In The Poetics of Slumberland, Scott Bukatman celebrates play, plasmatic possibility, and the life of images in cartoons, comics, and cinema. Bukatman begins with Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland to explore how and why the emerging media of comics and cartoons brilliantly captured a playful, rebellious energy characterized by hyperbolic emotion, physicality, and imagination. The book broadens to consider similar “animated” behaviors in seemingly disparate media—films about Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh; the musical My Fair Lady and the story of Frankenstein; the slapstick comedies of Jerry Lewis; and contemporary comic superheroes—drawing them all together as the purveyors of embodied utopias of disorder.
The Poetics of Slumberland Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit
Drawn and Disorderly
"Ain't I a stinker?"
Comics, Cartoons, and the Critique of Chronophotography
The saga of Little Nemo in Slumberland began, very auspiciously, on October 15, 1905, in the pages of the Sunday comics supplement of the New York Herald. A lovely prose text, all the more impressive for being squeezed in beneath Winsor McCay's superb illustrations, guides the reader through that first adventure (Plate 6). In this earliest incarnation speech balloons are used minimally ("I wonder what the Oomp will say, Oh!"); the narrative is conveyed by the running (helpfully numbered) captions and the art. The page is masterfully constructed: six tiers, each with a pair of equally sized panels except for the first, in which the immense king of Slumberland overlooks all that follows, and the four-panel sequence at the bottom, as Nemo tumbles through space and, in the final image, out of his bed.
Several important and characteristic elements are at work in this, Nemo's debut. First, one might note that the dream (and the saga) begins not with Nemo but with Slumberland's king, who charges Oomp with summoning Nemo. The dream begins, then, outside Nemo's consciousness. The wide top panel provides a glimpse of Slumberland behind the king-we can make out a broad plaza, pillars, arches, arcades, and a row of columns surmounting all. The foreground space is dominated by the king's massive, bearded presence and, flanking his head, the comic strip's logo. A brick-red framing overlay divides this single broad image into three sections, producing a visual rhyme with the columns but without depth (unlike the ivy-encircled column to the left); in the center is the king. The ambiguity over whether this frame is a design or an architectural element is sustained by the position of the king, who leans casually on, and spills slightly over, the bottom frame border. Thus, through both his posture and his presence in what is really the title panel, the king is as separate from the diegetic space as he is from Nemo's dream. This is one of the two panels that do not represent Nemo in the land of wonderful dreams-the other is, of course, the final panel, in which he lies tangled in his blankets, rudely awakened. In future strips, as McCay begins to open the page to more elaborate configurations of panels, that final panel will increasingly figure as an inset-the one immutable element in the strip-an intrusion into (or carved from) the space of the dream.
McCay has infused the page with his characteristic design work. The second tier presents Nemo in bed, facing right; in the first panel the Oomp introduces himself, and in the next he presents Nemo with Somnus. In the two panels below, Nemo remains on the left side of the panel but now astride his magical mount: the Oomp promises some additional excitement ("Slumberland is the most wonderful place in the sky. You mustn't miss a single thing. See it all!"), and in the next panel Nemo and Somnus gallop through space, encountering the Oomp in the form of a huge white bird ("Gracious! What is that?"). The next four panels, across two tiers, present the race, replete with bunnies riding pigs and monkeys atop green kangaroos, all jumping the hurdles of bursting stars that surround them. Nemo loses his mount in the last panel of this self-contained race sequence, diving headfirst through the reins, leading to his final tumble through space in the final four panels, which are arranged in a regular series of squares along the bottom tier.
Even this description misses much of McCay's brilliant detail. There is the substitution (or is it a metamorphosis?) of bed for horse. There is the increasingly extravagant coloring that accompanies the progress of the race, the muted color of Nemo's bedroom wall yielding first to a richer orange, then olive greens, sky blues, and a deep saturated red. There is the final image of a sprawled Nemo, thrown from his horse, thrown from the journey to Slumberland, and, most immediately, thrown from his bed.
