A little over two years ago, an obsessed comic-strip lover named Peter Maresca invested what must have been a frightening sum to produce a $120 book he couldn’t have imagined many people would buy: a giant-sized reprint of some Sunday funnypages almost a century old, written and drawn by Winsor McCay, who’s a giant to comic fans but certainly no household name.
That book, So Many Splendid Sundays!, went on to win an Eisner award, two Kurtzmans, and the slavering praise of everyone from Matt Groening to the New York Times. It had to be reprinted. Guess there are a lot of people out there who appreciate seeing a master cartoonist’s work published at its original size (11 x 16 inches) and in gorgeous color.
Maresca has followed that victory with two new publications, similarly geared toward sticklers who demand authenticity in their antique diversions. One is Sundays with Walt and Skeezix, a practically billboard-sized (11 x 21, or 231 square inches) Gasoline Alley tome that makes a stunning complement to Drawn & Quarterly’s reprint series. The other — and for my taste more welcome — volume is a little something called Little Sammy Sneeze.
Sammy was one of the characters Winsor McCay invented before the famous Little Nemo in Slumberland. Like Nemo, it was built around an ongoing motif: True to his name, Sammy had powerfully wicked allergies, and every week would sneeze so hard he’d knock over expensive camera equipment, throw bowlers off their game, or blow a cart of peanuts all over the street. Silly, yes, but funny, and awfully cute — unlike some vintage strips, this one would get a reaction out of most contemporary readers of the daily comics section. The publisher, knowing an endearing tie-in when he sees one, has printed up little cardboard slipcases (included with the book) so Sammy fans can wrap his image around their nearest box of Kleenex. All three of Maresca’s publications are available at sundaypressbooks.com; finding them in a brick-and-mortar book or comics store would, I think, be immediate confirmation that the retailer deserves your patronage.
Maresca has a new rival in the labor-of-love arena, though. German author and art-historian Ulrich Merkl shares his devotion to Winsor McCay and has given the huge-format, limited-edition treatment to his early strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (available at rarebit-fiend-book.com). Fiend was an adult-oriented take on the Nemo premise: Every week, the protagonist went to sleep and had wild dreams, only to awaken in the last panel and blame them on what he had for dinner. (Welsh Rarebit is a melted-cheese toast dish.)
Some of these strips have been published recently, in a budget-oriented series of middling quality. Merkl’s effort is anything but middling: In addition to the full-sized reproduction of 369 Fiend adventures, it offers a wealth of extra artistic and biographical material and — this is the stunner — a DVD with high-res scans of all the 800-plus pages known to exist, plus a 600-page catalog of, I guess, every fact anyone on the planet knows about Winsor McCay. Oh: There’s also a short movie on the disc, a fragment of McCay’s early animation.
If there’s a heaven for cartoonists, Winsor McCay must be looking down with more pride than a mother whose triplets grew up to be a president, a legendary artist, and the doctor who cured