By Patrick Driscoll
This week on Comix, Yo!, we’re going to take a look at some early examples of the popular comics medium. The earliest definitions and semantic specifics of what constitutes “sequential art” is an entire field of argument; some academics say it stretches all the way back to the famous cave paintings of Lascaux, France, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. While those arguments are fascinating and valid, I’m gonna focus on our current modern understanding of what constitutes a “comic”—panels, borders, word balloons, etcetera. As with any field in art, the moment you make a concrete judgment or draw a line in the sand concerning what does or doesn’t constitute a genre or medium, leagues of contrarians drop from the rafters and devote their entire careers to defying and contradicting that judgment. And that’s good, because art is meant to develop and grow and evolve through time, reflecting the culture it’s created in. But it is also frustrating, because it can make it difficult to even talk about mediums in the first place. That’s a whole different ballgame though, so let’s focus on something cool – classic comics!
Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay
Winsor McCay (1867-1934) is sort of the Nikola Tesla of the comic arts, but without the tragic obscurity and bizarre pigeon anecdotes. Prolific and masterful from a very young age, McCay was a powerhouse of innovation in all kinds of sequential arts, from the comic medium to early animation, financing and producing early short animations that he used in a vaudeville act. This act would include him live-drawing at ridiculous speeds while performing for an audience, known as “chalk talks,” and interacting with Gertie the Dinosaur, an early animated short film he made where he would give orders to the dinosaur and it would respond. But before he transcended to the status of “art sorcerer to be admired and feared,” he worked making comics and cartoons for the New York Herald, including Little Sammy Sneeze and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend before creating, in 1905, the work for which he is perhaps best known: Little Nemo in Slumberland.
Little Nemo, a weekly strip focusing on a boy and his increasingly strange dreams, is an Art Nouveau fantasy of the early 1900s, encapsulating the sensibilities and aesthetics of the time as well as innovating on numerous stylistic fronts. The format of the strip is this: Nemo is in his bed when emissaries from Slumberland come and try to escort him there, by order of the King. The comic then proceeds to show Nemo going through a multitude of bizarre and fabulous adventures, riding enormous birds through psychedelic jungles, running through forests of growing-and-collapsing mushrooms, racing the constellations on horseback. The conceit of the strip is that just before any real progress is made, Nemo is awakened by his parents, who are almost always off-panel, leaving Nemo frustrated at his interrupted journey. The strip continued on a weekly basis for nearly a decade, and still remains a breathtaking achievement—a cursory glance of a single page of Little Nemo is enough to make any young cartoonist snap their pencil in frustration.
McCay was heralded for his groundbreaking work with linear perspective as well as page formatting—the comic panels themselves would often change in keeping with the theme of the page itself. The page where Nemo must run through a forest of increasingly-tall mushrooms features panels that get taller and taller—a later page featuring an enormous elephant-like monster has Nemo and other characters depicted as tiny blips at the bottom of the page, while the behemoth creature takes up the entire frame. The psychedelic colors, the incredible attention to detail, the formal mastery, and the flat out plain-faced beauty of the pages makes them extraordinary to this day, more than 100 years after the strip began. The incredible achievements of this comic masterwork are dimmed ever-so-slightly by the unfortunate and tonally-dissonant presence of ethnic stereotypes such as Flip, a grumpy frog-like Irishman who is constantly chomping on a cigar and attempting to swindle the other characters, and Impie, a mute African character who can speak only in fractured words like “Ig Ump Imple.” Latent racist and colonialist attitudes are a frustrating and disappointing theme in many of these early comics—they are still dazzling masterpieces, and they are accurate depictions of the attitudes of their time, but it’s still definitely a little bit of a bummer to pick up a collection of Herge’s Tintin in a fit of adventurous whimsy and come upon regressive racial stereotypes. I would never argue for the censorship of these works, because it is important that these flaws exist and be seen and contextualized—to ignore these offensive anachronisms would be intellectually dishonest and historically unethical. But it can certainly take a bit of wind out of a modern comic aficionado’s sails. Regardless, Little Nemo (and the rest of McCay’s work) is an early and crowning achievement of the medium, and is absolutely deserving of your time.
The entire Little Nemo archive can be found here (http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/browse/results?title=2). There are also many gorgeous collections of the strips available on Amazon. Little Nemo was always intended to be read on a page, so while the online archive is free and convenient, the print editions are definitely preferred for the serious reader and aesthete.
Krazy Kat, by George Herriman
Like Little Nemo, Krazy Kat takes place in a world where reality is fluid, a vast surrealistic environment full of dream-logic and bizarre beauty, a sprawling desert that is both desolate and lush with life. Krazy Kat’s eponymous character is a freewheeling, carefree, and somewhat simple cat, who meanders throughout the environment pursuing an unrequited love for a mouse named Ignatz. Interestingly, Krazy Kat’s gender is never precisely defined, as they are referred to as both ‘he’ and ‘she’ in the course of the comic. While superficially, the comic seems like the archetypal slapstick funny-animals comic (a frequent comic beat includes Ignatz hurling a brick at Krazy Kat’s head, which Kat always takes, rather tragically, as an affectionate act), the thoughtful characterization and formal experimentation lead Krazy Kat to be one of the first comics to be officially and intellectually considered “serious art.”
Kat takes place in a dramatically stylized version of the Painted Desert of Arizona, and frequently shifts in terms of page formatting and colorization. Kat’s initial publication run was met with a somewhat lukewarm reaction from the public, due to its flat-out bizarreness and refusal to adhere to comic strip formulas, but it had many famous fans, including the poet e e cummings and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Kat has gone on to be one of the most influential works in the entire sequential medium, defining a tone, a sense of humor, and a hard-to-put-your-finger-on sense of loss and longing that pervades it, separating it from its peers. Krazy Kat is lighthearted breezy fun when you start to read it, full of alliterative and phonetic language and dialogue, but by the time you finish a strip, it’s hard to not feel touched by it on a much deeper level.
http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/browse/results?title=1 Again, Like Little Nemo, these strips are over a century old and are pretty easy to get for free, but you’d do yourself a genuine solid to grab a physical copy.
The Adventures of Tintin, by Herge
The Adventures of Tintin, by Belgian comics deity Herge, are among the most popular European comics ever published, having been translated into over 60 languages and selling hundreds of millions of copies. The series centers around the trials and travails of adventurous young Belgian reporter Tintin, his trusty dog Snowy, and the cynical, hard-drinking Captain Haddock as they travel throughout a largely realistic depiction of the early 20th century. The Tintin comics cover a vast array of genres and styles, everything from science fiction to “lost world” adventures (featuring the aforementioned, unfortunate racism) to travelogues of far off lands, and also mummies. Herge’s art is breathtakingly pretty, with clear lines and vibrant colors, and feature dozens of recurring characters.
The series’ typical adventure format is also punctuated with slapstick humor and gentle, wry social commentary, but the focus tends to be on the journey itself. The global ubiquity of Tintin makes it hard to say too much about it that is new or groundbreaking, but the power of the art and the gentle humor of the writing definitely speak for themselves. My personal favorite entry is Tintin in Tibet, made when Herge was sick and wracked with artist’s’ block and unsettling dreams of an all-white wasteland (insert joke here). As a result, Herge temporarily moved from his typical vibrant, detail-heavy backgrounds to the sparse beauty of the Himalayas, resulting in what is considered one of the strongest works of the medium. There are probably online archives of the Tintin stories, but I’m not gonna do the work for you on this one, because you should absolutely go get a physical copy. Treat yourself. You deserve it.