Oct. 20, 1907
Winsor McCay and his cartoons never completely go out of fashion and are periodically rediscovered—as in the current Taschen anthology. He was a fabulous artist and his Sunday panels remain a marvel of fantasy and rebellion against the tyranny of pigeonhole boxes. Living as we do in the era of legacy comics (Charles Schulz has been dead since 2000); bland, humorless writing; weak drawing; and panels shrunk to the size of postage stamps, it’s easy to think that comics aficionados 100 years ago were fortunate to get strips that ran a full page.
And then there’s Imp.
Imp is a caricature; McCay’s notion of an African cannibal who speaks in nonsense words that the other characters interpret, and he runs through much of “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” Whenever McCay’s strips are discussed, there’s usually some sort of passing reference to “unfortunate racial stereotypes” and something about “not uncommon for the period.” Those statements, although true (and the pages of The Times in this era are full of ethnic caricatures), gloss over material like Imp and turn it into nothing more than a slightly guilty pleasure.
So what to do? Frankly, no matter how much I know about the period and the cultural values of the era, Imp always makes me quite uncomfortable, especially in light of a post earlier this year about Elijah Washington being killed because he fought back after being called one of the most problematic slang terms in the English language. But one thing history is not about is sanitizing the past or ignoring uncomfortable issues. So here is Imp in all his finely drawn glory. And check out those lions.