And there is, perhaps most spectacularly, the evocation of movement, which pervades this single page. One image in particular leaps out: after we see Somnus pawing the ground, clearly eager to be off, she is depicted in full gallop, bearing Nemo toward the wonders of Slumberland. McCay has depicted the horse in what can only be described as the Muybridge position, with all four legs lifted from the ground. Nor is this the only image that recalls the pioneering work in motion capture performed by both Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey. Indeed, the evenly sized panels, arrayed in a graphlike configuration, presenting the successive stages of a horse's gait, could hardly be more clear. The stages of the animal's motion will provide visual continuity, dynamic flow, and, importantly, credible naturalistic detail across the six central panels. In two of the panels the beasts leaping the hurdles produce elegant arcs of motion that can be read from left to right as stages in a single movement, as in a chronophotograph. And Nemo's final tumble is a backward somersault, divided into four images (with the last, back in the waking world, representing a kind of somersaultus interruptus) with all the precision (and perhaps more) of one of Muybridge's photographic sequences.
Analyzing the Instant
Muybridge and Marey both used photography to capture and display the stages that constitute the continuum of movement. Marey, a physician and amateur naturalist, attempted, through a series of mechanisms, to record and recreate the movements of bird and insect wings, as well as the running gaits of horses and men. He recognized the value of phenakistoscopes and other similar amusements: "This instrument, usually constructed for the amusement of children, generally represents grotesque or fantastic figures moving in a ridiculous manner." But, with images "constructed with care" that "represented faithfully the successive attitudes of the body," a more accurate understanding of physiological movements might be possible.
As the story goes, and stop me if you've heard this one, the governor of California, Leland Stanford, aware of the experiments with which Marey was occupied, employed the very established panoramic and stereoscopic photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1872 to settle a wager about whether all the legs of a running horse ever left the ground at once. Muybridge continued to experiment with sequential photography for the rest of his career, whether producing book-length studies of human and animal movements or demonstrating his "Zoöpraxiscope," which projected, and effectively reanimated, his photographic sequences.
Marey began using his "chronophotographic gun" in 1882 to take photographic sequences of birds in flight, fencing lunges, and the like. While Muybridge's technique produced individual images on a series of photographic plates, Marey's technique used an automatically advancing disk to capture the multiple vectors of motion, up and down, forward and back, in a series of exposures captured on a single plate. The chronophotograph combined the empirical weight and mimetic precision of the photograph with the plotted precision of the graph. Marey's single exposures yielded evenly spaced intervals in an unambiguous sequence extracted from continuous motion.
Braun emphasizes the difference between Marey's scientism and Muybridge's formalism. Muybridge's use of multiple, spatially organized cameras, as well as his characteristic array of discretely bounded, pleasingly composed images, privileged a sense of time as divisible and discrete. Contained parcels of space become analogous to contained parcels of time. Marey's single plates, by contrast, emphasized a temporal continuum, with the chronophotograph capturing instants along the axis of time's arrow. Against Marey's scientific interest in graphing movement, Muybridge was, through his discrete images, each carefully lit and composed according to acceptable aesthetic conventions, "telling stories in space."
Tom Gunning does not reject the distinction that Braun carefully draws, but he argues that she may be drawing the wrong conclusion. He and others suggest that the codes of an earlier pictorialism that find their way into Muybridge's aesthetic could not dispel, and possibly even emphasized, the fascinating disruption produced by the clearly delineated sequence of movement that demonstrated the camera's astonishing ability to register what the human eye could not. These are not the pictures of a neoclassical age, despite the semiotic cues that invite such comparison; people had never seen such pictures before. Marey's chronophotographs have an amorphous, ghostly quality that clearly separates them from the realm of natural perception, whereas Muybridge's images combine the solidity of familiar figures and pictorial conventions with the new-radically new-experience of perceived time.
