Sunday, May 8, 2022

McCay (2018).

When we think of the Comics Industry at all these days, it's usually less for the the actual art and format, in and of themselves.  And that's kind of a shame, really.  As it tells you a lot about the shape things are in, when you find any behind the scenes drama a lot more memorable than any of the stories contained in the pages of DC or Marvel.  For my part, I just know what it's like to be able to grow up in a time when this wasn't the case.  I got here in 1984, and if you do the math, it means that while I was sort of too early and young for the party, I arrived just in time for what in retrospect is the last great burst of artistic creativity in the world of comic books.  When I was still learning to walk and say or read my own name, guys like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave McKeon, and Neil Gaiman were all finding ways to bring all the various comics they grew up with as kids into a more sophisticated format, written and designed in a way that even the most snobbish of adults could respect.  Looking back on it now, it's that over-arching desire for respect that stands out the most about it, at least to me.  Comic books had fully entered into what is now known as the Bronze Age, with all the major superheroes and their brands having gone into a major slump.

Moore, Gaiman, and the others, all held a shared conviction that the comics art form was capable of much more than it was putting out at the time.  It's what led them to conceptualize stories, layouts, and designs that would go on to be hailed as a revolution that revitalized the Comics Industry, and gave it a new lease on shelf life.  What I find ironic about such statements isn't the effect it had.  It's more to do with the familiar adage that everything old is new again.  A lot of the main reason for why Morrison and McKeon succeeded as well as they did in their endeavors is because aside from being real talented at the drawing and drafting board, each of them was highly literate as an artist.  What they did was to take the techniques, practices, and above all the themes from some of the best works of Great Literature, and apply them to the world of sequential storytelling art.  The result could sometimes be stories with influences drawn from the interconnected worlds of classical film, painting, and literature.

We have Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, for instance, of which he had this to say.  "The story's themes were inspired by Lewis Carroll, quantum physics, Jung, and Crowley; its visual style by surrealism, Eastern European creepiness, Cocteau, Artaud, Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay, etc".  Also, "We were also referencing sacred geometry, and the plan of the Arkham House was based on the Glastonbury Abbey and Chartres Cathedral (web)".  In this, all Morrison was doing is taking the lead from Alan Moore, who often worked the symbols or archetypes from ancient myth and ritual practices into the plotting and structural schemes of work like Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Promethea.  Moore was even able to take this further by writing prose poems, or poetic essays such as Snakes and Ladders, and then have them transcribed into comic format with the help of illustrators like Eddie Campbell.  In a similar vein, Neil Gaiman seems to have found the knack for taking the ideas and plot beats from some of the best writers in literature, and giving them a home for people who've never even heard of H.P. Lovecraft, or James Branch Cabell.  It is just possible that some readers picked up a liking for Shakespeare from the pages of Sandman.

Is it right to call all this a golden age?  At the very least, it was something a hell of a lot close to a Renaissance of sorts.  What makes it kind of sad, thinking back on things as they are now, is that it is possible to debate whether it has ever gotten as good as it was back then.  My guess is that most fans, even the most casual of comics readers, would be willing to go with the idea that it isn't.  Maybe what's happening is that we're all busy waiting for that next creative spark to ignite things once more, and usher in a further renascence of the medium.  It's something that should probably be looked forward to.  In the meantime, all we can do is wait, and hope for the time when that next creative spark manifests itself.  In the meanwhile, part of what can help to pass the time is to recall some of the influences that helped inspire the creators of the format now known as the graphic novel.  There is at least one name that gets banded around a bit, here and there.  It's the work of one particular artist who keeps cropping up at random, whether it be in interviews, or in the panels of some of their most famous works.

Gaiman even dedicated one of his shot story collections to this very graphic artist, featuring a panel from his work as part of the collections frontpiece, just opposite the table of contents.  It's the picture of what looks to be a seven year old boy in pajamas climbing up the side of an otherwise ordinary city building.  The surreal touch comes in when you realize the scale of the windows the little boy is climbing past makes him two or three times the size of the average office floor.  It's like we're looking at a minuscule, human version of King Kong, making his way up the Empire State Building.  The interesting thing is I'm pretty sure this image was created quite some time before even the idea of Kong was ever conjured up out of the topsoil of the imagination.  In the drawing, the little boy is looking down onto the unseen streets, miles below.  As he does so, he muses aloud to himself.  "These people ought to know who we are, and tell that we are here".  It's a curious, strange, and somehow beguiling observation.  The sort of thing you never expect to hear anywhere except within the realm of dreams.  

