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Katherine Roeder’s new monograph on Winsor McCay nicely bridges the divide between the sometimes insular scholarship on comic art and the broader field of what I have taken to calling visual modernities. Expanding beyond the fine arts, visual modernities includes animation, comics, early film, poster art, photography, and everyday design, all of which emerged as the vernacular face of twentieth-century visual and media modernization. In Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay, Roeder situates her subject’s prolific career within the context of rising consumerism, urban middle-class anxieties, and modernist self-reflexivity. McCay is ripe for incorporation into the “canon” of twentieth-century arts in the United States. The sheer exuberant power of his visual imagination was boundless, so much so that McCay’s fascination with the generation of form threatened the priority of the story line. His ability to capture and hold the attention of distracted city dwellers must have provoked envy among the nation’s fine artists, who often felt spurned by the urban masses. McCay’s artistry demands large-page illustrations, and the Great Comic Artists Series of the University Press of Mississippi answers the call with a beautifully produced and generously formatted book packed with full-page color illustrations of his lavishly detailed comics (even if the margins of some of the full-page illustrations are inexplicably cut off).
McCay mastered a style that offered both formal inventiveness and narrative predictability—attracting, holding, and then spasmodically releasing the reader’s eye in ways that both built on, and conditioned, the increasingly short, easily distracted attention spans of audiences. The shifting worlds of the modern metropolis that fed McCay’s improvisational genius and ever-morphing spatial perspectives also issued in vaudeville, animation, and actuality films. Fed by a visual diet of circus posters, amusement parks, world’s fair midways, and increasingly elaborate consumer window displays, McCay also drew upon a range of other emergent visual languages, from stop-motion photography to polite children’s literature. Toward the last of these he took a gently mocking attitude, inserting characters such as Flip (a cigar-chewing roustabout whom I have always identified as Irish, although Roeder finds him racially ambiguous) and Impie (a well-mannered African cannibal) from a class and ethnic universe radically out of joint with the little blond Fauntleroys and demurely frocked girls who populated children’s books of the time. In this respect and others, McCay slyly subverted the troubled if insistent complacencies of his audiences. In Little Sammy Sneeze (1904–6), a small boy’s earth-shattering sneezes blow sky-high the carefully tended milieu of the bourgeoisie and shred the pretense of gentility that barely covers the anarchic energies of his unregulatable body.
McCay directed his inventiveness at the boundary between dream and reality, a boundary that was at once policed and exploited by those who would colonize the minds and hearts of potential consumers. Along this boundary, advertisers, architects of mass spectacle, and visual artists walked arm in arm, collectively exploring the new domains of pleasurable fantasy opened up by a mass public only recently liberated from Protestant constraints against getting and spending. As economist Simon Patten put it in 1907, “the new morality does not consist in saving but in expanding consumption” (quoted by Roeder, 129). As McCay threw Bunyanesque obstacles in the path of his protagonist Little Nemo, however, he also inverted the Protestant logic of salvation to serve instead tales of thwarted pleasure. (McCay actually satirized Bunyan in A Pilgrim’s Progress by Mister Bunion (1905).) Roeder acknowledges that the rise of an urban landscape calculated to provoke desire had a profound class dimension, creating not only willing middle-class consumers, but a sense of unfulfilled longing among the urban poor for things they could never own. The phantasmal image of brilliantly lit windows displaying unreachable objects of desire haunts these early decades, in images—from the illustrated press to the Ashcan urban realists—of tired shop girls gazing at haughty mannequins, or immigrant children stupefied by the spectral image of toys tempting them from behind plate glass.
The role of fantasy in stoking the desires that fed mass consumption is a foundational theme in Roeder’s lucid and wide-ranging study. Wide Awake in Slumberland draws upon a rich literature linking a rising culture of consumption to dream and desire, from Theodore Dreiser’s prophetic novel of 1900, Sister Carrie, to studies of shopping behavior, department store strategies of display, histories of advertising, and commodity culture. Rosalind Williams’s Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France, published in 1982, was among the first studies to explore how desire—provoked by a variety of new cultural agents—functioned as a primary motor of consumerism. But anxiety was the evil twin of consumer desire. McCay’s best-known series—Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–11 and thereafter under different names), and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1904–11 and thereafter)—brilliantly realize the anxious worlds of those who have fallen prey to the tyranny of things. Such scenarios—in which inanimate objects acquire a frightening new force and compelling presence that threatens to displace ordinary human relations and hierarchies of value—have a long life over the course of the twentieth century. Roeder perhaps slights a consideration of the reverse process in which mass culture is also rendered into the stuff of private fantasy and subjective journeys. McCay’s elegant, meticulously realized drawings untether his central characters from the everyday logic of time and space, freeing them into a childlike world of sheer abundance, possibility, and danger. Within the intimate scope of the comic page, his characters traverse continents and galaxies—“from palace to metropolis, to shantytown, to jungle”—(9) adventures that were contained by the reassuring regularity of the narrative frame, in which Nemo falls out of bed and wakes from his dream/nightmare. If McCay’s characters—as Roeder puts it—“embodied an ideal consumer: passive, yielding, and never satisfied” (9)—they also inhabited a condition of oneiric reverie and dream states out of which much twentieth-century art emerged.