Jonathan Crary also emphasizes the decisive rupture produced by Muybridge's first motion studies. He writes that "Muybridge's work obviously opened up possibilities for the rationalization and quantification of movement and time, for the mechanization of the body," but its radically "mutable temporality" suggested an escape from that very rationalism by offering "plural scatterings of attention and the possibility of unforeseen perceptual syntheses outside of any disciplinary imperatives." Crary does not mention Marey, but the temporality of Marey's chronophotographs is clearly not mutable, governed as they are by the rigidity of even intervals and clearly mapped vectors of motion, and suggestive of an impossibly sustained single moment, stretched in time as it stretches across the field of the image. With Muybridge, though, the act of segmentation and the spatial display of stages of movement on a grid might generate new conceptions of the relation between image and world. The organization and display of recorded moments projected the sense of temporal continuity and its relentless rationality, but it also incontrovertibly showed that time could be fractured, our awareness of it newly dispersed along a series or array of demonstrably incomplete images.
Comics became prominent as a popular medium around the same period that these motion studies were taking place, and in emphasizing the radicalism of Muybridge's work, I would argue that Crary is unknowingly also outlining the necessary conditions for the emergence of modern comics. Crary's comments about the temporal rupture offered by the image sequence echo Scott McCloud's discussion of the organized array of panels that characterize comics, which (in McCloud's words) "fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments." Comics uniquely present a combination of static images, often infiltrated by visual cues of captured or continuing movement, arranged in temporal sequence.
In his pioneering discussion of the relation of comics and film, John Fell wrote, "By posing the dimension of time on a visible linear continuum, comics offer something different from cinema. Even after the reader has proceeded from picture to picture, the panels continue to relate to one another on the page." Comics more clearly resemble what Muybridge produced than what the Edison company and the Lumières followed with. To return briefly to the issue of Muybridge's aesthetics, Phillip Prodger has pointed to some of the means by which Muybridge's sequences rupture and mend the usual relationship between photographic image and temporality: Walking Elephant is a photographic array that may be read as either a chronophotographic study of a single elephant or as a chain of multiple elephants marching in parade.
These are methods that comics quickly adopt. Winsor McCay does something like it in the first Little Nemo in Slumberland, as the various and multihued horses, kangaroos, and billy goats are arrayed along a single, elegantly undulating arc of movement that extends across each panel and from one panel to the next (this dialectic between wild kinesis and perfectly rendered stasis has its analogue in the overarching narrative of Little Nemo: the cosmic journeys across time and space counterbalanced by the insistent return of the bed from which no one has moved at all-except sometimes in that brief, rude journey from bed to floor).
The rigid distinction that Braun makes-aesthetic vs. scientific dominants, Muybridge (boo!) vs. Marey (yay!)-bypasses the rich discord that arises when the mechanical marvels of instantaneous photography and chronophotography intersect with the conventions of visual and narrative representation. In the motion studies of Muybridge, Marey, and McCay the singular and the multiple compete for attention.
Comics, like cinema, depended on the work of Muybridge, Marey, Reynaud, and a host of others who experimented with recording and reproducing natural movement in the late nineteenth century. Comics and cinema offer experiences of both temporal fracturing and temporal flow, but the comics reader has more control over time than the cinematic spectator, with the freedom to look back or peek ahead. Time in comics is represented as territory in space, and the experience of the flow of time can be very carefully regulated, if not completely controlled. This dialectic between the stasis of an individual image and the spatiotemporal movement of the sequence-a dialectic that relates to the diegesis but also to the experience of the reader-is what McCloud calls "the temporal map," and it is a conceptual fundament of the medium.
Modern culture from the late nineteenth century forward oscillated between the sense of time as unbound, mutable, and multiple, and time as rigid, deterministic, and most insistently bound to linear coherence. Muybridge's first studies represent a crucial moment in the "unbinding" of time and perspective, and Crary and McCloud locate in cinema and the comics-the two media that most clearly derive from these motion-capture experiments-some of that same radicalism. Cinema reconstituted the movement that one could infer from the sequence of still images while comics retained the synchronous spatiotemporal array, or "temporal map"-but both media were fundamentally bound to the explorations of time, rhythm, and tempo so characteristic of modernity.