That's because the artist responsible for this otherworldly picture is doing his best to conjure up an idea of what the inside of a dream might look like.  The man responsible for this image, and the observation is known today simply as Winsor McCay.  I've never found out if the boy in his drawing ever had a proper last name.  He's always young, like Peter Pan, yet slightly more timid, yet just as possible of courage and equal acts of mischief and bravery as the circumstances call for it.  So far as I can tell, he's always just been known as Little Nemo, and he is McCay's greatest creation.  In his short story collection, Fragile Things, Gaiman at least hinted at the kind of influence that a graphic artist like McCay had on his own efforts as a writer.  He originally wanted to name his anthology after the word balloon caption in the image described above.  With this tacit admission in mind, it's not too difficult to see just where and how Gaiman would take a great deal of his inspiration for the concepts, ideas, and sometimes even the visual elements of a graphic novel like Sandman.  He's not the only one, either.

McCay's Nemo comics have so managed to cement their way into the submerged pop cultural consciousness that he keeps cropping up every now and then, like a half-remembered dream recalled at the very tip edges of memory, which is essentially what Nemo and his stories are now.  Aside from Gaiman, here's a partial list of the artists that have taken inspiration from McCay's original land of dreams.  Alan Moore patterned the plot of the fourth issue of Miracleman after McCay's secondary world of Slumberland.  The rock band Genesis released a track known as Scenes from a Night's Dream, in their post lineup album,...And Then There Were Three.  Which gives listener's a summary outline of the basic setup of the Nemo comics.  French Surrealist Jean "Moebius" Giraud tried to write a sequel or two to McCay's work in the early to mid-90s.  Maurice Sendak's style owes a great deal to the original Dream newspaper strips.  Finally, one of McCay's biggest fans, an entrepreneur named Walter Elias Disney, once took the famous illustrator's son into his office, and showed him a blueprint for the park that would one day bear his name.  Then he admitted to Robert McCay that all this really should have belonged to his father.  That's the kind of imapct and legacy that Winsor McCay has left behind.

In other words, what we're talking about with Little Nemo in Slumberland, and its creator, is one of those pop-cultural touchstones that keep finding ways of influencing one generation after another.  As of this writing, awareness of McCay's most famous creation still manages to hover around the 50% mark.  That means half of the world still carries on and keeps the memory alive.  That's got a be a gosh damn record for a globe that's lucky if it still recalls an event like the signing of the Magna Carta.  I've seen enough of this guy and his work, off and on, over the years to grow a certain amount of curiosity about him.  I've leafed through enough of the comics to know I'm dealing with an actual talent.  He's good at what he does.  Very good, to be honest.  In fact, based on what I've seen, I'm afraid there's just no way to avoid calling him an artist.  That is also the sum of what I know about this guy.  Aside from his comic creation, the rest of his life comes off as something of a complete and total mystery.

I suppose that's what made me snatch up a copy of Thierry Smolderen's graphic novel.  The funny thing is I can't at all claim that it was something I was deliberately searching for.  I was busy looking up what I thought was a completely unrelated topic at the time, and there it was, as part of the options brought up as a part of my search engine results.  I'll have to admit I wasn't expecting McCay to put in an appearance, sort of .  What was I looking for that could have brought Smolderen's graphic novel up in the first place?  And what does all this have to do with the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland?  Yeah, when you put it like that, I guess it all does call for a bit of a damn good explanation.

The Basic Setup.

I'll admit, when I first started to parse through Smolderen's book, I did so under the impression that I was heading into a straightforward recounting of the actual history of the real life Graphic Novelist pioneer.  The opening act of the comic does very little to dissuade the reader from this point of view.  We open somewhat in media res.  It doesn't start the way a regular biography would, with a brief snapshot of the artist realizing the first glimmers of his potential, while living an otherwise unextraordinary life in the middle of Anywhere, America.  Instead, we open at the 1899 Detroit World's Fair, and are introduced to an early adult McCay as an artist beginning to establish his name.  In a way, this is kind of understandable, even from a biographic perspective.  Sometimes you come across artists whose lives tend to be open books.  That's because of the way they've copiously documented their exploits in memoirs and collected letters, or else because of how forthcoming they are about their past histories, especially in terms of upbringing, family, and the like.  Then there's the other side of the coin.

