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Wide Awake in Slumberland

Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay

Katherine Roeder
M. Thomas Inge General Editor
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Wide Awake in Slumberland
    Book Description:

    Cartoonist Winsor McCay (1869-1934) is rightfully celebrated for the skillful draftmanship and inventive design sense he displayed in the comic stripsLittle Nemo in SlumberlandandDream of the Rarebit Fiend. McCay crafted narratives of anticipation, abundance, and unfulfilled longing. This book explores McCay's interest in dream imagery in relation to the larger preoccupation with fantasy that dominated the popular culture of early twentieth-century urban America.

    McCay's role as a pioneer of early comics has been documented; yet, no existing study approaches him and his work from an art historical perspective, giving close readings of individual artworks while situating his output within the larger visual culture and the rise of modernism. From circus posters and vaudeville skits to department store window displays and amusement park rides, McCay found fantastical inspiration in New York City's burgeoning entertainment and retail districts.Wide Awake in Slumberlandconnects McCay's work to relevant children's literature, advertising, architecture, and motion pictures in order to demonstrate the artist's sophisticated blending and remixing of multiple forms from mass culture.

    Studying this interconnection in McCay's work and, by extension, the work of other early twentieth-century cartoonists, Roeder traces the web of relationships connecting fantasy, leisure, and consumption. Readings of McCay's drawings and the eighty-one black and white and color illustrations reveal a man who was both a ready participant and an incisive critic of the rising culture of fantasy and consumerism.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-011-2
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-1)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 3-15)

    A young, tousled-haired boy about the age of six is sitting upright in his bed, ensconced in a non-descript, middle-class bedroom (fig. 1.1). His sleep has been interrupted by the appearance of a green-faced clown, deeply bowing before him in a top hat and tails, and imploring the youngster to travel with him to an enchanted, faraway kingdom. And with that solemn yet magical entreaty, so begins Winsor McCay’s epic comic strip adventure,Little Nemo in Slumberland.

    In the daily and Sunday editions of American newspapers, McCay created elaborate narratives of anticipation, abundance, and unfulfilled longing. His comics redefined the...

  5. 2 Exploding Boys and Hungry Girls
    (pp. 17-43)

    Winsor McCay is best known to contemporary audiences as the artist responsible forLittle Nemo in SlumberlandandDream of the Rarebit Fiend, his two longest-running and most widely reproduced comic strips. However, McCay’s first truly successful weekly series for theNew York Heraldwas a comic strip calledLittle Sammy Sneeze, which debuted on July 24, 1904. The newspaper’s art department had recruited McCay less than a year prior, in the fall of 1903. Upon his move to New York, McCay’s first efforts for the company included editorial cartoons and news illustrations for both theHeraldand theNew...

  6. 3 Picturing Boyhood
    (pp. 45-77)

    On October 15, 1905, Winsor McCay introduced readers of theNew York HeraldtoLittle Nemo in Slumberland. In the serial’s debut, and in the weeks to follow, Nemo repeatedly attempted to reach the enchanted kingdom of Slumberland, only to have the journey preempted when he awakened and found himself safely at home in his bed. It was an ideal subject for a weekly comic in that the curtailed narrative induced readers to purchase the next installment. Such literature also taught its young readers an appreciation for the pleasures of both fantasy and delayed gratification. It is well established that...

  7. 4 Popular Amusement for All
    (pp. 79-117)

    As Little Nemo slumbers he descends into a world rife with all manner of beasts, from lions and tigers to elephants and giraffes. He visits the upside down funhouse of Befuddle Hall, with its distorting mirrors and trick staircases. He encounters the endlessly receding columns of King Morpheus’s palace. As one writer described it in 1907, “His imaginary geography, with its startling fauna and flora and the strange inhabitants possess such a strange, logical coherence in their topsy-turviness as to almost convince you that somewhere they really exist.”¹ And yet, despite its otherworldliness, the fantastic landscapes and exotic animals of...

  8. 5 Strategies and Techniques of the Advertiser
    (pp. 119-151)

    Writing in 1907, a Boston journalist delighted in describing how seasonal decorations transformed a local department store, noting that “artistic decorators and electricians have been engaged more than a week in completing a transformation which makes the interior of Gilchrist Company’s great store look like a dream-view of fairy land.”¹ As I discussed in earlier chapters, fantasy and whimsy were strategically deployed throughout the commercial environment of the early twentieth century—in department stores, world’s fairs, amusement parks, and within the pages of the funny papers, as a way of enticing casual onlookers and cultivating consumer desire. This delicate marriage...

  9. 6 The Marriage of Humor and Anxiety
    (pp. 153-182)

    Whereas the exuberant fantasia that isLittle Nemo in Slumberlandarguably contributed to the rising consumerist aesthetic, McCay explored the darker side of dreaming inDream of the Rarebit Fiend. Directed at a sophisticated, adult audience, each comic features an anonymous person caught in a nightmare induced by overindulgence. As inLittle Nemo, every episode ends the same way, with the protagonist awake in bed in the final frame, suddenly aware that the preceding scenes were but a dream. Whereas Nemo occasionally finds himself in difficult positions in his dreams, the personal danger does not compare to that of the...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 183-196)

    In the end we come to find a confused little boy in his nightshirt, with wild hair and wide-awake eyes. He is caught up in his bed sheets, sprawled acrobatically upon the floor with legs splayed. Sometimes his mother or another family member appears—sometimes he calls out in the night, “Oh! I’m all right Mama. I was only dreaming.” This image fills the final panel of every episode ofLittle Nemo in Slumberland, signifying the inevitable return to normalcy. It provides a sense of containment as well as a definitive end to the brilliant fantasia preceding it. The comic...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 197-210)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-216)
  13. Index
    (pp. 217-221)