The pictorial narrative had existed as a printed form throughout Europe and Asia since the fifteenth century, but from the middle of the nineteenth century it began to emphasize a sense of continuous movement. The closing chapter of David Kunzle's indispensable analysis of pre-twentieth-century comics emphasizes the sophistication with which comics became, in effect, motion pictures, influenced both by such optical toys as the magic lantern and the phenakistoscope, as well as the experiments associated with Marey and Muybridge. In a later essay Kunzle demonstrates how the large, complete, and "richly accoutered" compositions associated with Hogarth yielded to the line of caricature, a line that was looser, more exaggerated, and just evidently faster, in keeping with a perception that life itself was becoming faster paced, careening in potentially dangerous, albeit thrilling, directions. Töpffer eschewed scenic detail to emphasize dynamic figures trapped in chaotic circumstances. He also developed what Kunzle terms "a battery of montage devices" to emphasize time and motion, including narrowing the frame from panel to panel to indicate both the quickness of succession and the concomitant claustrophobia of temporal inescapability.
Increasing numbers of comic artists played with image sequences that modeled a brief, contained arc of time. An 1868 illustration by George du Maurier for Punch presented three stages in the leap of a horse and rider over a fence superimposed into a single image. Later, Punch published several parodies of Muybridge, such as an 1882 "Zoöpraxiscopic" sequence of an eminent actor's histrionics (he seems to burst into flame by the end) (Figure 4). Thus Winsor McCay's presentation of continuous time through the vehicle of animal locomotion had some significant and precise precedents, and it is worth reviewing some of the ways that comics in the nineteenth century evolved as a vehicle for the registration of time through the figure of (animal and child) movement.
[Place figure 4 about here.]
The extremely popular children's stories and social satires by the German illustrator Wilhelm Busch often depicted brief actions across several panels from a fixed perspective that emphasized incremental change, measuring, with metronomic inevitability, the results of the calamitous pranks committed by those early masters of comic strip mayhem, Max and Moritz, who appeared in 1865. Cat and Mouse, from 1864, laid the foundation for a whole history of feline-rodent (or coyote-roadrunner) conflicts in comic strips and cartoons by reducing conflict itself to a reductio ad absurdum of cause-and-effect moves and countermoves. "Busch's genius," Kunzle argues, "lay in his ability to impose absolute linear and conceptual control over actions and situations out of control." The American illustrator A.B. Frost took up art studies with Thomas Eakins in 1878, when the painter had become interested in using photography and chronophotography to represent movement naturalistically. Frost's picture stories, again centered around animal behaviors, quickly begin to manifest a chronophotographic smoothness, again in works of vehement and hilarious sadism such as "Our Cat Eats Rat Poison," a six-panel sequence of an action and its morbid ramifications published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1881 (Figure 5).
[Place figure 5 about here.]
The visual language developed by Frost and Busch is extended in the series of strikingly elegant strips Adolphe Willette and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen produced for the pages of the French journal Chat noir. Steinlen's pages demonstrated both a virtuosic display of feline body language and a new precision in the rendering of time. Charting the progress of the cat's attempts to land a goldfish, or get its head unstuck from a bucket, or its play with a ball of yarn, one marks the smooth passage of moment to moment. Here, movement is mapped at a slow, even pace, with a precinematographic (and post-Muybridge/Marey) scientific exactitude. The flexible figure of the monochromatic cat, whose adventures were usually organized in series against a blank field with no panel divisions and only the most minimal scenic detail, was a legible icon, a line of dark graphemes writing time across the space of the page.
A flowing, improvisational line, the sense of an illustration as incomplete unless viewed as part of a sequence, and an increasing emphasis on what McCloud categorizes as moment-to-moment (rather than scene-to-scene or action-to-action) transitions between illustrations all contributed to the increasing association of comics and movement, often through the vehicle of animal motion. So in the first episode of Little Nemo, Somnus, galloping across the panels arrayed on the page, is emblematic of the new representations of time and motion, but Somnus is equally a figure of arrested motion, frozen in every single panel, including in that one perfect posture that Muybridge first revealed to the world of human sight. With Little Nemo McCay demonstrated an unprecedented (some would say unmatched) mastery of temporal mapping while returning to the spatial solidity and scenic richness associated with artists like Hogarth.
