It’s tempting to imagine what a mess such a concept could have been in the hands of less capable artists. Smolderen’s scenario is highly cinematic and except for the words “Detroit 1889” which open the book the story is told almost entirely in dialogue. The book is a fantasy-biography told with a brisk simplicity by writer and artist from the point of view of an invisible cameraman. The surface reality of the comic strip is broken by the intrusion of dreams, psychology, surrealism and McCay’s own vivid imagination. Panels are large, sometimes empty, sometimes detailed with the occasional full-page drawing.
Smolderen and Bramanti have crafted an intelligent, engrossing, psychological comic unlike any other comic I can bring to mind. The cover of Volume I, “The Haunted Swing,” is an audacious piece of design confronting the viewer with the outline of a bowler-hatted head floating in a nebulous grey void. The impressionistic artwork of Bramanti is close kin to the sketches of Toulouse-Lautrec and the poster artists of la Belle Epoque; an American subject told with a Gallic flair. The colors yellow, brown and olive dominate throughout, imparting a sun-dappled air of nostalgia to the proceedings. “McCay” is a comic series of the highest order, deep, intelligent, haunting, and unique. I’m not sure if all the volumes are still in print (I have only recently managed to finish the series through a local French University) but if you can find the complete series you have found “the stuff dreams are made of,” a wonderful experiment in biographical homage that I’m sure would have impressed Winsor McCay himself.