This review originally ran in the Comics Journal.
Little Sammy Sneeze
If you were a Freudian, you’d have to wonder when Winsor McCay was weaned. Indeed, his work is so obsessively and predictably orally fixated that you almost wonder if maybe he wasn’t. In each episode, his longest running strip, The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend featured a nightmare brought about by culinary overindulgence. And Little Sammy Sneeze stars a taciturn little boy with multi-colored neckerchiefs whose mouth yawns open to the size of his entire head before it emits an “ah-choo!” powerful enough to knock down small buildings.
Psychologically, an oral fixation indicates arrested development — an inability to take on adult responsibilities and characteristics. Whatever McCay’s own psychological profile, he certainly used the idea of oral obsessions to justify a world in which characters don’t, in fact, learn or change or, indeed, even exist in anything but the most notional way. In none of the strips in Peter Maresca’s new collection of all the Sunday Little Sammy Sneeze strips does the title character ever make an articulate noise. Instead, each strip follows the same pattern. In the first Sammy says “um,” with his mouth closed. In the second he says “Eee Aaa,” with his mouth slightly open. In the third he says, “Aah Aww,” with his mouth open wide. In the fourth he says “Kah” with his mouth gaping like some sort of bloated underwater fish. In the fifth he says “Chow,” and the force of his sneeze causes disaster and mayhem — either he hopelessly scatters the chits in a poker game, or startles the lions in a circus act, or sends Thanksgiving dinner flying into his grandfather’s beard. And in the sixth and last panel, he wears a blank expression as he is removed, often with a kick in the pants, from the scene of destruction.
The adults who surround Sammy are barely more sentient than he is. It’s true that they talk — but so repetitively that their words seem little more meaningful than Sammy’s grunts. In one paradigmatic sequence, two Italian immigrants speak in a nearly impenetrable patois, reiterating again and again how great America is and how “Da Italio man maka no troub he maka no troub for no one. Every ahbody say Italio man maka great excite in dese countries. I don see. I don see it.” The racism doesn’t extend to WASP characters, of course, but the aphasiac repetition does; if a McCay character says in the first panel that she’s afraid of falling on the ice, then you can be sure she’ll say the same thing in the second. And the third. And the fourth. Really, Sammy’s adults might as well be in a Peanuts TV special — “waah waah waah waah waah, waah waah waah waah waah.”
These strips are, in other words, little more than the same slapstick cliché, endlessly repeated. Next to this, even Beetle Bailey starts to look positively inventive. At least Mort Walker had three or four gags. No wonder that, in the introduction to the volume, Thierry Smolderen suggests, rather nervously, that McCay is putting us on, that it’s a “parody” which “chuckles at the absurdity of…doing the same thing ad nauseum.” McCay’s strip, you see, isn’t mindlessly repetitive; it’s making fun of mindless repetitiveness! Thank goodness! He’s a jaded intellectual, just like us!
McCay probably did enjoy doing the same thing over and over. Whether that enjoyment is adequately characterized by a distancing concept like “parody,” though, is another question entirely. Instead, the pleasure of McCay’s work seems more like that of a small child, who wants his parent to make that face again for the millionth time. It’s excessive and infantile, linked, not to a sense of irony, but a sense of wonder. As G. K. Chesterton says in Orthodoxy.
“children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough… It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again,” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again,” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike: it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
There is certainly something godlike about McCay’s artwork. Sammy Sneeze doesn’t try for the sumptuous fantasy of “Little Nemo”; still, the level of detail when McCay renders for example, a grocery store interior, is jaw-dropping. In the first panel, towers of individual cans and products are shown with a flawless clarity that makes the scene seem more real than life. It’s a tour-de-force in itself — and then McCay repeats it in the second panel, with everything the same except the positions of the customers. And then he repeats it again…and again…and then, with the explosive sneeze, throws everything into a chaos so crisply rendered it still somehow looks like order.
McCay is obviously one of a kind, but his particular take on cartooning is also a product of his era. The Little Sammy Sneeze panels, drawn in 1904-1905, look very much like cells for animation — and, of course, McCay would create his own animated shorts a few years later. Sammy also harks backwards to some of the early experiments in film, especially Edison’s 1894 Kinetoscope five-second film Fred Ott’s Sneeze, which, like the title says, shows one of Edison’s assistants, Fred Ott, taking snuff and sneezing. (A still from this film is reproduced in this volume’s introduction, though the caption erroneously identifies Fred Ott as “Ed Ott”.)
This collection generously allows us to see how McCay compared to some of his print peers as well. The book includes examples of two contemporary strips, The Woozlebeasts by John Prentiss Benson and The Upside-Downs by Gustave Verbeck. Visually, neither of these is much like Sammy Sneeze . In place of McCay’s vivid detail and art nouveau sense of still composition, Benson’s and Verbeck draw more on a tradition of cartoonish caricature. Benson’s drawings of fantastic beasts, in particular, hark back to Tenniel’s Alice illustrations. Verbeck is also influenced by children’s illustration. His drawings are deceptively simple; they look sketchy and rough…until you turn them over and realize that upside-down, they show a completely different picture.