Despite efforts to backdate the origin of comics, then, the medium does change fundamentally in the wake of Muybridge and his famed photographic arrays. Comics display a more evident interest in temporality, depicting precise moments arranged in a legible sequence, juggling a sense of both the instantaneous and the causal. And if comics are marked by a new rapidity in production (the looser line) and diegesis (smaller units of represented time), one could note a new rapidity of consumption as well. With the rise of the American newspaper comic strips and sections, a vast new audience was introduced, on a regular basis, to the medium. Comic strips became something to read quickly and dispose of-a part of the ephemera of modern life-which made them very different from Hogarth's prints, Töpffer's books, and even popular magazines such as Punch and Chat noir in Europe (which did not circulate as widely as newspapers). They became a medium of the instant.
Fatigue and the Regulation of Modern Bodies
McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend often presented adult, middle-class men or women trapped in escalating transfigurations of everyday life. The strip repeatedly connected dream content to the stresses and strains of modern life, bringing to mind the tremendous emphasis that was placed on the polarities of efficient and fatigued bodies in the industrial workplace from the mid-nineteenth century forward. The metaphor of the machine was strenuously applied to the laboring bodies of the industrial age. In the discourse of production, fatigue replaced idleness as the enemy of productive labor; the avoidance of work was less significant than the body's productive limits. "The human motor" needed proper care if it was to function with maximum efficiency: it needed proper nutrition, improved hygiene, and a sufficient (but not excessive!) amount of sleep. Instrumental reason had to contend with the imperfection of the human body, a "motor" that was not fully capable of assimilating the stressful pace of modernity, the shock of industrial accidents, and the grinding repetition of the assembly line or office workplace. Anson Rabinbach writes, "Behind the scientific and philosophical treatises on fatigue lurked the daydream of the late nineteenth-century middle classes-a body without fatigue."
To increase efficiency and maintain its role in a viable labor force, the human body had to be studied, its movements graphed and analyzed, its smallest motions made visible to the scientific eye. This is the context in which the scientific visualization of movement must be situated. "Marey's studies in locomotion had an enormous influence on the artists of Europe," Braun writes, "but their more enduring and pervasive effects were on the workers of the world." Well before his experiments with photography, Marey had devised a startlingly inventive set of mechanisms for the recording and measurement of bodily activities, producing early inscriptions of the fatigue. For these experiments to occur, the sciences had to develop a new conception of the body: "We seem to have been traversing an immense gallery of mechanisms of greatly varied combinations," Marey wrote, "but everything here was mysterious in its immobility." In Marey's shift from organic structure to dynamics and the "interplay of organs," Rabinbach locates a new emphasis on mobility: "The single thing that can be distilled from all of Marey's writing is that the body is a theater of motion."
Marey's graphical data served the instrumental rationality of industrial development. Taylorism was predicated on time and motion studies that allowed every task to be disassembled into its constituent parts that could be repeated, in the same way, by anyone. The visualization of movement was innately bound to the regulation of movement within the context of industrial production.
As the nineteenth century moved to a close, the body in comics was increasingly depicted as deformed by the machineries of industrialism. A growing catalog of kinetic effects, including oscillating or blurred outlines and, of course, motion lines, conveyed a stronger sense of motion but also conjured a body reacting violently to the power of technological might. "The body is experienced as machinoid or a machinable substance, and both fear and fascination reside in the artist's rendering of the body as machined almost beyond recognition," Kunzle writes. Gunning has written that Muybridge's photography captured and made visible "a drama that would otherwise remain invisible: the physical body navigating this modern space of calculation. His images of the nude human body framed within a geometrically regular grid capture the transformations of modern life brought on by technological change and the new space/time they inaugurated, as naked flesh moves within a hard-edged, rational framework."
Comics also participate in this rationalist impulse to map the moving body's navigation of graphed space. The breakdown of movement that occurs in the work of Busch, Steinlen, or McCay is part of this history, blending animal locomotion with narrative and gag structures across the pages of magazines, newspapers, or storybooks. But comics do more than replicate the fixed viewpoints and measured progress of chronophotography: the humorous, or gag, strips rather consistently parody-or perhaps caricature-the worldview that underlies the visualization and analysis of movement.
