AT the turn of the century, the early funny pages and comic strips in newspapers were heavy on lowbrow, slapstick humor. Funny hats on funnier heads was the rule, and they were careless of ethnic sensitivities. Violent humor idealized mischief, behind a thin veil of sermonizing. ZAP, PLOP, and ZOWIE signified the gentle conclusions to those knockdown, drag-out entertainments, the salt and pepper in America's popular cultural stew. In contrast was one little fellow who slept through the mayhem on the other pages. Little Nemo, about six years of age, was put through a full routine of classic dream imagery by his creator, cartoonist Winsor McCay. Unlike the mischievous Katzenjammer Kids, Nemo was good - a beautifully innocent dreamer.

He started his dreams in 1905, and they were all magic and fantasy - though McCay often used adult irony in the dialogue that appealed to all age groups. Each week Little Nemo in Slumberland was joined in his adventures by a fanciful cast: Flip, a green-faced clown, plus one cannibal, one Dr. Pill, one lovely Princess, numerous Kings and Queens, dozens of animals, countless indescribable creatures and many, many policemen. They cavorted on trains, flew in dirigibles, slid down endless banisters, always surrounded and backgrounded by a sort of Byzantium at Coney Island, with the rococo and the ridiculous superbly drawn, and a use of perspective that sent the two-dimensional picture plane sailing off into the imagination. Happily, Nemo always woke up from his predicament by falling out of bed.

Nemo slumbered across a full Sunday page in delightful color. Today, cartoonists study these pages and weep into their inkwells. World War II shortages cropped the comics, and the full-size page never returned.

On Oct. 18, 1896, to be exact, the editors of a New York paper modestly announced that they would start to print ``eight pages of polychromatic effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe.'' Well, as a matter of fact, that is just what they did. Winsor McCay's Little Nemo pages were the best ever, outstanding for their ornamental, colorful richness. Figures were heavily outlined in his Art Nouveau-like line - it is McCay's clarity of line that is so American, in this very American medium. The realistic drawing becomes fantasy before our eyes, the well-composed panels changing from yellow to green, blue green to blue, on to reds and violets, reflecting the psychedelic charms and charges of Nemo's dream world.

McCay was born with a drawing pencil in his mouth. A small, dapper man, always fashionably dressed, he was a horse for work, 18 hours at a stretch, and he seems to have escaped family problems and unpleasantness when he was at his drawing board, wearing, as always, his hat. His overwhelming compulsion to draw from childhood on had been his real teacher. When he did get his first newspaper art job, he covered parades and events, recording everything with great detail, aided by his photographic memory. One artist remembers watching him draw an elaborate Nemo page, and was amazed that McCay was not working from any kind of reference material. He drew out of his head, and the drawings have a feeling like those old illuminated books with elaborate capital letters and rubrics and those ornately illustrated editions of Grimm and Andersen. The figures are kinetic and have the energy he was to realize in his brilliant animation work.

On top of the job of making Nemo dream weekly, McCay undertook the thousands of drawings needed to animate his film ideas. Of his animated cartoons, ``Gertie the Dinosaur'' of 1914 is the most famous. He had done vaudeville ``chalk talk'' acts for years, a shy man who loved to perform, and with ``Gertie'' he developed an unusual act, where he pretended to make the dinosaur perform for him as he cracked his whip in front of the movie screen. His multimedia act was a great success and he traveled with ``Gertie'' for years. Today, his work is still featured and honored at animation festivals, and after more than 70 years, they are often the best work shown.

McCay's third area of work was editorial cartooning, besides illustration and comic strips other than Nemo. Hamstrung by publisher William Randolph Hearst, his editorial work toward the end of his life was as well drawn as ever, but the heavy hand of an editor showed through all too often.

The painter Lyonel Feininger, as a young man, did fine comic pages from Germany for American papers at the same time Nemo came along. His work, and the art of George Herriman with his ``Krazy Kat,'' are the two artists in the same class as McCay.

Winsor McCay was the complete draftsman designer, the hardworking-on-deadline newspaper artist who surprises us as we review what he did, showing his successors (including Walt Disney) how it should be done, and that it could be done with artistry.

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