practical reasons, it’s best to save Sunday Press’ massive two-volume set So Many Splendid Sundays! until the McCay obsession has truly kicked in. At 16x21”, they’re the only volumes that reprint the Little Nemo strips at their original broadsheet dimensions, which is a little like discovering you’ve been inadvertently watching a favorite film in a pan-and-scan version your whole life. Needless to say, the experience will cost you: $100 or more per volume, if you can find them. Even pricier is Ulrich Merkl’s The Complete Dream Of The Rarebit Fiend, a 450-page tome that reprints more than 200 strips and includes several hundred more on an accompanying DVD. The website for the self-published book is no longer active, which means you’ll have to convince some hard-up McCay collector to part with a prized treasure. Save the best for last, and start saving your pennies.