For every Henry James, or J.R.R. Tolkien, you have figures like McCay, whose life reads like a diary with several key pages either ripped or burned out.  Sometimes this can be a deliberate move on the part of the biographer's subject, the perceived need for some sort of ill-defined privacy being felt as paramount over all other considerations.  The irony being that such moves betray a lack of understanding of human nature, as that sort of behavior will always just tend to invite speculation about who the subject was behind closed doors.  In such cases, I'm afraid the historical personage has no one except themselves to blame.  They're always guilty of the old adage observed by P.T. Barnum years ago.  "There's a sucker born every minute".  Sometimes, however, the lack information comes less from deliberate obfuscation, and more through accidental neglect or circumstance.  The latter seems to be the case with Little Nemo's creator.  A lot of McCay's family and early history has had to be pieced together not because of no one wanted any dirty laundry aired, and instead due to the simple fact that all the helpful public records which could help fill in the gaps have been poorly kept over the passage of years.

This has meant that all of his biographers have had to resort to the worst case scenario of speculation, based on what little resources are available.  As a result, all that anyone can do is guess that maybe his family emigrated to the U.S. from Canada, where they soon managed to settle in the suburbs of Michigan, I think!  Winsor's father, Robert, might have been part of a Masonic lodge at one point.  Or at least that's one possibility.  I'm not real sure, and neither is anyone else.  There's so little to go on, that's the problem, you see.  I will admit that if this is the case, then it does at least offer the critic one place to begin in terms of trying to figure out where the artist's early imaginative influences came from.  If Rob McCay was a Mason, then he might have helped spur his son's imagination into life by regaling him with information about the meaning of Masonry, and the history and folklore behind all the symbols and imagery associated with this movement.  Of course, you could also go further and surmise that another reason we know so little about McCay's early life is because his dad helped instill his son with the same Masonic tendency for secrecy and silence regard personal matters, except for or to any possible fellow initiates, and other Masons.  However, that I know is little more than pure speculation on my part, and it doesn't really provide any answers, one way or the other.

It's just as good an example of the kind of challenges you have to expect whenever tackling the life of Winsor McCay as a subject.  For instance, it is possible that Winsor never knew just how old he was, because he never knew his date of birth.  Nor have any reliable birth records ever been found that could help settle things.  As far as McCay was concerned, he might have been born in the 1860s, or as late as the 1880s.  He just never seems to have found out, and scholars theorize that part of the reason for this is because a series of fires that helped destroy a lot of public records over the years in Michigan might have help cut critics and biographers off forever from a lot of useful information.  As a result, a usable portrait of the artist as a young child is hard to come by.  His family is said to have settled in Edmore, Michigan, where he was born.  Beyond that the rest is a blank slate, the kind that nature abhors, and so the imagination of the critic tries to fill it in.  In my mind's eye, I just have this very stereotypical image of Winsor McCay as this young, tow-headed kid, all by himself in a field, drawing dust doodles in the dirt of the family farmyard.  The very picture itself is practically an archetype, one meant to suggest a general idea, rather than the facts of an individual real life.  The funny thing is I find myself wanting to stick with this Romantic image of the young McCay as living the life of this quasi-solitary, hayseed dreamer.  It might not be the whole truth, yet perhaps there's an element of the truth in it somewhere.

All this is just to give an idea of how many gaps there are in the record of an actual life, especially when it comes to the vital question of what sort of artistic influences might have helped inspire the inner landscape of McCay's mind.  It's frustrating as hell, yet I'd also be lying if I didn't admit the odd sense of fitness about the whole thing.  It grants both McCay and Nemo this lingering air of mystery, like they're both hieroglyphs from a long forgotten language that we've lost the key to deciphering.  It may be a hassle, yet it's also the kind you don't really mind, as that too has the ring of artistic appropriateness about it.  It also explain why Smolderen has little choice except to begin his comic with the artist as a carnie employee who is slowly starting to climb the ladder of personal success.  Those are the years when McCay became a public figure, and so the documentation becomes more reliable as his whereabouts and movement are more or less well known.  Smolderen opens his strip with young Winsor slowly assembling the building blocks of his later creations.  Smolderen uses these opening panels to suggest the idea that a lot of the fantastical layout and absurdist architecture of Slumberland might have stemmed from the time McCay spent hawking and working on America's carnie circuit.

