Who wants yesterday’s papers? So the young, petulant Rolling Stones demanded as if they always knew that they were destined to rival death and taxes. What was then evanescent now seems obsolete. Who wants today’s? The president is hardly the only fellow who’s got no use for the daily press. Hardly a morning goes by that you can’t find an obit for the American newspaper—not just posted online but written on the old fish wrap as well.
Wildly poignant, then, and almost utopian, to revisit the period, more or less a century ago, when five-cent Sunday papers competed to provide disposable art for the masses. Yesterday’s trash, tomorrow’s treasure: Peter Maresca’s Little Nemo in Slumberland: Splendid Sundays, a spectacular centennial celebration of cartoonist Winsor McCay’s magnum opus, painstakingly restored, presented in authentic hues and blatantly uncommercial full broadsheet format, exemplifies the old Marshall McLuhan paradigm by which an obsolete form is transformed into an objet d’art.
The full-color Sunday funnies were born in the late 1890s, and with McCay (1867–1934), they produced their greatest exponent. Born in the Midwest, he spent eight years working in a Cincinnati dime museum before becoming a newspaper cartoonist; in 1903, he entered the big time, joining The New York Herald. McCay had almost no formal art education, but he was a master of perspective and an extraordinary draftsman. (He was also a prodigious workhorse who almost incidentally pioneered the American animated cartoon: Fantagraphics’ newly reissued Daydreams and Nightmares: The Fantastic Visions of Winsor McCay provides a career overview, complete with writings.)
Little Nemo in Slumberland transformed the funnies page into an Arabian tapestry of organic forms, sinuous lines, and overall patterning—complete with proto-cinematic sequential action, predicated on meticulously calculated cycles of transformation and growth. For Nemo, McCay invented a sort of native art nouveau—an American vernacular filled with trick angles, distortive mirrors, and playfully deranged scale—that drew on Alphonse Mucha and the vogue for japonaiserie, carnival posters, and Coney Island. Not even the summer of love San Francisco Oracle at its most convolutedly psychedelic could equal that visionary splendor. Never has newsprint been more exalted. McCay’s fantastic succession of ice caves and Italian palaces, jungle islands, Manhattan shantytowns, and Martian landscapes—it survives to be enshrined by Maresca, in part because people refused to throw it away.
To leaf through Maresca’s unwieldy tome—you’ll need a table, if not an artist’s easel—isn’t to read McCay’s images so much as dive into their depths. It’s a wondrously disorienting experience for which Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano’s The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898–1911) provides necessary context. No less obsessive than Maresca, Baker—the novelist and anti-microfilm crusader—managed to raise the money to rescue the last extant bound volumes of The World, de-accessioned by the British Library.
Page through Baker and Brentano’s more manageable volume and you’ll appreciate that while McCay was the greatest of funny-page virtuosos, he was by no means alone. The World on Sunday is a feast of wonderfully inventive disposable art—a page devoted to abstract Easter egg patterns or “New York’s Newest Wonder” (the subway), two-page spreads rendering every Manhattan building owned by the Astor family, an aerial view of the then-under-construction Panama Canal, or what might happen “If a Great Earthquake Shook New York.” (And then it did . . . )
The notion of such fin de siécle graphic splendor as a local mode—the multi-hued fruit of the Pulitzer-Hearst circulation war—was advanced in 2004 by Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. Spiegelman also used the broadsheet format, albeit folded, to elaborate on his own experience of September 11, 2001. By way of an appendix, he provided an appropriate selection of hundred-year-old funny pages—including one by McCay—that featured collapsing skyscrapers and Arab chieftains, and were mainly produced two blocks from, if a century before, the crater known as ground zero.
The trauma that the city suffered liberated its ghosts. The prolonged death throes of the newspaper are apparently doing the same.