It is sometimes pointed out that Americans have contributed two original art forms to the culture of the world, jazz and comic strips. Though both have precedents, they achieved the state for which they are identified here in the U.S.
One of the earliest pioneers of the latter is still one of its all time masters — Winsor McCay.
Most people who recognize his name (a name which, if there were any justice, should be as familiar as Disney or Picasso) associate him with his pioneering animated film Gertie the Dinosaur and his comic strip masterpiece Little Nemo in Slumberland.
Less well known are strips that ran prior to or concurrently with Little Nemo. The most familiar of these was Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which presaged Little Nemo in its fancifully imagined dreams (brought on by gastronomic distress from eating Welsh rarebit) that ended with the dreamer waking and falling out of bed. A collection of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was published this year by Ulrich Merkl in an edition limited to 1,000. (You can see a DotRF strip here from a Library of Congress online feature, Cartoon America.)
This is a good year for Winsor McCay fans, as Sunday Press Books, who previously published the deliriously wonderful collection Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays, in which 100 of those classic strips were printed as they were meant to be seen, at the size of a full newspaper broadsheet; and followed up with Sundays with Walt and Skeezix, reprinting Frank King’s beautiful Gasoline Alley strips in a similar format; is back again with a collection of Little Sammy Sneeze, another of McCay’s less frequently seen comic strips.
Little Sammy Sneeze was based on a simple minded concept, a child who honks off a monumental sneeze at the most inopportune moments and in the midst of some delicately balanced undertaking or social setting, the participants of which are left dumbfounded by the result of the sneeze. Simple minded or not, McCay can’t help but elevate the idea several notches with his inevitably beautiful execution.
This volume collects the complete two year run of the Sunday strip, again printed at original size, in this case a newspaper half-page; as well as the complete run of another rarely seen McCay strip, Hungry Henrietta, a black and white Sunday feature that ran on the back of the color pages in the New York Herald.
See also my previous post on Winsor McCay, in which I go into more detail about Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays; and my post on Frank King’s Sundays with Walt and Skeezix from Sunday Press Books.
You can also find other printings and books on McCay and his work, but the Sunday Press volumes are superb. I haven’t seen the Merkl volume of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, but it has gotten good notice. The example of Little Sammy Sneeze shown above has been rearranged form it’s horizontal format into a vertical one, and is in black and white, where the new volume is true to the original format and in color.
If you’re uncertain about McCay suiting your taste, try your library. See if you can find some examples (preferably printed large) from the man who was perhaps the Duke Ellington of the comic strip.
11 Replies to “Little Sammy Sneeze”
I’ve always been blown away by the amazing draftsmanship in McCay’s work, and spent hours pouring over a thick volume of Slumberland (same year I discovered this: The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century— which is also not to be missed if you can get a hold of a copy… ).
The Merkl volume looks interesting. I came to love Rare Bit Fiends through the Dover book: http://store.doverpublications.com/0486213471.html
Which is cheap at twice the price… :)
The Dover books are nicely inexpensive, but I think the production values on the Sunday Press books are much higher.
Thanks for the wonderful article!
Only jazz and comic strips?
What about algorithmic art, then?
Americans Didn’t give the world comic strips, Comics can be seen in much broader forms throughout the world before America was even discovered and even after. It could be argued that America has some leading comics or comic artists but they certainly didn’t contribute comics solely by themselves. Thats like saying Film was invented in America because you have Hollywood.
That said Winsor McCay had a significant contribution to the world of comics and although he didn’t invent them or animation he certainly showed the world what could be possible and we should be grateful for that.
Thanks for your comment, Steve.
That argument becomes one of semantics and hinges on the definition of “comic strips”. You can trace antecedents of the visual storytelling conventions of comics back into the carved stone monuments of prehistory. I maintain, though, that the comic strip, as we know and recognize it today, reached that form in America in the late 19th Century.
You could easily draw the line (if you’ll excuse the expression) differently and place the origin elsewhere, but I’m thinking of the modern recognizable conventions of comic strips.
I think its quite a misconception that people assume that america INVENTED the comic strip. America DEVELOPED the comic strip from techniques used in europe as early as a few centurys before. And that technique isnt exclusive to america just look at the Beano or Dandy and much earlier comics in the UK
This image for example is 205 years old (yesterday! perhaps we should wish it a happy birthday?) and shows an excellent use of speech bubbles a technique which is often credited to american newspapaer comic artists of the late 19th century here we see it in use long before that.
another example, this one isnt the best example but sort of proves a point, its from 1780. I have seen earlier examples that satires king james the 1sts witch hunting, that use speech balloons and stuff but I cannot find them online. I could also find examples of comics in ‘strip’ form but again non are online.
I didnt look far for these images I just knew they existed from my research into comics (im doing an MA in comics and animation)
Although you never claimed america invented comics or comic devices I still think its worth highlighting. You are right about america developing the early comic newspaper strips and I suppose we have to be thankful for that, but what bugs me is the way that people assume and thank the wrong people for things they never did, the history of comics and animation is littered with examples of just this.
Fantastic blog by the way
You’re absolutely right, of course, that none of the conventions of comics storytelling were “invented” in the U.S., any more than the musical conventions that were eventually molded into jazz were invented here.
I simply maintain that those various techniques and visual tools were developed (and I agree with you in the use of this term) into the mature visual storytelling medium of comics as we know and recognize it today in the US in the late 1800’s.
Thanks for your insightful comments and the kind words about lines and colors.
Nice pictures collection my small sis like that.
I was just wondering if you know anything about a wooden box shaped like a book with a picture of Sammy Sneeze on the front? The binding says Sammy Sneeze, and the back has a CB on it. The middle of the box comes out and we have been told a small comic book used to be inside, but we can’t seem to find anything else about this box. Any knowledge you have would be greatly appreciated. Nikki
Not something I’m familiar with. Maybe other readers will see this and comment over time.
Thank you. I was just trying to figure some things out about it before I put in on e-bay.
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