To give the author credit, it is just possible to see how this theory could have a possible legitimacy to it.  Bob Dylan, for instance, admitted that some of his lyrics might have been inspired by the impressions left behind by his early experiences of traveling carnivals.  Another artist whose art was inspired by a similar pattern is none other than Ray Bradbury, and he once wrote a treatment on McCay that posits the Graphic Artist as a product of this same exposure to carnivalization.  At the very least, I'll have to admit this shared theory of Smolderen's is as good as any other.  From this setting, Smolderen takes his illustrated subject on a brief tour of the midway life.  We follow McCay as he makes his way to an early tilt-a-whirl contraption that he is able to store away in his artist's memory.  The contraption is run by a carnie named Silas, another piece of trivia that McCay stashes away in the vault.  So far, it looks as if we're in for what could an interesting docu-drama of the life of the artist in graphic novel format.

Things take an unexpected turn when one of McCay's friends takes him to the home of an eminent theoretical physicist and speaker.  He's someone Winsor has never seen, or heard of before, and yet does that even really matter?  At this juncture McCay is still a neophyte illustrator, starving his way from one working day to the next.  The worst part is he deliberately chose to be self-employed.  This is where the facts of history and Smolderen's comic neatly match-up.  In real life, McCay did spend his early years building up a portfolio by hiring himself out as an illustrating gun for hire.  Sometimes it meant little more than make-work shit assignments, drawing pictures of soap and soda pop for merchants with no more flair for the imaginative angle the a Cod caught in a fisherman's net.  Still, he's young, out on the streets, he needed whatever income his talents could find, and anyway, it was a job that offered some easy money, which was in short supply at the moment.  These are the facts of life, and in the comic, it's what leads McCay to shake hands with a Mr. Charles Howard Hinton.  He's seen some of Winsor's efforts in the field of advertising illustration, and would like to hire him on to provide the pictures for a new book on physics that he's just finished.  It's title is given in the form of a question.

What is the Fourth Dimension
?  That's the name of the book, and if either Hinton, or the question sound in any way familiar, then it probably means you got a pretty good working memory of at least some of the older graphic novels out there.  Specifically, you might be dredging up the recall of an imaginary (though intriguing) conversation that happens early in the course of Alan Moore's seminal Gothic work, From Hell.  The key bits of information come from a scene featuring an imaginary conversation about real life subjects.  A fictional version of an actual father named James Hinton is discussing the hidden properties of architecture with Jack the Ripper (because of course) who brings up an idea put forward by "Thomas Hobbs, the only thinker preceding...Coleridge to suggest that certain symbols might subtly effect men's minds (13)".  The conversation then subtly proceeds to the suggestion of a theory, or possibility that there exists a hidden, unseen architecture to the very universe itself, something fundamental that undergirds everything that people see and do.  It's a very heady concept, from a graphic novel that was already well tripped out to begin with.  Only Alan Moore would go there.

The crucial piece of information comes when the fictional James turns to the Ripper and says, "You know..., this puts me in mind of some theories that my son Howard proposed to me.  They suggest that time is a human illusion...that all times co-exist in the stupendous whole of eternity.  He hopes to publish a pamphlet one day".  When asked what this pamphlet shall be called, the answer is: "What is the Fourth Dimension (14)".  Warming up to this concept, Moore enlarges on the idea, describing it as follows: "Fourth dimensional patterns within Eternity's monolith would, he suggests, seem merely random events to third dimensional rising towards inevitable convergence like an archway's lines.  Let us say something peculiar happens in 1788...a century later, related events take place.  Then again 50 years later.  Then 25 years.  Then 12.  An invisible curve rising through the centuries (15)".  Moore caps things off with a bare summary in the form of a question.  "Can history then be said to have an architecture, Hinton?  The idea is most glorious, and most horrible (ibid)". 

