Monday, January 02, 2006

The Real McCay

In 1987, John Canemaker -- one of our best writers on the subject of animated film -- published WINSOR McCAY - HIS LIFE AND ART, his long-awaited biography of the world-famous cartoonist who became the father of motion picture animation. That glorious book, published by Abbeville Press, has occupied a proud spot on my handiest bookshelf for all those years, but my curiosity was piqued when I learned that a revised and expanded edition was recently published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Not knowing the nature or the extent of the revisions and expansions, I was hesitant to just go out and buy the new edition, so I did the next best thing. I put it on my Christmas list. And you know what? I got it!

Yesterday I decided to warm up to the new edition by sitting down with both versions and doing a cover-to-cover, side-by-side comparison. Before I get to my findings, I should tell you what the publisher's press release had to say about the new edition. It reports that the new edition is 272 pages, which adds 48 pages to the previous one. Other points of attraction include:

• Never-before published pages from McCay’s private animation production notebook revealing the filmmaker’s ideas for timing and visualizations in "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914), "Lusitania," and "Flip’s Circus" (c. 1921).

• Rare concept art by McCay for a second film starring Gertie the Dinosaur.

• New documentation of McCay’s early career, including the Wonderland and Eden Musée in Detroit, where he sold his first cartoons.

• McCay’s professional relationship and longtime personal friendship with cartoonist Apthorp "Ap" Adams, one of his two assistants on the monumental animated epic "The Sinking of the Lusitania" (1918).

• Full-page reproduction of a 1907 New York Herald showcasing eight top comic strip cartoonists and illustrators including McCay, and their art.

• A complete Winsor McCay Chronology, and extensive additions to the Notes and Bibliography sections.

• Many rarely seen photos and drawings from private collections.

• A new cover, book design and page layout.

What I discovered myself is not always flattering to the new edition, but to go through the two editions simultaneously told me much more than an ordinary sit-down perusal of the new book would have done. One thing that is immediately evident is that, despite the added page count, the new edition is thinner and slighter in stature than the Abbeville incarnation. Upon opening the book, I noticed that the Abrams book is printed on much thinner paper with a slight degree of "see-through" not found in the Abbeville, which subsequently has the richer and more durable feel. The Abrams also opens wider to expose its sewn signatures, while the Abbeville is more sturdily bound. I frankly prefer the cover of the Abbeville edition, which highlights the artist and his creations rather than Abrams' wallpapery detail of one of the "Little Nemo" strips.

The illustrations are comparable in the two editions, but with some interesting distinctions. More than once, a single vintage photo in the Abbeville appears in the Abrams with another similar photo taken during the same session, giving these rare glimpses of McCay's documentary past the fleeting illusion of cinematic reality. Whereas the Abbeville edition was unable to offer color on every page, the Abrams edition does; even when it presents art in black-and-white, it uses color to offer variety of tones, lending enhancing sepia tones to B&W photos and creamier background shades to line art. I was also fascinated to see that almost all of the photos and source art is presented by Abrams with its outer borders intact; both were cropped to present only the art in the Abbeville edition. Therefore, we can now see the tattered outer edges of a gorgeous "Gertie the Dinosaur" poster, and the handwritten notations and surrounding pictures of those photos which reside in McCay family albums. I find this additional textural information fascinating; it demonstrates that our perception of what is important in such documentation has become more exacting since 1987. Context is now regarded as potentially revelatory as content; looking at the same illustration rendered both ways, I found that it really is preferable to see the whole object, warts and all. These "warts" may harbor hidden truths. For example, there is a surviving film cel from McCay's "The Sinking of the Lusitania" that is printed in the two books two different ways. It's flipped the wrong way around in the Abbeville, but presented correctly in the Abrams, as is proved by the newly exposed notation "End" written below the picture line on the uncropped document!

The Abrams book does add quite a bit of newly discovered illustration -- such as the aforementioned Gertie sketches, showing her attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge with disastrous results under the sweet heading "She Meant No Harm" -- but sometimes the shared illustrations are larger or more favorably rendered in the earlier edition. Some "Little Nemo in Slumberland" Sunday strips, in particular, are wrecked in the Abrams version by being presented in the book sideways... what fun to turn a large book sideways!... ostensibly to permit a larger rendering, but it also causes the panel midway down to get creased and sunken in the depths of the spine. Of the two books, I must say that the Abrams edition, despite its many other advantages, is not as well designed or laid-out as the Abbeville.

I noticed in the revised edition several instances of additional and amended text, bringing Canemaker's research fully up-to-date. The instances range from newly uncovered information (like correspondence relating to the ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA's acknowledgement of McCay as the father of film animation) to the fine-tuning of nuance. The 1987 John Canemaker pondered whether McCay might have been divining his own imminent death when he placed a death's head in his final editorial drawing, completed three days before his fatal aneurysm, as a personification of the narcotics threat. "Probably not consciously," he hedged, not really knowing but liking the conceit. But the 2005 John Canemaker, perhaps more of a realist or simply more cautious about making such pronouncements, weighs the same evidence and decides, "Probably not."

I love this book, and after comparing the two versions, I've decided that I have to keep them both. If you can only afford one, the Abrams edition -- despite some presentational lapses in judgment -- is clearly the one that represents the subject and its author most accurately. And this Amazon link offers the book at significant savings off the cover price.

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