Review time! with ‘McCay’

“You make me stumble, make me blind, time after time and line by line”

Winsor McCay is, of course, one of the greatest cartoonists who ever lived, and while I don’t know a lot about his life, his art itself makes it seem like he’d be ripe for fictionalization, as the strips he created are quite strange and beautiful and even somewhat eerie. So now we get McCay, a graphic novel about his life that uses some actual events and spins a weird yarn that would fit perfectly into his strips. It’s published by Titan Comics and is written by Thierry Smolderen and drawn by Jean-Philippe Bramanti. Master translator Edward Gauvin is on hand to render it into English, because of course it was published in French before it came here. Those French and their sophistication! You can find it below at the link provided, where it’s only 30 dollars as opposed to the 50-dollar price tag on the book, and remember, if you use that link for anything, I get a little piece of the action. So thanks in advance!

Anyway, McCay is an unusual comic. Apparently many of the events in the book are taken from McCay’s actual life, and others are extrapolated from events that could have happened due to the participants’ proximity and mutual interests. Even the strange ending of the book, I guess, has some basis in fact, although obviously it’s fictional. McCay is shown as meeting and being influenced by Charles Hinton, a mathematician who was influential in the ideas about the fourth dimension (he coined the word “tesseract”), and Smolderen makes a compelling case that someone like McCay would be fascinated by Hinton’s theories, even if in this comic, Hinton’s theories are far more outlandish than they were in real life. Hinton believes people can pass into the “fourth dimension,” and McCay, it seems, is adept at this, although it’s not clear if it’s something innate or something he practices. The first time he does it, he does it almost be accident, but he also tries to do what Hinton says, so perhaps it’s a combination of his fertile imagination and hard work, as he becomes much better at it over the years. The main plot of the book concerns a man named Silas, whom McCay meets in Detroit in 1889 and who becomes his bête noire, even though Silas dies in 1893. McCay signed his comic strip “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” with the name “Silas” because he wasn’t allowed to produce work under his real name for a different newspaper than the one he was contracted to, and Smolderen turns that name into a real person, one who vexes McCay even if McCay doesn’t realize it. Even William Randolph Hearst makes an appearance in the book, as McCay went to work for him in 1911, but his presence in the book is much more part of the grand plot. Someone is trying to kill Hearst, and McCay is the only one who can stop it!!!!

The assassination plot is obviously the driving force of the book, but it’s not really the point. Smolderen is much more interested in examining McCay’s work and the way he evolved and the strangeness of both “Rarebit Fiend” and “Little Nemo” and how they relate to Hinton’s idea of a fourth dimension. McCay can travel into the fourth dimension through a mirror, and this idea of reversal is a way for Smolderen to dig into the murder plot. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth was a period when anarchism flourished in the United States (and worldwide), and Silas has to idea to destroy society, to reverse the positions of everyone in society. Science was king in those days, and people like Hinton could speculate while anarchists like Silas could claim that they were trying to order politics based on scientific principles, and even someone like McCay could tie imagination to science. Early on, another artist talks about how much trouble he’s having with perspective, and that little moment reveals the idea that art can be taught, which Silas rejects. Silas believes in anarchy, naturally, which means a society with no rules, but in his mind, scientific rationalism will be enough to order society. McCay is an example of the two thoughts being linked – he’s a master draughtsman, obviously, one of the most talented artists in the medium ever, but he’s also able to access that madness of imagination, which allows his strips to dig deep into the unconscious of humanity and bring up some troubling images. McCay is able to travel in the fourth dimension, but he is not “infected” with the madness he finds there. The implication is that Silas has been changed somehow in the fourth dimension, but McCay takes what he finds there and turns it into art, while Silas can only turn it into violence.

