Sammy Sneeze, Little Nemo - rescuing their comic creator

America ``still doesn't take its great fantasists all that seriously,'' insists author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, in the foreword to John Canemaker's Winsor McCay - His Life and Art (Abbeville Press, $49.95). Sendak is right - otherwise, why have we had to wait for more than 50 years for a biography of Winsor McCay?

And why are we still waiting for a major retrospective of McCay's work - as Canemaker points out at the end of his engrossing study of the life and art of this largely forgotten American master of the comic strip and animated film?

For more than a decade, starting in 1905, McCay was one of the most famous of popular artists. He drew incessantly and obsessively.

In a few brief years, he produced an astounding series of comic strips at the New York Herald - and later, at William Randolph Hearst's American - among them, ``Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend,'' ``Little Sammy Sneeze,'' and his masterpiece, ``Little Nemo in Slumberland.''

In the weekly dream adventures of Little Nemo, McCay broke all the conventions about how a comic strip should look. He sent the Sunday funnies soaring to a new height with Nemo as he took the little boy in an airship to Mars or galloping through the streets of a city on his bed, which grows gigantic, rubbery legs for this most surrealistic of occasions. Canemaker has included a number of these graphic gems, both in black and white and glorious full color. They still have the power to leave us breathless and amazed.

Had McCay done only this one comic strip, it would have been enough. But, ever restless, he went on to become one of the principal innovators of the animated film. He produced a series of path-breaking cartoons that culminated in his incomparable ``Gertie the Dinosaur'' (1914), in which McCay brought a huge, friendly brontosaurus to life as part of his popular vaudeville act. For his finale, in what must have been an astonishing special effect at the time, he had the animated Gertie pick him up in her mouth and carry him triumphantly off the stage.

McCay regarded animation as an art and, in 1927, warned his fellow animators against ``making it into a trade.'' Of course, no one listened. Though other animators paid lip service to McCay, only Walt Disney, the supreme commercializer of the art, acknowledged how much he owed to McCay's genius. ``All of this,'' Disney reportedly told McCay's son, Robert, referring to the Disney studios in the 1940s, ``should be your father's.''

But it wasn't, and that is the other, poignant side of McCay's life that Canemaker tells in rich detail.

He describes him as a physically ``small man possessed of a large artistic gift whose output was superhuman; the master of fantasy who developed a social conscience ... the shy and private man who loved to perform on stage ... the man who earned a fortune but lacked the business acumen to keep it; the visionary who never thought far enough ahead to provide substantial protection for himself in old age or his family after his death.''

And perhaps most enigmatic of all is the question of how the quiet, mild-mannered McCay could have produced such utterly remarkable and frequently disquieting fantasies.

Having stated them, Canemaker does not try to neatly resolve these paradoxes of personality and the artistic process. Who can?

They are among the mysteries of both life and art, and Canemaker wisely lets them be.

His intention, instead, is to rescue McCay and his work from the obscure back closet of our cultural consciousness.

In that, he has thoroughly succeeded.

John Cech teaches children's literature at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He is writing a book about Maurice Sendak and his work.

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