Note: This is the second in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.
These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!
Unless otherwise noted, any image captions or comments in brackets [like this] were added by the Survey I instructor, Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes. All illustrations in this particular post were added by the instructor.
Lyonel Feininger: Lost Expressionist Master of the Sunday Comics Page
by Andy Warner
(CCS, Class of 2012)
The brightest stars shine briefest. The light of Lyonel Feininger’s brilliant comics may have winked out due to a contractual dispute, but still now, over a century after they were produced, they seem too wonderful, too weird, to have existed even for the single year he was active in the medium. Although Feininger made a name for himself in painting and printmaking (he designed the cover for the Bauhaus 1919 manifesto, was associated with several expressionist groups in Germany, and even had the distinction of being labeled “degenerate artist” by the Third Reich), the tall, gangly German-American artist’s cartoon output was limited to two strips he created in 1906 for The Chicago Sunday Tribune: The Kin-Der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World. Even a cursory glance at these large-format Sunday pages is a visceral experience. Feininger was making comics like no one else in his era. Before Egon Schiele met Gustav Klimt, just as Picasso and Braque were developing what would become cubism, Feininger’s comics exploded in glorious color from the pages of the Tribune. His figures move at odd angles, all limbs, hands and caricatured faces. The environment, while expressly the focus of Wee Willie’s World has an incredible vitality in both strips. Waves crash and smash, lightning tears jagged lines through the sky, clouds loom impossibly large and city alleyways tilt insanely. In no small feat, the worlds that Feininger creates make Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo dreamscapes seem almost static by comparison.
The Kin-Der-Kids is the more developed of the two strips. Like other comics of the era, it begins with an introduction to the cast of characters. Right off the bat, Feininger impresses upon his readers that this will be no ordinary cartoon. As could be expected by the title, the action revolves around the adventures of the three Kin-Der brothers, Daniel Webster, Pie-Mouth, and Strenuous Teddy. The character designs revel in their own weirdness. Daniel Webster, ostensibly the leader of the group and thus the focus of the readers’ sympathies, is a pale to the point of jaundiced, prematurely balding bookworm with a vast forehead, deeply creased with worry lines. He is dressed in funereal black and throughout the course of the strip, rarely removes his nose from whatever book he can find. Pie-Mouth is a grotesquely fat child blessed with a perpetually gaping maw that he stuffs constantly with whatever grub he can lay his greedy hands on. Strenuous Teddy is a preternaturally strong redhead who can usually be relied upon to get the Kids out of a tight spot. The supporting characters are no less strange. Daniel Webster’s dog, Sherlock Bones, is a gaunt little blue Dachshund with all the sadness of the world in his eyes. Rounding out the crew is Little Japansky, a clockwork water baby found at the bottom of the ocean. A technological marvel presumed lost by a marauding Japanese submarine, he’s the tireless mechanical workhorse that powers the leaky bathtub the Kin-Der-Kids go adventuring in. Their nemesis is Aunt Jim-Jam, a severely attired matron who’s not above engaging in a footrace through the streets of London in order to administer the boys their hated dose of castor oil. Unrelenting as a hell hound, she’s accompanied in this quest by the ludicrously dressed Cousin Gussie, and a disturbingly featured, small yellow man with thinning hair named Buggins. Last, but certainly not least bizarre, is Mysterious Pete, a supernatural being of unexplained origin clad in chaps and a cowboy had who rides around on a cloud with his trusty hound and guns down waterspouts with a six-shooter.
