Monday, March 18, 2013

Winsor McCay Comic Artist

Winsor McCay (1869 - 1934)
Little Nemo (1905)


The newspaper comic strip began in the late 1890s when Sunday color comics supplements were used to sell cheap, mass market oriented papers. The early strips such as The Yellow Kid were curious combinations of down-to-earth slapstick, topical joking, and abstract referencing. 


In the hands of Winsor McCay, however, comics were creative, bordering on the surreal and handling social satire at the same time. Winsor Zenic McCay (who worked under the penname Silas on the comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend) was perhaps the most innovative comic artist during the early days of comics. McCay's best known comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland and The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, found their way into the New York Herald around 1905. 

Winsor McCay (1869 - 1934)
Little Nemo in Slumberland (1910)
Drawing-Watercolor; Indian ink/paper (signed)
Hammer Price € 25,000; $32,272, £23,122; Estimate: €22,500 - €25,000
Auction House: Artcurial (S.V.V.), Paris, France


McCay's comics are full of the kind of visual dexterity that characterize the best loved cartoons. McCay pioneered certain aspects of the comic page layout whereby the Art Nouveau shapes contrast with the rectangular grid of the page. 

The backgrounds in McCay's work are the real focal point of many of his cartoon strips. The detail with which he illustrates the palaces of Slumberland and other fantastical places Nemo visits take on that surreal quality we've come to recognize in his work, creating a greater sense of realism in what would otherwise be an unbelievable or fantastical context. 

McCay's comic panels successfully emphasize space. At times he used a single background broken up across a series of panels, where the foreground action did not have a movement. Meaning, the characters were standing still while the background moved through the panels. 


Clearly, McCay's comics were aimed at a popular audience, but they also flirted with serious art and expression as well as the nostalgic associations one makes when viewing them. The most popular comics are the ones depicting domestic humor involving marital conflict, issues with authority, and spoiled kids. 

According to John Carlin (Tate Etc. issue 9; Spring 2007), Winsor "did for comics what D.W. Griffiths did for film and Louis Armstrong did for music: he made them one of the great forms of personal expression in twentieth century American, and would in turn influence generations of comic and fine artists."  

McCay's comic films set a standard that Walt Disney and other animators later followed. Here's a link to one of McCay's 1914 comics, Gertie the Dinosaur.


Due to my extreme caution and aversion to receiving nasty-grams indicating that I've infringed on someone else's copyright, the comic depicted below is not the actual comic coming up for auction, but instead a similar piece that at first blush (without focusing on the direction of the dinosaur's head) might be mistaken for such. Nevertheless, the piece, in its similarity, does represent a fair market value of such a piece of comic art in today's art market. 

(This is not the specific piece being sold at auction)
Winsor McCay (1869 - 1934)
Jumbo, from Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
Drawing-Watercolor; Indian ink/paper
Hammer Price: $ 3,000; €2,389, £1,643; Estimate: $3000- $4000
Auction House: Bonhams & Butterfields


(Below) Another example of a McCay comic up at auction is a piece called Indecision and Weak Will. Note how McCay reflects "indecision" and "weak will" as an adult neuroses that result in subjugation and confinement. Each character has his own angst or method of coping with harsh reality (the man on the far-left is pensive, but still can't decide how to act; the second man imagines every possible scenario, and yet doesn't know what to do; then finally, the man on the far-right is tormented by not knowing what to do, and thus, does nothing). The elephant, while clearly confined against its natural will, is the strongest character of all. We recognize that the elephant would choose to run away if he could, whereas the men are under the domination or control of their own "indecision and weak will".

Winsor McCay (1869 - 1934)
Indecision and Weak Will, original newspaper editorial cartoon illustration (signed, lower right)
Drawing-Watercolor (Ink, pen/paper)
Hammer Price: $ 2,400; €1,756, £1,492
Estimate: $2,000 - $3,000
Auction House: Heritage Galleries & Auctioneer (USA)

While this comic reflects the fears, weaknesses, and failures of modern man, the elephant serves as a constant reminder - an "Elephant in the room" (an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed) - that man has at his disposal his imagination and intellect to free him - should he choose to unleash them. 

While many people dismiss comics as a form of throwaway amusement, there are many examples, such as those seen in McCay's work, that meditate on art, reality and love, in a manner not far removed from work hanging in galleries. 


Winsor McCay, who is generally regarded as the first artistic genius of the comic strip medium, produced the form's first masterpiece - Little Nemo in Slumberland - which ran from 1905 to 1914. The comic's premise involved a young boy's nightly adventures in the fantastic realm of - yep, you guessed it - Slumberland! Each episode concluded with the child being shocked back into reality as he woke up or fell out of bed. 


I can't help but wonder if McCay would be shocked by how much his comics are selling for at auction. Perhaps McCay's fascination with the juxtaposition of "real life" and the worlds created by the unconscious mind would have caused him to retreat back to his sky bombs, wild trains, dirigible rides, exotic parades, bizarre circuses, and Byzantine and rococo-like settings and landscapes where Morpheus and his beautiful daughter would have kept him entertained in that magical place whereby his vivid imagination was sure to soar. 

And thank goodness it did... otherwise we'd have no one (Nemo means "No one" in Latin) to thank for the visual feats that transport everyone to Slumberland, a land where anything is possible. 


Comics as Culture written by M. Thomas Inge, the well-known academic authority on comics, is an excellent resource on the history of comics. 

Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, written by the animator-film historian, John Canemaker, is the most comprehensive (richly illustrated) bibliography on McCay and a must-read for those interested in a more detailed understanding of McCay's comic genius. 


If you're interested in learning more about or purchasing a piece of artwork created by Winsor McCay, type in the name "Winsor McCay" into the search box and you will be directed to Artprice, "The world leader in art market information". 


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