There’s a lot of other things going on in the book, as well. McCay has an affair with a liberated woman, whose own history shows how much woman were struggling with the way society treated them. The new technology of animation is part of the book, too, and how it affects our perception of art. Hinton’s ideas of the fourth dimension force McCay and others to consider how they even perceive the world and what else might exist in the world. McCay, of course, is defending the status quo in the book, and that’s one place where Smolderen doesn’t tread – whether or not McCay is doing the right thing. Yes, he’s saving lives, but does the structure of society itself deserve to be preserved? McCay is apolitical in the book, existing in the realm of psychology, and Smolderen never questions whether or not he’s on the “right” side. It’s a minor point because the book isn’t a political thriller, but Smolderen himself brings politics into the book, so it’s curious that he doesn’t dig a bit deeper on it.

Bramanti does nice work on the book, although the few instances we see of McCay’s actual art don’t help it (it’s not Bramanti’s fault; as I noted, McCay is among the best cartoonists EVER). He uses thick lines without a lot of hatching, which makes the art look a bit rough, but it also keeps the images fairly clean. This helps when McCay goes into the fourth dimension, as it’s not so fantastical that it takes the reader out of the story, and it’s clear enough to be slightly bizarre and “off-register” from the real world. Bramanti knows what he’s doing – the landscapes are often painfully beautiful, like his rendition of the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 or of Hearst Castle (which is technically an anachronism, as Hearst didn’t start building it until 1919, after the book is over, but it’s still beautifully done). Bramanti’s art looks rougher because of the way he colors the book, with smudgy paints and heavy blacks that make everything look a bit dirtier, which makes the bright panels stand out a bit more. When McCay is in the fourth dimension, Bramanti often uses more delicate colors, and it’s interesting to note the contrast. The coloring also makes everything a bit messier, as Bramanti often uses just a few lines and fills everything in with colors, so that the “real world” is couched in shadows and indistinct, while we get some very precise linework in the fourth dimension, a realm that is simpler than the “real world” and is therefore sharper. It’s an interesting comic to look at – on first glance it might seem sloppy, but as you go through the book, it becomes much more fascinating.

McCay is a very neat comic, full of weird ideas and a pretty keen plot, all wrapped around a compelling (if fictional) portrait of a brilliant cartoonist. It doesn’t just plop Winsor McCay in the middle of a generic story, as Smolderen uses things that we can glean from McCay’s comics to place him in an interesting world, full of odd possibilities and devious characters. Even if you don’t know much about McCay (and I didn’t coming into the book), it’s still a gripping tale. So check out the link below if you’re interested!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆


  1. Simon

    – “it was published in French”

    SFX: DM audience leaving.

    – “Charles Hinton, a mathematician”

    Mostly of FROM HELL fame nowadays, heh. (Though also influential on parts of 1963.)

    – “Someone is trying to kill Hearst […] obviously the driving force of the book”

    Isn’t that reductive, being just the last part of a story spanning two decades? Someone is committing a series of impossible crimes, culminating in a plot against Hearst. (Also, why spoil who’s trying to kill him?)

    – “makes the art look a bit rough”

    As one can hardly compete with McCay (unless they’re David Chelsea or maybe Tillie Walden), doesn’t it make sense they’d go with a decidely non-pastiche, more artsy style?

    – “Even if you don’t know much about McCay”

    Key point. Most books of that sort seem to either be some generic adventure with Bankable Person as ready-made action hero, or some opaque and boring fanfic. Not so for this one.

  2. Simon

    . SPOILER for McCAY!


    Well, you write, “Silas has been changed somehow in the fourth dimension” (spoiling he’s the other 4D dweller and thus the mysterious antagonist), and, “The main plot of the book concerns a man named Silas” (before describing that grand plot as the Hearst murder). Add to this a large emphasis on Silas and his ways, even though we’re supposed to read him as a secondary character with an early death…

    It seems too bad because you get it right with discussing the one using his 4D power as inspiration versus the one using it for crimes, but you spoil the later as “Silas” rather than “the mysterious criminal performing impossible thefts and murders” or something. Dunno, maybe it’s from knowing the answer, but doesn’t it read like a possible spoiler?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.