It is a reflection of our times that most people, even those into comics, remember Winsor McCay from the Google Doodle the company released in October to mark the 107th anniversary of the man’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. Indeed, a Google search for Winsor McCay throws up more links to the Google Doodle and news about it than McCay himself—one reason for this could be that he died in 1934, a few years before the Golden Age of Comics began in the US.

Even when he was alive, McCay’s works weren’t really popular, although it is reported that they did have a loyal following. McCay’s works, especially the most famous of them, Little Nemo in Slumberland (it is set in the dreams of its protagonist and, expectedly, has a vivid, dreamy, surreal feel to it), may offer some reasons for this—his illustrations were graphically intense and detailed, packing many tiny details into slim panels. That made them very different from other comics of that era.

Even today, there are few comic book creators whose style is as detailed. Chris Ware’s is (this column featured his magnificent Building Stories) in its last edition, and it is hard to miss the influence of McCay. Other artists who were inspired and influenced by McCay include the late Moebius (Jean Giraud), especially his works of fantasy (and work on the storyboards of such cult movies as Alien and the first Tron and the late Maurice Sendak—the latter’s In the Night Kitchen tells of a little boy’s dream featuring a baker’s kitchen.

But while Little Nemo is McCay’s most famous work (there have been movie versions, even a computer game), his other comics, including Tales of the Jungle Imps which features Kiplingesque stories of How the Camel Got His Back Up and How the Snake Lost His Body in interesting mosaics of poetry and pictures, are equally impressive. In some ways, McCay was a pioneer in his use of irregular-shaped panels, some of which segue into the next. This visual dynamism may explain why he started experimenting with animation, although, in the 1920s and 1930s, this was a primitive discipline and required hours of work and hundreds of illustrations to create a few seconds of footage. In the second half of his career, in the two decades preceding his death, McCay focused more on animation and even created a few short animated movies.

Both sets of books mentioned in the column are available, including in a mash-up combination, in digital format on ComiXology. There’s still some controversy whether his books are suitable for children (just as there is some about Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen), but they were just fine for this adult.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.

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