I think Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland comic pages are one of the great sustained masterpieces of twentieth-century art. At the same time, I've never been sure how to take in the words in those cartoons--the balloons in which Nemo offers a never-ending supply of "Oh!" and "Mama!" and "I'll get out of here, I will," and the like. Those words are often so distant in tone from the extraordinary scenes and action around them that I've wondered if we should take them as an ironic signal of Nemo's blandness.
Award-winning political cartoonist Ted Rall offered a more helpful perspective in a recent column:
...cartoons need great writing more than they need great art. Which is why Gary Larsen is better than Winsor McCay. "Little Nemo" was high art. "The Far Side" is hilarious.In other words, McCay's words aren't pungent with hidden meaning; they're simply the big weakness in his work.
With that suggestion in mind, I took a fresh look at McCay's Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend. The following five panels all come from different 1905 installments of that strip.
Occasionally, the "ironic" reading seems appropriate.
In other cases, the panels would be better off without the words, or at least so many of them.
When the words do add to the images, they often undercut the prettiness of the surrealism. Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend was created for adult readers; McCay even used a pseudonym on this strip so as not to separate it from his work for children. So these are supposed to be true nightmares, not exciting sleepytime adventures. There's even a hostile tone to some of the most meaningful word balloons. All the more reason, I finally decided, to read only the first panel's words to understand the set-up, and then let McCay's art alone tell the rest of the story.
(Thanks to Sam Riddleburger for the link to Rall's column.)