Winsor McCay Lives! The Little Nemo Meets Carousel Event In New York

A few weeks ago, I attended the opening reception for Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream's exhibit opening at the Society of Illustrators in New York and it was a lovely event I published about here on Bleeding Cool. With the original artwork from the massively successful Kickstarter-funded and massive in size tome Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream on the walls of the Society building, as well as orignal Winsor McCay art to accompany it, until March 28th, the Philadelphia-based team on the book out of Locust Moon Comics and the New York-based institution of performance comics, Carousel, teamed up in an ingenious match for an event on March 14th.

carousel-Little-Nemo-March-2015Contributors to the volume were brought in to the Society that Saturday afternoon to perform their comics in homage to Winsor McCay using projection screens, including: Maëlle Doliveux, Maria Hoey, Adriano Moraes, Dave Proch, Andrea Tsurumi, Ronald Wimberly, and Dean Haspiel by proxy. Carousel founder R. Sikoryak hosted the event. The book's editor Josh O'Neill was also in attendance.

IMG_9346Before the performances began, however, and also after they concluded, the large number of attendees were treated to something that I can only describe as magical and transformative, something that has altered the way I see comics and really informed my knowledge of the medium. Animation historian and Oscar-winning filmmaker, as well as McCay biographer John Canemaker was present to give us an historical introduction to the works of Winsor McCay, context for McCay's work in vaudeville, and to screen, playing the interactive "part" of McCay, the animator's film Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). I had never seen this film before, though I had heard of it, and the version that Canemaker screened for us included the introductory silent film scenes of McCay and other cartoonists in New York visiting the Natural History Museum and staging a "bet" that McCay couldn't bring a dinosaur to life.

IMG_9350As Canemaker explained, this introductory segment was filmed for the screening of the film in theaters, whereas when McCay "performed" Gertie on stages, he provided this narrative himself. The fact that McCay was already a "world famous" cartoonist at that time and was venturing into what Canemaker called "multimedia presentations" is fascinating. Canemaker joked that by projecting an animated feature onto a screen behind him and interacting with it in live performance, McCay was using a "prehistoric ipad" (pun intended, I believe). The title card for the film, by the way, pronounced McCay to be "America's greatest cartoonist", a title card which he wrote, but his claims are hard to gainsay given the past couple of years of renewed McCay fervor.

IMG_9351For those who haven't seen Gertie, a version of which you can view here, the animated pet dinosaur emerges from her cave-home beside a lake to take orders and interact with a person, ostensibly McCay (and at our performance Canemaker) in a way that makes her appear alive and responsive. And the film, even today, casts a remarkable spell over the viewer, as you slip easily into believing that she is "alive" and interacting. The effect on the audience present for this screening was remarkable, too–there was laughter, hilarity, praise for McCay, and a general sense of achievement. The "fun" of Gertie the dinosaur hasn't faded a bit. Canemaker followed the live comics performances of the afternoon with another animated piece by McCay which showed off his irreverent and fiendishly clever sense of humor as a giant mosquito attacks a sleeping man repeatedly, making even modern-day audiences squirm.

IMG_9372There were a lot of surprises during the live performances of the heartfelt homage comics contained in Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream. Wildly divergent themes and ideas were the norm because this is Winsor McCay we're talking about and things that transform, shift, come into being, fade away, and prompt laughter are his domain. The comics tackled diversity in race and gender, love, the performance aspect of comics, the brevity and haunting aspects of dreams, and, in short, the exuberance of the creative process.

Because the book is large format and the contributions were one-pagers, matching the broadsheet format of McCay's day, there was particularly rich territory for exploring the nuances and details of these compositions. By blowing the images up on a massive projection screen and also by breaking out panels into gradual reveals to match how the eye would most naturally move on the page, the performance event brought the intentions and insider knowledge of the artists to life, and in their own voices too.

Here's a photo gallery from the performances:

If, like me, you wear glasses and aren't inclined to get within licking-distance of the giant pages of the book in order to preserve them undamaged, this was undoubtedly the best way to see the fine line-work, inside jokes, and panel relationships that make up this puzzle-like book. Through this tour, the audience explored the many ways in which McCay has not only fired the imagination of cartoonists and animators, but has seized their minds, set up shop, and regaled them with his own entertaining personality for over a century. This event proved that Winsor McCay is very much alive, wandering the pages of his own Little Nemo's dreams and unfolding in the movements of his animated creations.

IMG_9384The entire "Little Nemo Meets Carousel" event was bursting with energy thanks to McCay and the artists who have continued to be inspired by him to explore their own imaginative realms. The constant inventiveness they display in the book is surely the best testament to his legacy. And afterwards, there was even more drawing going on in an impromptu sketching of place-mats nearby.

IMG_9381On a more general note, I am reminded again what a remarkable asset the Society of Illustrators is in hosting not only exhibitions of original comic art, but also opening its doors for educational events that simply bring people with similar interests together, broadening the horizons of fans and professionals. This event couldn't have been a more shining example of their contribution to comics culture in the New York area.

IMG_9383[Detail by Gregory Benton]

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About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.
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