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October 15 marks the 100th anniversary of the
most celebrated comic strip in the world, Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in
Slumberland.” To honor McCay’s creation, Peter Maresca has published
and edited a book of mega proportions: Little Nemo in Slumberland - Splendid Sundays,
with full-size reproductions of the original color Sunday strips
created from 1905 to 1910. Here, Maresca talks about his desire to
document these rare strips before they turned to dust.
Heller: Your Winsor McCay book is one of the most ambitious,
and passionate, documents of an artist’s life work. Publishing McCay's
original Little Nemo in Slumberland pages at their full Sunday broadsheet newspaper size is unprecedented.
Since you published it yourself, I’m assuming it was both too expensive
and too difficult for a mainstream publisher to tackle. Why did you
decide to take this on, and how did you manage to pull it off?
Maresca: I really had no choice. I could see these wonderful
pages deteriorating more each year. Soon, it will be impossible to pick
up the paper safely, to see this work as the creator intended it to be
seen. Imagine if Van Gogh had only worked in chalk on sidewalks.
Somebody would have to come in to pour on the sealant, or at least take
some good photos.
And I really had no excuse; I had some money saved up, the day job was
less than half time, and I had developed a modicum of Photoshop skills,
enough to get the job started. Pulling it off was something else again;
although once I got started, the inertia moved it along.
I had been peripherally involved with comic reprints for about 25 years,
but I had almost no idea what it took to actually make a book. I relied
heavily on my friendships with artists, designers, editors and other
small publishers to help me fill in the blanks. Thank heaven for their
patience along the way or this thing would have crashed and burned early
on. Heller: Self-publishing, even in this computer age, has
a pejorative: “it’s not good enough for mainline publishers so I'll do
it myself.” But it also implies that professional publishers are unable
to do ambitious things. What response have you had from the mainline
publishers? Maresca: Self-publishing started a revolution in comic
books in the 1970s. The underground had content that no publisher would
touch, so these drug-crazed rebels figured they could do it themselves.
That opened the door to other artists and writers who were able to crack
the Marvel-DC monopoly through smaller, independent publishing efforts
of a less controversial nature. So it’s not so much the ambitious
projects that established publishers stay away from, but anything
different—anything that strays from the established patterns.
It’s true most “self-published” material is not ready for prime-time,
but much is just lacking in what the publishing elite see as “commercial
potential.” Actually, I had mostly positive response from editors at
the major publishing companies that were shown my “Splendid Sundays”
mock-up. “I sure want one of these, but there’s no way I could get
something that big distributed.” The economics of marketing and
distribution precludes publishing small print runs by large companies.
Although there was one publisher who, upon seeing the finished book
asked, “Why didn’t you bring this to me?” He did not remember turning
the project down six months earlier.
Heller: I've heard purists say that one can only appreciate a comic page in its original state. Are you a purist?
Maresca: I’m a purist in the sense that I think it is essential
to understand the comic strip in its original and intended form. It’s
like seeing a wild animal with only pictures or movies. You need to see
the original pages, or at least a good facsimile, to comprehend the
meaning of comic strips, what that experience was about, and why the old
broadsheet pages are unique. Context is important with all art, and to
the extent that you can replicate the original feel, particularly with
something as ephemeral as newspaper comics, you can better appreciate
the work. But it’s just as important to understand the scope and breadth
of an artist, or a genre for that matter, so quantities of smaller or
less accurate reproductions provide essential reference. So purely
speaking, I like both.
Heller: Your book is reasonably priced for an object of its
scope; are you taking a bath? In other words, are you subsidizing it, or
are you aware that once the cognoscenti learn of this book, it will
become an instant classic that may command higher prices later on? Maresca:
I won’t be taking a bath, maybe a quick shower. Pricing is always
difficult—at least that’s what I was told. Suggested prices ranged from
half to almost double the current price. I knew there was a certain
group that would pay just about anything, but wanted to make it
accessible as well. Pricing it at a dollar a page seemed right, since
the real tear sheets go for $60-200 or more, and this number fit a
standard formula for costs versus retail, so we went with that. Like
anything else people like, the price will go up when out of print–some
of the older, smaller reprints can cost more than this book. But again,
there are only a limited number of people who will pay the premium. As
far as me personally subsidizing the project, no, not if you don’t count
Heller: How difficult was it to obtain these pages,
then photograph or scan them so you get the quality you want in the
Maresca: I had been collecting Nemo and other strips
for about 30 years, upgrading as I went along. So I had access to the
best pages, although some had some damage and all were yellowed.
Scanning was done in two pieces at 600 dpi, then assembled and restored.
This was the tricky part. First a decision had to be made to go
with either the pure-white proof-sheet look, or the realistic,
collector, yellow-and-tape-and-all feel. Since the whole point was to
recreate the original newspaper experience, I tried to imagine what a
new four-color newspaper page would look like a hundred years ago. Color
correction was done to display bold, but not garish colors, clear but
somewhat muted lines. I scanned different blank sheets of newsprint to
use as background for the strips. Restoration was limited to repairing
holes, tears, stains and other degradation from time and mishandling,
but natural blemishes such as blurred ink, off-register colors and
imperfections in the pulp paper were left intact. Some pages took as
long as 20 hours of work, the average was five or six hours from
scanning to final file to get the imperfect ideal needed for the book.
Heller: Graphic novels are on the rise as a literary commodity,
and comics are coming back—maybe not in newspapers but in other venues.
Given that. what does Winsor McCay offer the comics artist, writer and
designer of today?
Maresca: Aside from the intrinsic beauty and genius of Little Nemo,
McCay’s work offers a sense of history, of origins. To look at this
work and realize that the comic strip as mass medium was less than a
decade old, it is astounding to see the amount of innovation coming
though on nearly every page. For sure, McCay was a superb draftsman,
able to bring detail and perspective to his drawing in a way so few can,
but he was also one of the first to comprehend the possibilities of
graphic storytelling and expand those possibilities on a weekly basis.
His innovative use of panels, word balloons, colors, perspective and
point-of-view influenced—directly or indirectly—hundreds of comics that
Those creators who have studied McCay know what one man did before there
was an established formula for the medium, how he simultaneously broke
rules and created new ones, and have used this heritage to expand the
form further. And, to get back to the “publishing” arena, it is
important to note that for all the modern accolades, Little Nemo in Slumberland was far from the most popular comic strip of its time.
Could the introduction of comic books in public schools be a viable way to teach reading? Rifas reports that Maryland's "Comic Book Initiative" reanimates teachers’ interest in using comics to raise flat-ering scores.
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