The "eminent actor" striding the stage in Punch's parodic "Zoöpraxiscopic" study is an early example, but he is not alone. When Wilhelm Busch uses a fixed viewpoint to chart the stages of movement, what we find is the measured onset of chaos. The mischievous crow who stars in Hans Huckebein (1867) systematically leaves his tracks across the clean laundry, then knocks over a row of plates and a bowlful of eggs before spilling a pail of beer down the master's boots. The final pages of the story offer a satisfying chronophotographic sequence: in eleven images Hans takes a sip of wine, tilts his head back to swallow, samples a little more, staggers about the table, teeters into a sewing kit, and, uhhh, accidentally hangs himself (Figure 6). Leaving the Teutonic sense of humor aside for the moment, what is significant is that the visualization of animal locomotion has now been appropriated to describe the breakdown of order and the unleashing of the forces of entropy. Something similar comes across in A.B. Frost's "Our Cat Eats Rat Poison," in which the feline's increasingly frenzied, yet measured, contortions yield to the ultimate image of its prostrate form. While these strips revel in the chaos, the final image is often one of severely restricted movement or even its complete cessation: a crow hanged, a cat poisoned, still another entangled in (and seemingly swallowed by) a ball of yarn.
[Place figure 6 about here.]
The Symbolist-inflected work of Willette and Steinlen in Chat noir was more elliptical than the comical chaos rapturously depicted by Busch or Frost. The cat playing with the ball of yarn is first entangled, then swallowed completely (Figure 7). In another of Steinlen's strips, the chat noir serenades a white kitty who is seen framed by a window in the otherwise minimal and amorphous space. The seductive pleas having had their effect, the white cat leaps to join this mysterious, dark figure, but the leap reveals a chasm between them. In the penultimate image the white cat hangs by a claw as the chat noir recoils. And in the final image, the only one from a different viewpoint, the body of the white cat lies broken on the curb. Steinlen has played with the ambiguous blank spaces of the page, juxtaposing graphic and rhythmic precision with something less mimetic that no longer belongs to the objective gaze of science.
[Place figure 7 about here.]
But the masterpiece of comic art that demonstrates this parodic tendency most obsessively is McCay's Little Sammy Sneeze. The strip is organized around an invariant structure of six panels. A delicate process is delineated, step by maddening step, over the space of four panels. Sammy occupies a fixed position as he begins the stupefyingly predictable windup to his inevitable "involuntary violent expiration of air through the nose and mouth." Sammy Sneeze's tagline read, "He never knew when it was coming," but the reader knew exactly when it was coming-panel 5! Over the first four panels Sammy's nose starts tickling him: "UM" ... "EEE AAA" ... "AHH AWW" ... "KAH" ... and finally in the fifth panel-"CHOW!" The illustration details the immediate effects of the explosion: the puzzle pieces fly, the inkpot spills, the dinosaur skeleton collapses in a heap (as at the end of Bringing Up Baby) along with the music stands, stacks of canned goods, and other fine slapstick standbys. Sammy remains where he is, a stable object against the chaotic repercussions of his eponymous discharge. The final, sixth panel features either a discussion of the aftermath (How did good père Sneeze pay for all the damage?) or, more satisfyingly, somebody kicking Sammy's ass out of the room, in a pose repeated exactly from one episode to the next. In one wonderful episode Sammy holds the candle while his father struggles to repair a broken pipe in a flooded basement (Plate 7). The sneeze blows out the candle, plunging panel 5 into darkness and hiding the ensuing disaster (although an early episode, the pattern is clearly so well established that the actual image is superfluous). In the most famous episode Sammy's sneeze shatters the very boundaries of the comics panel, leaving him to gaze with complete impassivity at the viewer, no doubt wondering why his surname should condemn him to such an unhygienic and antisocial existence (Figure 8).
[Place figure 8 about here.]
The mechanistic, unvarying structure of Little Sammy Sneeze presents a meticulous time-motion breakdown, usually from a fixed perspective: the dishes are set in place, the tea is poured, the cake is served, or, in four delicate panels, a bowler moves gracefully through his swing. But in every case the rhythm of efficient motion is subverted (and I use this wildly overused word carefully) by a mighty "CHOW" that turns all to chaos. And, parallel to the main action, there is the systematic registering of the sequential phases of Sammy's sneeze, offering a powerful counterlogic to the central activity of this week's episode (in much the same way as the Roadrunner's mode of being-in-the-world will present a kind of counterlogic to the Coyote's plans). The sneeze can further be understood as a complete loss of bodily control ("He just couldn't help it!"). It should also be noted that an early kinetoscope offering was Fred Ott's Sneeze (1894)-a violent discharge that Linda Williams has linked to the mechanistic "attraction" of the "money shot" in filmed pornography.