The idea of an Architecture of Eternity is an odd idea, even at the best of times.  Most will be inclined to laugh, give a shake of the head, and think, "Only with Alan Moore".  The thing is its kind of funny.  The conversation may have been fictional, yet the pamphlet, its writer, and even his father are real.  The rest of the From Hell comic is whole cloth, yet not the Fourth Dimension.  It really was something worked on by Charles Hinton, and it eventually did see the light of day.  Not just as pamphlet, but as the opening offering in a collection of essays on the subject that further try to elaborate and illustrate Hinton's idea on the topic.  Charles Hinton was even willing to go further than this.  He tried to create fictional scenarios which would nonetheless act as practical illustrations of his theories.  These he laid out in a series of collected volumes that he labeled as Scientific Romances.  It's another one of those half-remembered phrases.  Hence the reason it takes the mind a second or two to maybe realize that Charles Howard Hinton, with his Romances of the Fourth Dimension, might just be one of the overlooked forerunners of the genre we now call Science Fiction.  And it just gets weirder from there.

The best way of summarizing a complex subject like this is to say that with Hinton's positing the existence of a Fourth Dimension to reality, he more or less opened a door onto a subject that later physicists such as Einstein, Schrodinger, and Eddington would make famous under its new title of the Theory of Relativity.  From there, it was off to the races, and hence we get ideas such as E = MC2, Tesseracts, and the Speed of Light.  In other words, say what you like about Alan Moore.  Even if he likes to get to all the trippy stuff as soon as possible, the interesting thing is the way he has of trying to ground most of his work in real life theorems and concepts.  It appears to be his way of trying to draw the reader's attention to a lot of Big Picture ideas, and hence help them to think about ideas like the Fourth Dimension in a way that makes it both easy to explain and understand, as well as acting as a spark for people's curiosity and imagination.  That's got to be an accomplishment of some kind. 

All this sounds fascinating as hell, though there's still one problem.  What on earth has any of this to do with Winsor McCay, and Little Nemo?  Well, that's where Smolderen's own take on the Fourth Dimension comes in.  In his graphic novel, he depicts a meeting between McCay and Charles Hinton, where the visiting physicist broaches the idea of Winsor helping him in trying to popularize his theories by creating an entire illustrated guide to the Fourth Dimension.  The idea sounds intriguing to McCay, of course, and there's a long, animated discussion of the idea.  The start of this very sequence itself is tantalizing from a historical perspective.  The Nemo strips were and remain as ground breakers for the way in which McCay was able to take the normal layout of a comics panel, and shift and morph it into all kinds of creative contortions.  His style and agility with this technique is such that he's now seen as one of the precursors to the Surrealist movement in the Arts.  I think a case can be made for his having earned this title, and its easy to see why a thinker like Hinton would want to enlist such a draftsmen in the service of trying to open the mind up to more than just the quotidian frame of reference.

I've tried to look around and see where Smolderen might have gotten any information on McCay's relation to Hinton and his theories.  The results I've been able to turn up are interesting as they are inconclusive.  The idea of the Fourth Dimension is brought up in relation to McCay is brought up in essays like Alan Moore and the Graphic Novel, where the idea is broached in terms of the way each author is able to use the comics medium to push against the boundaries of the regular two dimensions of the average strip panel.  It's something McCay was a natural at, and he's inspired others in his wake.  This concept is brought up again in various other studies of the artist, such as The Poetics of Slumberland, and Reid Mitenbuler's Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries that Inspired the Golden Age of Animation.  That last one is worth a look in its own right, and we may have to come back to it someday.  Right now, what's important to note is this shared sense of connection between McCay's work, and the idea of the Fourth Dimension.  It's this shared belief that's been put to dramatic use.

It's an interesting discovery to make because of the way it ties together two subjects which were already mind-bending in their own right.  By placing both together, it's like the fascination factor is doubled in the best possible way.  The frustrating part lies in still not knowing where it all comes from.  As a firm believer that the best way to reach a full understanding of an idea is to track its history all the way back to it's point of origin, there is nothing I've seen thus far that poses as great a challenge as trying to figure out the connection between McCay and the theoretical content of Hinton's writings.  The closest I seem to have got is with brief paragraph from the autobiography of an obscure author named Claude Bragdon.  He mentions McCay as a pioneer in the then nascent art of animation, and chalks this up to the development of the art form itself as proof of the discovery of the titular Fourth Dimension, which Bragdon labels "the Time dimension (49)".  What makes Bragdon's account stand out from all the others is that it's the earliest known written testimony linking McCay up with Hinton's theories.

