- - Wednesday, April 13, 2016



By Ulrich Merkl

Fantagraphics Books, $95, 304 pages

There’s an age-old thought experiment which goes like this: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Some people have created their own variations of this philosophical question, and here’s mine: “If a cartoonist draws a comic strip that was never published, did it ever exist in print?”

The answer (to my question, anyway) is “yes.”

Art historian Ulrich Merkl’s book, “Dinomania: The Lost Art of Winsor McCay, The Secret Origins of King Kong, and the Urge to Destroy New York,” reveals a connection between a legendary cartoonist and a long-forgotten strip. A diverse supporting cast, including dinosaurs, museums, comics, politics, newspapers and a well-known giant ape, play roles in untangling this intriguing, offbeat mystery.

Winsor McCay is best known for creating “Little Nemo in Slumberland” (1905-1911, 1924-1926) and “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” (1904-1911, 1913). Yet, he was also the mastermind behind “Dino,” concocted between 1933 and 1934, of which “four half-pages … still known to exist are part of a sequence of at least five full Sunday pages.” Alas, this strip “was never published because McCay died suddenly in July 1934.”

Or so we thought.

Mr. Merkl discovered that “Dino” had, in fact, appeared in print. Robert McCay, the cartoonist’s son, “copied lots of dinosaur themes from his father’s Dino pages” during his 1937 attempt to revive “Little Nemo.” The author believes that the failed cartoonist, who often did lettering for his father’s work, including “Dino,” “was probably using an opaque projector (or episcope)” with the dinosaur images.

Why wasn’t this widely known? Only one newspaper, the now-defunct Philadelphia Record, published this short-lived revival. As well, many “Dino” strips “immediately disappeared into a private collection, so they were inaccessible to McCay scholars and McCay fans did not generally hear about them.”

Much like the subject matter, the secret (or secretive) Little Nemo-Dino connection remained extinct for decades.

It’s certainly not a big secret that McCay lived through the “mass phenomenon of dinomania,” and was enamoured with dinosaurs. He created an important early animated film, “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914), and started (but never finished) a sequel, “Gertie on Tour “(1921). Some of McCay’s editorial cartoons and comic strips featured dinosaurs and dinosaur skeletons. It’s also relevant to point out that McCay was “one of the first cartoonists to pick up on the dinosaur idea.”

Moreover, his genius and talent had a hidden New York connection, which predated King Kong’s rampage at the Empire State Building and the city’s continual destruction during the age of giant monster movies. Mr. Merkl writes, “From 1905 onward, McCay single-handedly introduced the ‘monster attacks city’ genre. And McCay, the great animation pioneer, realized at the same time that scenes of dinosaurs and other monsters stepping on streetcars and knocking down buildings are even better suited to the motion-picture screen than the printed page.”

Hence, McCay’s editorial and animated cartoons “are the forerunners and inspirations for King Kong, Godzilla, and Jurassic Park.”

There’s some validity to this statement. For example, several of McCay’s popular characters briefly became giants in their respective strips. This could be related to “upward social mobility” and the “burst of technological change,” as Mr. Merkl suggests. Or, more simply, the cartoonist liked the short-term effect of giantism in a particular storyline.

Mr. Merkl also points to the Sept. 22, 1907 and Sept. 29, 1907 “Little Nemo in Slumberland” strips, in which Little Nemo and the African Imp climb New York skyscrapers. In his view, “Until someone shows us an earlier example, I will persist in claiming that this scene is the first attempt to formulate the motif in a visual work, and that this was the inspiration for King Kong climbing a skyscraper.” (I’m not entirely convinced, but it’s an amusing claim, nevertheless.)

Which brings us back to “Dino.”

Mr. Merkl, for the purposes of his book, reconstructed the unfinished strip. He used the original four half-pages, and added New Zealand cartoonist Roger Langridge’s 2013 “freehand re-creation” stylings for the missing top and bottom halves. He even threw in aspects of the ill-fated 1937 “Little Nemo” revival for good measure.

While we’ll never know if this is what Winsor McCay intended, the final result is extraordinary. The dinosaur has come to life in our world, crashing into a train, crossing the Holland Tunnel, and scaring the bejeezus out of most (but not all) New Yorkers. Dinomania’s long-awaited revival is now complete.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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