A more nightmarish example of bodily discipline and regulation is The Story of Hungry Henrietta (Figure 9), perhaps the strangest work in the McCay oeuvre and surely the only comic strip I can think of about an eating disorder. In each episode a commotion is made around young Henrietta, who proceeds from infancy through girlhood over the six-month span of the series. As people cluster around her, the child understandably begins to fuss and squirm, eliciting a torrent of advice and increasing attempts to regulate her behavior. The frantic adults can't even finish their sentences: "I think she has the colic or something or other. I guess I had better go for the-" "Oh dear, what do you think ails her? I'm so-so afraid-" "You see you've weaned her and her stomach might be in a ter-" In the penultimate panel, the same old coot (Grandpa, I guess) proclaims that the child is simply hungry ("I think she's alright. Yes. She's probably hungry."), Or the adults might caper about in ever more outlandish postures, spouting infantilizing gibberish ("Umpt tee ump te a dey ump don't you cry"). In the final panel a tear-streaked Henrietta would be pictured, isolated in high chair or seated at the table, glumly spooning up whatever she's been given to alleviate her worries. McCay even offers a crossover episode in which Sammy Sneeze does his thing all over a dish of candies, which doesn't prevent Henrietta from scarfing them off the floor in the end.
[Place figure 9 about here.]
The overlap of characters points to some interesting formal distinctions between the strips. Where the panels in Sammy Sneeze are as equally sized and fixed in perspective as any Muybridge sequence, Hungry Henrietta is bracketed by two smaller panels that present the child in relative isolation (including the occasional small group). The following four panels are wider, permitting the influx of a set of relatives or visitors who rush about manhandling the poor kid, and, as noted, the final panel returns to Henrietta alone, horrifically (and only partially) pacified. Where the equal sizing of panels allowed newspapers to break an episode of Sammy Sneeze into two or three tiers (and sometimes only one), Hungry Henrietta's layout demands a two-tiered presentation. Henrietta is also significantly more diminutive in the frame than Sammy (except possibly in the first and last panels) as befits her far more passive relation to the action. While the position of the adults varies greatly from panel to panel, the strips track Henrietta's growing agitation with terrible precision, her body rocking back and forth from one image to the next, demonstrating her inescapable constraint. The final panels, with Henrietta literally stuck in the corner, are particularly disturbing, not only for the implied commentary on a child-rearing going horribly wrong but also for an unmistakable resemblance to the final panel of every episode of Little Nemo. There, too, a small panel, smaller than any of the others, contains a child sometimes frightened, sometimes disappointed, but always with his sojourns in Slumberland disrupted. The opulence of Nemo's design cannot completely hide the fact that control, attention, and distraction operate in each of these comics, etched upon the relatively mute figure of the child.
So in place of the graphic representation of the body that serves as prelude for that body's incorporation into the field of industrialized labor, comics continue to map, with an identical systematicity, a process of breakdown, a pie thrown in the face of instrumental reason. Moving from comics to cartoons, perhaps I can introduce one final version of the tension that exists in McCay's work between the control and discipline so inherent in every line that he deploys and the resistance to discipline so manifest in his comic characters. In 1911 McCay created a truly pioneering work: an animated film of his Little Nemo characters. The film was released commercially with the addition of a framing narrative in which McCay bets his colleagues that he can bring his characters to life; he can make them move (a striking recapitulation of the wager that led to Muybridge's initial attempts to record animal locomotion). The audience watches him draw some of his characters and gets a glimpse of the labor that goes into the creation of a sequence of animated drawings. Finally McCay screens his film. The animation is dazzling (and I will address it in far greater detail in chapter 3), but part of its magic derives from the contrast with the drawings that we've watched McCay produce-all profiles or frontal poses that have nothing to do with the colorful Flip who suddenly turns smoothly toward us to blow a voluptuous cloud of smoke in our direction. The animated figure takes on a playful and thoroughly profound autonomy and inaugurates the battle between cartoonist and creation that will culminate in Duck Amuck. Flip, the character who continually ruins one Nemo adventure after another, emerges from, but I would push further and claim that he in fact eludes, the rigidity of the chronophotograph. Flip and Sammy-smoke rings and sneezes-mark the disobedient and undisciplined body in McCay's controlled universe.