It's not much, and it can't be said to bring us any closer to a definitive answer, yet it does the curious reader an actual service by providing something like a solid basis for Smolderen's choice to have the real life Hinton and McCay meet in the context of a fictional story.  It's not much to go on, yet it can be considered somewhere within the realm of possibility.  Like what if these two great minds of science and art met each other in real life?  What would that have been like?  Is it at all possible that McCay learned any of his later technique from Hinton's work on hyperspace?  Is this where McCay got the idea illustrating shifting spacial perspectives in his art?  The possibilities here become endless, and this is the point where the reader just wishes Smolderen would disclose where he got all this information.

As it plays out in the comic, Hinton gives his offer of illustrating his lecture for a mass audience to McCay, and its interesting to imagine what kind of a career he might have had if he'd accepted such a proposal.  Whatever might have been, Hinton makes one fatal mistake that evening.  After serving McCay his wife's own recipe of Welsh Rarebit, Hinton tries to demonstrate to Winsor the meaning of his ideas by first describing the idea of a hypercube, and then showing a technique he's learned in order to see into the Fourth Dimension.  Winsor tries this technique out for himself, and that's when things take a turn for the weird.  First the comic shows McCay entering this white void, in which the faint outlines of the character who will one day become Little Nemo appears to him.  After that Winsor snaps out of it in a panic attack and runs from the house in terror, vowing never to return.  From there, McCay's life seems to enter its more familiar pace.  He goes on to hone his style and craft, he creates Nemo and the Rarebit Fiend, and slowly draws his way to fame and immortality.

Part of the way he does this is by accident mixed with a bit of fortuitous happenstance.  It seems that back during his carnie days, McCay had this friend, Silas by name, who operated that proto-Tilt-a-Whirl once upon a bygone day, and great many beers ago.  He was a funny fellows, was old Silas.  As tight-lipped about his origins as Winsor was, and perhaps a bit more peculiar as well.  He had what you might call this anarchic streak in him, especially once he'd put more than a few away.  Then he'd go off about how one day he'd make the whole damn Gilded Age pay the piper, or something like that.  Well, got to give old Silas this much, at least.  He was a man of his word.  According to Smolderen, the last time McCay ever saw this individual was as he was taking a fatal fall from the top-most floor of a rich man's building that he'd set on fire himself.  When the up and coming illustrator learned of this, he surreptitiously began to sign a lot of his artwork under the pen name of Silas.  That last part appears to be true.  Turns out McCay really did sign a lot of his early efforts with just Silas for a byline.  As for where he might have got the idea in the first place, Smolderen has given us one possibility, though it's difficult to verify with anything like solid, conclusive evidence, another life enigma, I guess.

Then we move on to the glory years, and we catch glimpses of McCay interacting with the figures from the Slumberland comic strip in his dreams, and its here that Smolderen's own talent for artistic Surrealism comes to the fore.  Soon, however, he's contacted by Alicia Boole, Hinton's step-sister, who has the artist arrested on charges for the murder of her brother-in-law, only Winsor is able to prove his innocence, which prompts her to try and get him to help her further solve the mystery.  And pretty soon they're both contacting Williams Randolph Hearst, in order to prevent an assassination attempt on his life, from Winsor's old acquaintance Silas, who was able to discover the secret of unlocking the Fourth Dimension from Prof. Hinton, which is why Silas had to kill him, and ah, crap! I've just been reading a total work of fiction from start to finish here, haven't I!  And fell for it, hook, line, and sinker!

Conclusion: A Story Less Than the Sum of it's Ideas.

So, yeah, if you couldn't guess yet, this one turned out to be a surprise I wasn't looking for.  I began the work thinking I was going to be looking at an illustrated bio-drama of a real life artist.  Based on just a casual look at the cover, which featured McCay walking through one of the downside-up dream corridors that made him famous, and seeing as how the title was his own damn name, you could be forgiven for expecting to receive something you were never given.  So if we're not reading a biography, then it begs one important question.  The key piece of information we're looking for is whether or not Smolderen's little what-if fable has any way of justifying its existence?  As of this writing, I only wish he'd found an actual story to tell.  As it stands, the final product he's given his readers turns out to be little more than light-weight hack work.  I know how cutting that sounds, and yet the core of the problem is that once he introduces his main cast of characters and an overarching concept, he just can't seem to find anything truly creative to do with any of it.  It's a cardinal fault in a McCay oriented story.