After this brief introduction, The Kin-Der-Kids begins in media res with the boys already sailing past Ellis Island in a bathtub. How did they get there? Where did Japansky come from? Where are they even going, and why in a bath tub? Nothing is explained. In the second strip, Mysterious Pete shows up with instructions for their “trip,” but the reader is not privy to them. By the third strip, the Kids are harpooning whales. Feininger seems wholly uninterested in giving his readers any kind of grounding whatsoever. This works to the advantage of the strip, giving the unfolding action a crazed, madcap intensity right from the get-go. Feininger took advantage of the week-to-week format of the newspaper strip to work in a fashion that was still unusual at the time, a sustained serial narrative. The Kids brave a storm, Pie-Mouth’s eating binges and an enormous fish before the action shifts to Mysterious Pete alerting Aunt Jim-Jam to their whereabouts. Castor oil in tow, Aunt Jim-Jam and Cousin Gussie borrow a hot air balloon and the hunt is on. The rest of the strip’s brief run consists of the Kids escaping first to England, and then to Russia. The three have a spate of encounters with the locals in each country. They play rugby, race submarines and have competitions of strength with the British. In Russia, they’re taken captive by bomb wielding troops who, still stung by the Russo-Japanese war the previous year, believe Japansky to be a spy. Without fail, Aunt Jim-Jam, traveling by balloon, boat or insane flying machine, eventually shows up to terrorize the boys. After a final gag involving Pie-Mouth getting a sore tooth, the strip ends as abruptly as it began. The Kids are mid-adventure, stranded in Russia with Aunt Jim-Jam’s arrival imminent. No explanation is given for termination, and no denouement allowed.
Wee Willie Winkie’s World, Feininger’s second strip for The Chicago Tribune, is no less strange. Bearing an obvious debt to McCay’s Little Nemo, the strip follows the titular character, a young boy, through a strange world of imagination. Unlike Nemo, however, Wee Willie Winkie expressly takes place in the real world (although on two occasions it recounts the protagonist’s dreams). The magical and strange environment, around which the whole of the action and story revolves, is entirely a product of Willie Winkie’s daydreams and confused perception. Everything surrounding him is anthropomorphized. Trees swaying in the wind become dancers; stone houses acquire character, wants and needs. Occasionally the fantasy is broken, Willie Winkie nears an object he thought to be an elephant and sees it to be only a tree trunk, but just as often, his vision of the world is presented as fact. Thunder clouds are massive giants the size of the sky, striding across the countryside. Water pumps are sleepy old gentlemen, sputtering gouts of liquid when their ponytails are pulled.
While the art style of Wee Willie Winkie’s World is quite similar to that of The Kin-Der-Kids, the format could not be more different. The hallmark feverish action of The Kin-Der-Kids is replaced by a calm meditative pace, following Willie Winkie as he sleepily contemplates his surroundings. The story in The Kin-Der-Kids is told exclusively through dialogue and visual action, and the strip is marked by a complete lack of third person narration. Wee Willie Winkie’s World, by contrast, is composed entirely of it. Indeed, the prose is separated entirely from the art, and set below the panel frames. This gives the impression of a children’s book, a mood Feininger further reinforces by using type, rather than the hand drawn text of The Kin-Der-Kids. There is no real story to speak of in Wee Willie Winkie’s World. The only thread of narrative that exists is spent on following Willie Winkie as he ambles through his world. The focus is squarely on the environment.
In terms of character design, Willie Winkie bears some superficial resemblance to Daniel Webster. He possesses an unusually furrowed brow and is clad in a similar outfit. The black of Daniel Webster’s clothes, however, is replaced by a childish blue and Willie Winkie’s features are open and engaged. Where Daniel Webster is always facing inwards and down, forever lost in his books, Willie Winkie is only interested in the world around him. Aside from Willie Winkie, the only other real character in Wee Willie Winkie’s World is Feininger himself. The reader is meant to interpret the narration as a story, originally told to Feininger by Willie Winkie, retold to them through the comic. He appears only once in the strip, almost hidden in the corner of a panel, having accompanied his creation on a trip to an outcropping of seaside cliffs. He is a tall, thin figure, dwarfing Willie Winkie’s small frame as he sketches a panorama the boy points out to him.
