PALAEOBLOG takes a break from its usual postings to present an excerpt from Stephen R. Bissette's Behind-the-Scenes Peek at a Magnificent New Book about the Prehistory of Prehistoric Pop Culture excerpted from the upcoming MONSTER! #24, available soon from CreateSpace and amazon.com.
[The complete 10,00+ word interview and article will be published at the end of December 2015 in MONSTER! #24, available soon from CreateSpace and amazon.com; just search for “MONSTER! #24 Tim Paxton” later in December…]
Now and then, a truly essential book surfaces.
The new book Dinomania is one of those essential tomes…Dr. Ulrich Merkl dedicated his efforts to complete a new book near and dear to my heart (I was, in fact, one of three consultants who followed through with research assistance, when asked, during the project’s gestation and completion). The fruits of his labor were just released, or unleashed (November 23, 2015): Dinomania: The Lost Art of Winsor McCay, The Secret Origins of King Kong, and the Urge to Destroy New York (2015), from Fantagraphics Books.
The book is an astonishing overview of 19th century and early 20th century “Dinomania,” and as such essential for all MONSTER! readers. Dr. Merkl shares a wealth of information, insights, rare never-before-reprinted artwork and cartoons, and more of interest to dinosaur lovers, comics scholars, giant monster movie addicts, genre devotees, and Winsor McCay fans, including an entirely “new” (as in never-before-seen) body of work by McCay. “On p. 257-260, we have the complete text of McCay’s original GERTIE lecture, exactly as he performed it in vaudeville,” Dr. Merkl explains. “The text was thought lost, but I discovered it exactly 100 years after McCay conceived it. I think it’s important.” Absolutely.
This is Merkl’s first book published by an American publisher (Fantagraphics), at almost half the price of his now-rare Rarebit Fiend book. But—rest assured that Fantagraphics does often go with limited print runs (they have here), and they do let books drop out of print, especially books as specialized as this one.
Stephen R Bissette: When and where did you first see evidence of the McCay ("Bob McKay") Dino comics art?
DR. ULRICH MERKL: I first saw them in Russ Cochran’s Graphic Gallery catalog no. 7 from 1976 which I obtained when I started collecting original comic art in 1984 at the age of 18. That was when I first came across Robert McCay by name, in an auction catalogue that was already nine years old. I’ve been admiring those Dino pages ever since, until they turned up again on the market in the fall of 2010 (at Russ Cochran’s again).
SRB: Do you remember your first impressions—what did you think when you initially laid eyes on those pages?
UM: At first glance they looked like pure Winsor McCay: an original idea turned into a powerful graphic by a hand with the surest touch — but strangely signed by “Bob McCay,” his son. This raised two questions:
1) If this Bob McCay was such a fantastic cartoonist, how come nobody had ever heard about it or seen his work? And
2) If the drawings were by Winsor (and I was convinced of that from the outset)—why would he sign his own work with his son’s name?
As these two Dino half-pages were practically the only thing by “Bob McCay” anyone had ever seen, experts and collectors soon reached a summary verdict: “Robert must obviously have imitated his father’s style so precisely that we cannot tell the one from the other.” Given the lack of in-depth research, this has been the state of play for decades.
SRB: Those images have bothered me since I first saw them reprinted in a British instructional cartooning book. The lack of context—they seemed to exist in a void—was troubling and compelling, all at the same time.
UM: Personally, I find it astonishing that even McCay specialists saw no problem in ascribing, without compunction, such perfectly crafted comic strips to a completely unresearched artist who appeared out of the blue, all because of a signature. What ever happened to critical style analysis? Could it really be that these masterpieces, which so resemble the work of Winsor McCay, were actually drawn by “Bob McCay,” as the author’s mark claimed?
Over the years I would peer at those pictures over and over again, but I didn’t do anything about it. With the benefit of hindsight, that was a good thing, because I would not have found anything significant anyway. For one thing, I knew too little about Winsor McCay back then, and for another, back in the pre-Internet Stone Age I would not have tracked down most of the relevant information and visual material anyway.
Fast forward 25 years. In the fall of 2010 the two Dino half-pages were back on the market, resold by the same collector who bought them in 1976 and then looked after them for 34 years. This time I had the bit between my teeth. Surely this was a promising clue. You can’t file art of that quality in a drawer with a label that says “not sure”. Why would a Dino comic languish in obscurity? And what was all this about Bob McCay, or rather his mark? I had an essay in mind, ten pages or maybe twenty.
SRB: And then it grew and grew—I know how that is!
UM: Once you start getting serious about a thing, once you start digging down, and not copying what you find on the Internet but going to the sources, things take on a life of their own. The ten pages turned into fifty, I kept discovering more material, then it was 100 pages. Every answer I found raised three new questions. The ripples kept spreading wider, more and more amazing pictures emerged from the dust of history, and sooner or later I had 200 pages. What began simply as a Dino comic strip has led me to the huge phenomenon of dinomania, and after four years I found myself holding a supersized, 296-page monster book with 670 illustrations. It turned out that the two Dino half-pages signed “Bob McCay” were fragments from Winsor McCay’s last grand project, a newspaper strip in Sunday-page format about the odyssey of a dinosaur who awakes from a long, deep sleep and starts getting into trouble with human civilization. Drawn in summer 1934 on the crest of that first great wave of dinomania that quietly took shape in 1854 and had ridden a storm of popularity since 1905. When McCay had finished five or six pages of his strip, he died quite suddenly in July 1934, and the material never endured into a published strip.
SRB: At what point did the scope of this project open up to include your detective work on the whole of prehistoric-themed comic art, and how and when did that collecting/archiving portion of the venture begin in earnest?
UM: It soon became clear that the Dino pages were fragments from something bigger, and that the strip was part of a wave of general Dinomania in which Winsor McCay had played a key role. For one year, I was gathering everything I found about Dinomania, giant-monster monster movies, and related topics: comic strips, newspaper articles, editorial cartoons, children’s magazines, and so on. I started with absolutely zero in December 2010, and in the fall of 2011, I had what is probably the world’s second largest collection of vintage dinosaur images (the largest should be yours, I guess).
Look for “MONSTER! #24 in Decmeber; just search "Monster! Tim Paxton” at Amazon.com
Bonus: Read Stephen R. Bissette's exclusive PALAEOBLOG's 10 Part series, "The Palaeo-Path", on the history of dinosaurs in comics: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.