Despite these differences, all three illustrators, do have something in common. Their visual orientation is essentially infantile, in the Freudian sense. They’re pre-Oedipal, the pleasures they offer have little, if anything to do with the symbolic system…which is to say, they don’t much care about narrative or character. In Sammy Sneeze the fun is in watching how each elegantly complicated panel differs from the last, and in the comforting repetition; in The Upside-Downs it’s in the ingeniousness of the illustration; in The Woozlebeasts it’s the delight of the nonsense creatures, who are described in fairly rudimentary limericks. The stories that are provided are simple and subordinate — in the Upside-Downs, in particular, you get the feeling that Verbeck doodled first and then built the story around whatever random thing he decided he could turn on its head. In none of these is there development, either of story or joke. Instead, the strips provide a kind of optical orality. They’re eye candy.
Fred Ott’s Sneeze used to be eye candy too; when the film process was just beginning, anything moving on the screen was a source of amazement. Now, of course, what interest it has is historical. Neither can comics these days survive solely on visual wonder; for the most part, you really do need to make some concessions to plot and genre if you want people to look at your work. Nonetheless, some elements of comics’ infancy survive. Linda Williams, in her study of pornography entitled Hard Core, points out that both Fred Ott’s Sneeze and porn share a common focus on biological ejaculations. Similarly, I think that the emphasis on surface pleasures in McCay and his contemporaries has a later analogue in the cheesecake-inspired drawings of Los Bros Hernandez, and even in the fetish art of R. Crumb or Michael Manning. McCay’s eye candy approach also has an echo in shojo and yaoi (where narrative coherence can takes a distant second to flowery compositional bliss), and in Fort Thunder.
Of course, the comics faction that has most embraced McCay is not shojo or Paper Rad or porn, but art comics. Which is a bit strange, because, as far as I can tell, the aesthetic goals of McCay couldn’t be more different than those of, say, Art Spiegelman. It’s true that Chris Ware has (brilliantly) borrowed a lot of McCay’s style, but this only emphasizes how completely different they are as artists. For Ware, visual repetition is not a source of delight, but of existential monotony — effortless creativity is transformed into labored wasteland.
I don’t blame Ware for the cannibalization of McCay’s corpse — artists take bits and pieces of whatever they can from wherever they can, and they certainly don’t have any obligation to remain true to someone else’s vision. Still, it’s too bad that (to return to Oedipus) the success of the son has so thoroughly obliterated the memory of the father. Which is to say that critics writing about Winsor McCay seem indecently eager to turn him into Chris Ware.
In this regard, the worst sinner in the volume is Jeet Heer. Heer provides an introduction for McCay’s Hungry Henrietta, a black-and-white strip produced at the same time as Little Sammy Sneeze (many of the Henrietta strips are reproduced here on the reverse side of the Sammy strips which ran on the same day.)
The early Henrietta strips start out with her as a baby, being fussed over by grotesquely cavorting adults — at the end of each episode, she is offered a bottle, which she drinks with a single tear trickling from her eye. Over the course of later strips, Henrietta ages, and her appetite develops apace — each episode now focuses on her consuming vast quantities of some foodstuff or other, with the last panel generally featuring her fast asleep in peaceful and bloated contentment. Heer’s interpretation of this is as follows:
“…while overzealous adults are eager to assuage Henrietta’s anxiety, they themselves are the cause of her worries…. By being overprotective, they turn her into a nervous nelly, always whimpering and needing cookies to calm her nerves…. Eventually, Henrietta becomes a slave to her stomach.”
So for Heer, Hungry Henrietta is about the tragedy of eating disorder; it’s a kind of after-school special.
If this argument is to make any sense, you have to assume that (A) McCay has some passing interest in psychological realism, and that (B) McCay believes that being a slave to your stomach is a bad thing. I don’t think that there is any evidence that either of these things is true. On the contrary, the whole point of Henrietta, it seems to me, is not that she experiences some sort of vaguely Oedipal narrative development, but that she doesn’t. She gets older, but the joke is she stays exactly the same. In those early strips, she isn’t driven to eat by the insensitive adults around her; the adults are insensitive and grotesque, from her perspective — because they won’t let her eat. She isn’t sad in those last panels where the tear slides down her face. She’s crying, yes, but she’s calming down — the tear is the last sign of her fading discontent. Anxiety doesn’t make her eat; on the contrary, it’s the fact that she’s hungry which makes her anxious (until she fills up, of course!)
In other words, McCay simply didn’t do literary psychodrama, no matter how much Heer and other arts comics scholars might wish that he did. Rather, Henrietta eats the way that McCay draws; with a simple and tireless delight.