McCay is not alone in this comic assault on the disciplined and contained body. Other masters of energetic yet carefully managed mayhem include Milt Gross as well as Cliff Sterrett, whose 1920s Sunday pages for Polly and Her Pals burst with a light inventiveness that led Art Spiegelman to label them one of the most emblematic expressions of Jazz Age sensibilities. The best-known installment centers on a fantastically sustained chronophotograph that stretches across the central seven panels, as the hapless Paw Perkins struggles along a tortuous line of identically tuxedoed theater patrons, desperately trying to bring his wife a drink of water (Plate 8). The line of men descend a staircase, recalling Marey or Duchamp; file past a water bottle like hapless workers clocking in at the factory in a set of subdivided panels that evoke the desperately blocked passage through space; and ascend the stairs once more. When a careless elbow causes Paw to spill the water, the smooth regulation of bodies gives way to, first, a carto
About the Book
“Slipping comfortably into Bukatman's book, one is dreamily transported to utopian worlds where merry madcap disorder rules. Beginning with the advent of modernity in the surreal comic strips of Winsor McCay and stretching into the superhuman comics of heroes like Plastic Man and Superman (with a really cool cape), the author re-enchants the labor of creative artistry with the spirit of anima. . . . The lavishly illustrated book is delightfully Chestertonian, clapping its hands in glee over the unruly energy and plasmatic possibilities of the Pygmalion myth drawn into the imaginations of playful artists and their exhilaratingly disruptive arts. . . .Bukatman shows the marvelous animated poetics of visual media. . . . Essential.”—T. Lindvall, Virginia Wesleyan College Choice
"Thanks to Bukatman’s prose (a blend of rich textual analysis, a deft knowledge of theories ranging from play to phenomenology, and humour—here is a book about comics that is often comical!)—and a beautiful collection of colour and black and white reproductions of comic and film art, our scholarly community now benefits from an elaboration of both the practice of comic book consumption and the ties that bind American comics and animation."—Drew Morton Studies in Comics
"...an exceptional analysis of the nature of the animated and the animating (in the broadest sense of these terms) as they arise in twentieth- (and twenty-first-) century narrative media. Anyone who is interested in comics and animation, or in the role played by notions of life, energy, and plasticity in art more generally, will find much that is useful, novel, and insightful in Bukatman’s study."—Roy T. Cook caa.reviews
“The Poetics of Slumberland continues Scott Bukatman's fascination with the vertiginous mapping of modernity from the early twentieth century to the present, here with emphasis on the relationship of the artist/animator to his own potentially autonomous and disobedient creations, which often demand a ‘life of their own.’ Never pedantic, always vibrant, and often downright funny, Bukatman's essays range across artists, art forms, and genres in a work that is as imaginative and seriously playful as its overarching theme.”—Vivian Sobchack, author of Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture
“Bodies which expand and stretch through animation and special effects, within worlds subjected to topsy-turvy perspectives and kaleidoscopic optics. . . . Bukatman synthesizes a view of an American popular culture of comics, musical numbers, science fiction fantasies, Jerry Lewis’s convulsions, and superhero transcendence with considerations of the sublime, abstract expressionism, the phenomenology of the body, and avant-garde cinema—and makes us believe it! Rarely has any critic caught the pulse of American dreams so vividly and with equal parts exhilaration and vertigo."—Tom Gunning, author of D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Lively, the Playful, and the Animated
1. Drawn and Disorderly
2. The Motionless Voyage of Little Nemo
3. Labor and Anima
4. Disobedient Machines
5. Labor and Animatedness
6. Playing Superheroes