In this sense, Roeder’s generally excellent analysis places too much directional emphasis on the movement from imagination to commerce, and not enough on the ways in which commercial culture—from store windows, to mannequins, to the uncanny lives of consumer goods—fed the imagination of artists, from McCay to the Surrealists, not only providing them source material but, more importantly, offering them a vital platform from which to assert the energies of the unconscious and of the imagination. As Scott Bukatman argues in a book that nicely complements Roeder’s, the disciplined and elegantly stylized line of McCay’s Little Nemo harbors a dialectical resistance to mechanization and the regulation of the body and imagination that was a fundamental dimension of the new productive economy of the early twentieth century. (Scott Bukatman, The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, 43 [click here for review]. Bukatman, in a series of illuminating analyses of the dialectics of animation and automation, draws out the connections between comics and chronophotography, the frequent brunt of comic subversion and parody.) The central narrative device of McCay, after all, is the dream, a reflex of the unregulated, unconscious, or preconscious mind. The voyages of exploration conjured by McCay week after week enact the agency of imagination in a world increasingly segmented and timed.
One challenge this subject poses for cultural historians is to chart more precisely the ways in which image worlds, from cartoons to animation, move from unobstructed play to commercial deployment. Rather than reading McCay as always rehearsing the drama of desire, anticipation, disappointment, and repetition that drives consumer culture, it is also possible that Nemo’s forays might have anticipated a world of random events, unexpected occurrences, and magical transformations that interrupted everyday processes rather than serving them seamlessly? At what point does the fantasy and imagination that is so much a part of what is loved about McCay assert its claims beyond its sometimes too ready integration into the commercial landscape? Indeed perhaps the most nightmarish scenario in the Nemo repertoire is the repeated discovery that the dazzling and seductive appearance of those fantasy worlds proffered to the wide-eyed Nemo are only illusions, manufactured of cardboard and paint. McCay’s dismantling of the ways in which consumer culture commandeers, and then betrays, the imagination, could not be more pointed.
McCay works at the boundary between dream and reality. But he is also situated at the juncture of commercial imperatives and the visual inventiveness usually associated with the avant-garde artist. In this respect, a study of such figures as McCay and others working in the media of both cartooning and animation further erodes persistent hierarchies of high and low. Roeder contributes to this, along with some of the best recent scholarship on comics and animation, by demonstrating the self-reflexivity of McCay’s work—“draw[ing] attention to the way images function”(196)—a standard mark of modernism. Roeder’s scholarship honors the medium-specific nature of cartoons, acknowledging the foundational work of Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, while balancing these internal characteristics of the medium with broader cultural and historical questions that cross the boundaries that separate media from one another. Despite growing interest in the vernacular brilliance of McCay, George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Otto Messmer (creator of Felix the Cat), and other geniuses of the comic art, these subjects remain “niche” markets within academic art history, largely confined to historians of comics and other popular forms of visual culture rather than entering the mainstream of art history and visual studies. That mainstream is notably out of step with the voluminous and often stunningly inventive production of popular media that combine elements of mass reproduction (printing and motion picture technologies) with individual creators whose imaginations remained largely unfettered—or productively challenged—by commercial requirements.
Redefining the visual field within which the fine arts are located allows us as well to grasp both what the fine arts shared with popular media and what they might have been defending themselves against: the threats and possibilities of what Donald Crafton memorably dubbed—in relation to animation—a “polymorphous plasticism” (Donald Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898–1928, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, 329). His phrase refers to the imagination’s labile power—aided by new visual technologies—to drive the unstable life of forms. This power would increasingly be placed in the service of new and pervasive forms of consumerism. But Roeder’s book might do well to recognize the ways in which American popular culture—in its most appealing moments of unfettered imagination—also approached the subversive realms of the avant-garde. The degree to which the avant-garde has been put in the service of consumerism is another story.
Professor, Art History and Archaeology Department, Washington University in St. Louis
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