Wee Willie Winkie’s World, above all, demonstrates the total mastery Feininger possessed in the art of caricature. The artist had spent the 17 years previous working as an increasingly celebrated caricaturist for German and American magazines, including Harper’s Round Table, Humoristische Blätter, and Ulk. In Wee Willie Winkie’s World, this skill is used to great effect. An astonishing variety of faces burst from every possible place, from dour locomotives to shivering and nervous poplar trees. Other stylistic influences abound. Wee Willie Winkie’s World is structured along symmetrical grids, with big soaring panels. In their gutters, most frequently to break up the narration along the bottom, but also occasionally between the panels themselves, Feininger inserts beautiful and bizarre ornamentations. These take the form of trees, leaves, medusa-like heads, grinning jesters and heavenly bodies. Their place in the composition of the page is obviously influenced by Art Nouveau, but Feininger replaces the flowing curves of that style with his trademark chunky angles and geometric forms. A red eyed mouse frolicking in the gutter of a strip otherwise concerned with Willie Winkie’s take on a windmill is strongly reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints. In one strip, the ornamentations even bear a striking resemblance to Mondrian and De Stijl. As that movement had yet to be born, however, it can be assumed that these exercises in color and line are Feininger’s own experimentations.
Although he’d worked in illustration and caricature for years, Feininger came to comics through a chance opportunity, and left them much the same way. He was born in 1871 in New York City to German speaking parents. He possessed a childhood fascination for steamboats and locomotives that would leave its mark on both his comics and fine art, and showed an early aptitude for drawing. While he wouldn’t create comics until the age of 35, he was influenced in his childhood by American cartoonists and the margins of the letters he wrote as a young man to his friend and fellow artist, Alfred Vance Churchill are filled with expressive and expertly rendered cartoon sketches. Feininger left America for Germany in 1888 to attend art school, and adopted the land of his parents as his own. For the next decade and a half, he sold caricatures to humor magazines, often chafing against the demands of his editors.
Meanwhile, back in America, newspaper comics were experiencing a golden age. In 1905, when Windsor McCay was tapped to demonstrate the artistic potential of Sunday comics with Little Nemo in the pages of The New York Herald, other newspapers took note. Amongst them was James Keeley, editor of The Chicago Tribune. Deciding not to be outdone and wanting to appeal to Chicago’s large German population, Keeley traveled to Berlin in February of 1906 to procure the services of a bevy of German cartoonists for his full color Sunday pages. Feininger met Keeley, and, seduced by the promise of a steady income of 24,000 marks for his services, agreed to produce the two weekly strips for the Tribune. Problems began almost immediately. The vibrancy and joy of the Kin-Der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World disguised a troubled relationship between Feininger and the editorial staff. The Tribune had wanted a strip to compete with the Katzenjammer Kids’ repetitive joke-a-week format, but The Kin-Der-Kids’ fever dream of a sustained narrative immediately derailed their plans. Circulation dropped, the cartoonists were blamed and The Kin-Der-Kids was axed, with Wee Willie Winkie’s World replacing it. This did little to staunch the bleeding, and by winter of that year, Feininger was gone from the pages of the Chicago Tribune, and gone from comics forever. The exact circumstances surrounding his departure remain somewhat mysterious. Some sources cite a personal dispute between Feininger and the Tribune’s editors, others point to the burden of producing detailed weeklies as proving too much for the artist, while others place the blame on Feininger’s unwillingness to move back to America. Regardless of the details of his dismissal, Feininger’s greatest fame lay ahead of him. Although he achieved his highest heights in other artistic mediums, it is truly a pity that his comic output is so small. In the single year he was active, he established a more unique style and world than those that many cartoonists spend lifetimes creating.
Thompson, Kim. The Comic Strip Art of Lyonel Feininger. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2007.
“Lyonel Feininger.” Oregon State University Cartoon Library & Museum Website. 6 Oct. 2010
Markstein, Don. “Lyonel Feininger.” Don Markstein’s Toonopedia. 6 Oct. 2010
“Alfred Vance Churchill Papers Regarding Lyonel Feininger, 1888-1944.” Smithsonian Archives of American Art. 6 Oct. 2010.
“Lyonel Feininger on Artnet.” artnet. 6 Oct. 2010
[The above essay is ©2010 Andy Warner, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]
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