Speechless 

To all those who think The Dark Knight was the biggest comics sequel of the summer, I say — well, I say you’re obviously right. The movie’s great and has pushed into the global box-office hall of fame. But the second-biggest sequel might surprise you.

Many More Splendid Sundays! is the follow-up to a book that only dreamers could have believed wouldn’t be a financial failure: a gargantuan, $125 tome of hundred-year-old Little Nemo strips. Not only did the book not flop, it sold out its first printing, drew raves from mainstream newspapers and popular cartoonists, and turned publisher Sunday Press Books (sundaypressbooks.com) into a niche star.

Many More is just what it sounds like: 115 scrupulously scanned color adventures (many never previously anthologized), reprinted faithfully at their original 16-by-21-inch newspaper size. This time out, Winsor McCay’s dreaming hero slips down the bathtub drain to cavort with hippos, gets turned into a marble statue, and slides down a nearly Escher-like banister until he’s thrown off in outer space. A gorgeous series of strips has him trekking through icebergs and igloos to meet Santa Claus, but Nemo’s not the only one hitting the road: The book (with editor Peter Maresca’s helpful scholarship) chronicles the cartoonist’s own jump from the New York Herald to the William Randolph Hearst empire, then catches him years later when he revived the strip for the Herald-Tribune. This volume’s contents are heavier on the earliest years, when most fans agree the artist was more creative, but you’d have to be a real grumbler to complain about the beauty of the Hearst strips even if, as one essayist puts it, McCay was a “genius on a leash.”

Unleashed: Congratulations to R. Kikuo Johnson, author of the impressive Fantagraphics graphic novel Night Fisher and contributor to various anthologies, for getting a high-profile illustration assignment with an even higher profile (and from the look of it, imagination-stoking) subject. Johnson illustrated a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine that details the waning months of the second Bush presidency. While the story, by Peter Baker, takes a responsible angle — gathering copious interviews to chronicle Bush’s (lack of) relationship with the man he wants to succeed him — Johnson offers a more whimsical, poignant narrative: He pictures Dubya sitting by himself watching McCain’s smiling mug on TV, shows him looking lonely as a press gaggle ignores him, finds him distracted and dejected while a portraitist paints on the official smile, and, most poetically, imagines a (perhaps slightly gone-to-seed) former President floating in a swimming pool, staring into space while fallen leaves swirl around him. Any cartoonist who can inspire even a nanosecond of sympathy for Still President Bush in this columnist’s bitter soul is somebody worth watching in the future.

Also off the comic-book page and coincidentally related to Johnson is a series now running in the online edition of the journal Poetry that commissions cartoonists to work an existing poem into their illustrated panels. Those who question the idea might be convinced by series editor Ed Park, who notes some similarities between the forms: “comic book artists take into account the way words appear on the page to a degree poets will find familiar. How many lines should accompany each image? How high should the dialogue balloon float? The ratio of printed words to blank space plays a role in whether a poem or strip succeeds.”

The series doesn’t seem to have its own heading at the website, but search for “comic strip” at poetryfoundation.org and you should find seven installments so far, the latest of which pairs Johnson with contemporary poet A.E. Stallings. Previous outings have teamed Gabrielle Bell with Emily Dickinson and given Ron Regé, Jr. so much leeway in lettering Kenneth Patchen’s “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground” that the editor wisely decided to set the text in normal type below each panel. I hope this little feature lasts long enough to be compiled and published, and fully expect that fantasy volume to answer questions like: What poet’s work is the best fit for Dave Cooper’s perverse pen? What’s the cartooning equivalent of e.e. cummings’ lowercase? And will Gary Panter let them reprint a snippet of his Inferno to show all these kids how it’s done? •


More by John DeFore

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