I think the when writing about an artist like Winsor McCay, even if just to use him as a character in a fictional story, the artist sort of owes it to his audience to try and put in, or see if he can find that bit of extra effort which is able to put his main conceit over the top.  The reason to search for that extra mile is because McCay's work and his legacy are of the type that just sort of demand it, really.  Bringing him onboard is like giving the artist carte-blanche permission to let his imagination go as wild as possible.  Smolderen should have been looking for ways to twist the boundaries of his narrative into all kinds of dream logical twists and turns, without also ever getting caught in a knot.  The thing about the art of McCay is that it kind of presents every artist who came after him with a unique set of challenges.  It might be framed in the form of a question.  Are you willing to go as far as the imagination on display here demands?  Because nothing else will do, quite frankly.  You've got to find the type of story that is McCay's equal, on some level.  To be fair, this doesn't always have to mean scaling whatever sort of heights it was that the old timer discovered.  Parnassus doesn't always have to be the operative goal.

The potential artist can still begin and end his story in a secondary world with a solid sense of the mundane.  It's just that somewhere in between all that, you have to agree to take the audience on as much of a mind trip ride as possible, and its got to contain a working knowledge of the kind of ethereal enthusiasm and detail that McCay was known for.  This would also have gone on to determine how you handle things like plotting, and characterization.  Both elements have to be in place, otherwise no story could occur at all.  It's just that it has to be the type of character that's right for this type of story.  This is the personality you're likely to find in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland.  The writer had to not be afraid to let his protagonist act out in ways that are extraordinary, while still finding the right form of keeping a straight face throughout it all.  In other words, in a dream, the character has to confront a surreal situation, and treat it as if it were the most normal thing in the world.  It can be a tightrope even at the best of times, and some artists might never be able to reach those kinds of heights.  It's not the same as calling them bad at their job, just that their strengths don't necessarily run in that whole direction. 

I'm beginning to think that might be the case with Thierry Smolderen.  He's hit upon this idea of using Winsor McCay, along with C.H. Hinton and the Fourth Dimension.  That seems to have been the main springboard from which he took off.  Now, to be fair, as I've outlined above, it's easy to see how that kind of combination might be enough to suggest all kinds of creative possibilities.  The issue is Smolderen doesn't seem able to realize any one of them.  It's like there are two mindsets at work, and both are headed off in different directions.  The pairing of McCay with Hinton and his Dimensions is an idea looking for just the right stratosphere to take off into.  Smolderen, meanwhile, seems frustratingly earthbound in his notions.  The best he can come up with is some hackwork piece about Nemo's creator trying to stop an assassination attempt against another historical figure, without any sense of major stakes involved, and not much in the way of a fundamental reason to care about what's happening.  It's a pretty good sign that the reader has just entered the kiss of death territory for narrative purposes.

The worst part is that you can maybe see all the other possibilities left out there to explore, and the writer never even bothered to come close to so much as one of them.  Like, my own thinking is, if you're going to use McCay and Hinton in a story together, then it really is best to stick with a phantasmagorical, allegorical retelling of the graphic artist's own life.  This would be a narrative that tries to give the average reader a sense of who McCay is as a person, and how he came to be famous.  This would mean the potential writer should focus in on one or two defining moments in the life of the artist.  It should focus in on one or two major challenges, and of how the creation of Nemo and Slumberland are his way of overcoming adversities.  Hinton could still play a part of some kind in this alternate scenario.  Maybe McCay ran across a copy of his Fourth Dimension essay in real life and put it to good use.  Or else the artist could do like Smolderen, and posit the idea that they might have met, and that this encounter proved a valuable source that Winsor took inspiration from.  The point is that it has to be a story that reaches for the heights, because that, in essence is the story of Winsor McCay.

While being ostensibly grounded in real life, there would have to be passages, here and there which take place solely inside the mind of the artist.  For instance, a lot of the major scenes of this hypothetical drama would just feature Winsor exploring the inner landscape of Slumberland alongside Nemo, and both of them more or less learning as they go.  It's the type of scenario that, if done right, can prove to be both satisfying on a necessary dramatic level, while also managing to be true to real life on a symbolic one.  Now, to be fair, that idea of exploring the inner world of the imagination is something we do get snippets of, here and there.  We get images and sequences Winsor and Nemo having their initial meetings between creator and creation, and then we're treated to some very creative panels as Smolderen gives us McCay constructing Slumberland in response to the very challenge of Nemo's presence.  These sequences are perhaps the best moments out of the the entire affair.  As we're not just treated to a visual feast of near perfect recreations of McCay's style, yet when the moments occur, they do manage to give off a faint idea of who the man was as an artist, and the peculiar and beguiling spontaneity of his artistic process.  We get the impression of being in the presence of someone who is almost a natural daydreamer, and knows how to put it to practical use.

