Imagine you'd grown up admiring films like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey but had only been able to see them on a medium-sized television screen. Or you'd always loved the Ode to Joy but had only been able to hear it on a boombox or a small radio.
Now imagine seeing the films at a top-line movie theater with a big screen and excellent sound, or hearing Ode to Joy in a concert hall with a great chorus and a superb orchestra. Sheer physical impact is a legitimate artistic tool. Any work of art has its value regardless of the way it's presented, but for some things, proper scale is needed to put across the necessary feeling of grandeur.
Bear this in mind when I say that even though I've admired Winsor McCay and his fanciful comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland just about all of my conscious life, the new book Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays makes me feel I'm looking at McCay's pioneering artwork for the very first time. In its quiet way, this book took me back to the afternoon at the movie palace when the planets all lined up on the screen and the low rumble on the soundtrack surged into the triumphant Also Sprach Zarathustra, or the breathtaking transition when Peter O'Toole blew out a burning match and the immense screen at the Ziegfeld erupted into a blazing desert sunrise. I'm not saying that So Many Splendid Sundays is how Little Nemo ought to be seen. I'm saying this is how it has to be seen.
So Many Splendid Sundays does something that is both very simple and very difficult — it reproduces the strips in the exact same 16-inch by 21-inch size readers of the New York Herald would have seen them in 1905, albeit on heavier paper stock than tissue-thin newsprint. One result is that So Many Splendid Sundays is a coffee table book that's bigger than many coffee tables. Another is that the reader finally gets to enter and appreciate the meticulously detailed empire of dreams that Winsor McCay created for his audience. There have been other beautiful and lovingly compiled collections of McCay's work, but all of them reduced the size of his panels — often drastically. Those books gave you a seat way back in the theater. So Many Splendid Sundays puts you in the front row as Yo-Yo Ma runs his fingers up and down the cello. It makes for an expensive book, needless to say.
McCay (1867-1935) wasn't the first comic strip artist, but he was certainly the first great one. In a section of the newspaper reserved for raucous slapstick acts like The Yellow Kid, McCay offered surrealistic dreamscapes and immense halls of glass, all rendered with a master draughtsman's eye for composition and layout. Blessed with a quick hand and cursed by a constant need for money, McCay also produced a stream of separate comics (most notably Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, produced under a pseudonym for a rival paper) and editorial cartoons.