Bob's Comics Reviews November 1996 Arrows


Winsor McCay: Little Nemo; Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend
You've probably seen and admired panels of Little Nemo, but have you read it? It's never been easier, now that the whole series is collected in large all-color volumes from Fantagraphics.

In ninety years no one has equalled McCay's strange combination of breathtaking visuals, hyperprecise draftsmanship, and evocative dreams, from exhilaration to nightmare (often both on one page). And in that time not many have touched so close to our nerves, or for that matter played so boisterously with the medium. (In one sequence the characters, famished, eat the strip's logo; in another, Flip meets Nemo's parents, who ask him, nonchalantly but surrealistically, if he's the boy they've seen in the paper.)

Moebius comes close, but his nightmares tend to be mere horrors, and his warriors and spacemen and detectives are suited to them-- Little Nemo is lost in Slumberland. Jim Woodring is just as gorgeous and more inscrutable, but McCay's range strikes me as greater (and that's saying a lot; there's a lot to Woodring), and he's more accessible. And Bill Watterson has a similar spirit of childish fantasy-- and knows that the dreams of children are rarely wholesome-- but he didn't have the space McCay had to play in, nor apparently McCay's seemingly endless reserves of invention.

The basic setup never varies: six-year-old Nemo dreams the week's adventures, then wakes up in the last panel. Nemo is supposed to be the playmate of the Princess of Slumberland; but for months he can't even get near her; the various emissaries and monsters sent to fetch him send him on arduous treks that invariably turn into disturbing disasters.

Maurice Sendak, obviously a kindred spirit, analyzed it well: the constant refrain of the Slumberlanders ("You'll like this, Nemo!") is hogwash; at any moment the beautiful buildings and King Morpheus's saccharine minions may turn to nightmare and dreams of death. And the princess, no matter how adoringly talked about, is a complete drag-- the strip slows to a crawl whenever she's around.

In the years of the strip Nemo experiences all the whims a master fantasist can think up and display in full newspaper pages: Alice -like distortions of size and shape, metamorphosing landscapes, upside-down buildings, walking or sinking beds, forests of mushrooms or crystal that shatter at a touch. Nemo is frozen into an icycle, flooded, turned into a 99-year-old man, put into cannibals' pots, chased by giants and wild animals, put on display in an ape-run zoo. The underground cartoonists were rarely so hard on their heroes.

And that gorgeous drawing... if you want acres of palaces, or house-sized monsters, or funhouse-mirror distortions, McCay's your man. And he has tricks that few have deployed since, such as printing the main lines of the drawing in blue or red for special effects.

There are imperfections. As noted, Slumberland itself is pretty but a bit dull, and it's too given to parades-- but fortunately, the Slumberland sequences account for no more than a quarter of the strips. The famous 'Shantytown' sequence shows McCay's heart in the right place, but his brain unengaged (Nemo just cures the ills of Shantytown by magic). And the word balloons are always a problem-- small, cramped, and sometimes placed backwards, the one technical aspect of cartooning that betrays the strip's age.

Rarebit Fiend explores the world of adult dreams, and still, ninety years later, it's inventive, wicked, and completely modern. An added treat is the early-20C slang; it's so far out it's in.

Howard Cruse: Stuck Rubber Baby

This is one of those Important Cartoon Works Everyone Must Read, and now that the TPB is out at $14, there's no good excuse not to.

It's a rich, deep, and serious work, as far above most comics in aim and execuation as a John Sayles movie is above a Jim Carrey vehicle. It has a large and interesting cast, fine writing, a hyper-meticulous drawing style; and above all it builds a slow confrontation between the reader and the horrors that lie underneath American history, as well as all too much of the present: in particular, the oppression of blacks and of gays and lesbians. And when I say oppression I don't mean somebody calling you names; I mean gangs coming after you late at night with knives, guns, and nooses.

In these days when issues of race and racism never move far off the front page, it's surprising how little consciousness there is of what the civil rights movement was, or of the world that provoked it, simultaneously brutal and sanctimonious. People dare to smear mud on the word 'liberal' today; people whose ideological precursors were furiously opposing equal rights for blacks, forming 'White Citizen's Councils', explaining that colored people would be happy with a second-class existence if it weren't for Communist agitators; and who, when control of government, police and the economy did not suffice, resorted to naked terrorism.

Cruse is never as rhetorical as I am here; he is content to show rather than lecture. His protagonist, Toland-- you can't exactly call him a hero-- deals with the civil rights movement, Southern bigotry, and his own gayness (which he denies as long as possible).

(The story is fiction, not autobiography; by the way. Cruse is gay, and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, but his story is not Toland's.)

The moral portraits are nuanced. The KKK types are here, and are terrifying. But the more 'decent' Southerners are here as well-- Toland's father, well-meaning but full of misimpressions of Negroes; his mother, who makes him take a bath after he and a black child have the idea of exchanging clothes; his brother-in-law, who disapproves of violence but can't find a good word for anyone in the civil rights movement; the Episcopal pastor, who denounces racism but isn't ready to take a stand for gays; the local college kids, cheerfully oblivious to the epochal struggle going on downtown. (One type, painfully familiar from my own reading on the period, is missing: the sympathetic Northerner who disapproves only of Southern racism. Many supported Dr. King till he came to their own cities; or listened sympathetically to white speakers denouncing racism, while ignoring blacks who said the same things. And they always worried that Dr. King was moving too fast.)

All that said, Baby is not a completely satisfying work. The problem, I think, is at the book's center, with the character of the narrator. Toland is basically a drip, a nice guy who by his own admission is only at the periphery of the civil rights movement, and who can usually be counted on, when the moment comes, to fall short. Of course, part of his problem is that he's in the closet; but others end up suffering for this more than he does. And the one moment where he does the right thing-- publically admits his own sexuality-- comes too late, and is given short shrift.

The drawing style also gets in the way a bit. Cruse is going a bit beyond himself here: he does beautiful and elaborately rendered scenes, but he's no anatomy wiz... check out the full-length figures on p. 94, or the minimality of the occasional nudes-- wonderfully cross-hatched, but without much more indication of underlying muscle and bone than a cartoon. The faces are a little strange-- everybody has huge chins-- and rather inexpressive, especially compared to the boisterous distortions of Cruse's Dancin' Nekkid with the Angels. The same could be said for the layout. And why must every flashback be shown with wavy panel boundaries?

The framing device also gets annoying. Toland's future partner make wisecrack remarks that at first are amusing but ultimately sound completely false: the story of your lover's life, especially one including several deaths, a lost child, and a coming out experience linked with guilt and tragedy, is not a matter for cute asides. The main problem with the device, however, is that nothing is ever done with it. We get no sense that Toland's unburdening has any effect at all in his life or that of his relationship.

But let's not end on a downer. Critics can't resist the temptation to tinker-- we couldn't have written it, but we're sure we could have improved it if the author would only have listened. But our main task should always be to tell you whether a book is worth reading; and I assure you that this one is. Cruse has shown (for anyone who hasn't read Maus, or Joe Sacco, or Jaime Hernandez) that comics can tackle anything a novel can. (Not that mainstream American novelists these days are interested in anything as large-scaled as Stuck Rubber Baby. But that's another story.)

back to Metaverse