If it's moments like these when the comic comes alive, then sadly, the minute Smolderen leaves these vistas to focus in on the plot once more, all interest in what's happening on the page gets tossed out the window.  The idea of trying to foil an important assassination attempt is something of a trope in this modern age.  That's not to say it can't be done well, many forms of this type of storytelling can work just fine, depending on how they're told.  However, the major difficulty here is that even the basic concept doesn't mesh well by taking Winsor freakin McCay and tossing him into the blender with all the rest of the customary baggage this type of Noir oriented story demands.  The reason for that is because of the way each element amounts to an inevitable clash of styles.  McCay's works were always imaginative, and elaborate, with the greater focus always on exploring higher concepts in relation to human life.  The tale Smolderen has decided to work with, however, is what's known as a pot-boiler.  The plotting contains a lot of the more familiar beats associated with the Thriller genre, which means a plot that relies a lot more on action and suspense, whereas McCay's depend on a sense of open-ended wonder to achieve their effect.  Are you starting to get a sense of where the problem lays in all this?

Don't get me wrong, it is more than possible to write good action oriented fantasy.  Writer's like Tolkien, or other forgotten names like Harlan Ellison have shown time and again that it's possible to mesh the fantastic and the action plot together in a well crafted whole.  The trouble is not all of fantasy or science fiction can be made to fit into the particular mold that Smolderen is working with.  Tolkien and McCay are both fantasists, yet they don't write the exact same type of story.  Nor does it seem likely that McCay could succeed if he tried to put his hand to such endeavors.  I wouldn't expect him to pen a new sort of Ivanhoe, for example.  He always works best when letting a simple, fantastic scene play itself out.  Or if he does work with action, then its played out in a more abstracted, Surrealist way that defies logic, while at the same satisfying on the dramatic level.  Sadly, Smolderen's ambitions can never seem to reach as far as that.  His plot winds up earthbound, with not even the concept of the Fourth Dimension serving any greater purpose than as a neat plot device that can come in handy whenever the story requires it.  He can't even treat his own narrative with the kind of respect you'd find in a Stephen King novel, where the fantastic realm itself is approached with a mixture of dread and awe, and implied to be something far greater that dwarfs all human life.  It's an idea Smolderen should have noticed for his book.  It's also a consideration he can't seem to be bothered with all that much.

Instead, it's as if he shoved McCay and John D. MacDonald into a room, and told them to collaborate on a novel together.  The result is one of the most unfortunate and irreconcilable pairings in the history of graphic novels.  It wasn't until late in the game that I was reminded of another instance of where an author began with an interesting concept, and then found that he's not as good at realizing it as he wanted to be, especially if the idea is one that calls for a grander sense of scope.  I'm thinking, in particular, of Jon Baird's The Explorer's Guild, which I've previously gone over on this site.  What's remarkable is just how much Smolderen and Baird have in common.  Each of them begins with an intriguing premise (a book-length tribute to the adventure yarns of Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling in Baird's case; a story examining a potential link between Winsor McCay and the Fourth Dimension for Smolderen), and how each amounts to a similar dead end, with the story not even standing a chance.

In each case, we've got a great sense of ambition combined with a surfeit of whatever inspiration is necessary to carry it off.  In each case, the results have little choice except to be less than sterling.  I went into this book wanting to like it.  The problem is Smolderen just doesn't seem to have a proper grasp of his twin subjects, and hence no clear idea of the right kind of story that ought to be told about the sort of artist at the center of his story.  It's not at all a far possibility that a good, possibly even great graphic novel can be told about Nemo, Slumberland, and their creator.  Thierry Smolderen is not the one to deliver on it, however.  The ideal graphic novel on Winsor is probably still out there somewhere, and its eventual publication is something to keep hoping for.  In the meantime, however, I'm afraid its always possible to do better than an abortive product like the graphic novel known simply as McCay.  

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