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O Magazine

Stolen cartoons.

The thin line between eminence and degeneracy

by Jordi Costa

Here’s an exemplary life, although out of which we can extract a not very tranquilising lesson: as Jonathan Swift wrote and Ignatius Reilly experienced in his own flesh, a genius is recognised when all dunces conspire against him. Or, rather, geniuses are condemned to being judged as monsters on any regulated social context managed by mediocrity or, what’s the same, the minimum common denominator of conformity. Here, the genius in question is Lyonel Feininger, a New Yorker of German blood who contributed to the recently inaugurated cartoon art with his work of cathedral-high ambition and elevation, but who passed by the history of the medium as fast as a ray of light because the taste of the not exactly versed on refinement majority rejected the mastery of that colossus who opened new paths in an otherwise still blabbering language. Some years later, with Feininger already turned into one of the creative motors of German expressionism and one of the most solid bricks of the Bauhaus’ pedagogic method, the Nazi party decided to classify his pictorial work in the dangerous category of “degenerate art,” a circumstance that provoked the final departure of the artist from Berlin –the city he had moved to when he was sixteen, going back to his cultural and family origins– to his native New York, which, since there’s no eternal or minimally stable reality, became his cradle in an exile land, in a biography lived as a return trip, with constant clashes with different forms of foolishness.

What we today call cartoons, should we decide to be exhaustive, might date back to the first glimpses of sequential art that a contemporary outlook can detect on cave paintings and run through the history of humanity from Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Trajan column, Queen Matilde’s tapestry and other stations to reach the reasonable starting point of Rodolphe Töpffer’s illustrated books, but North-Americans, in general very keen on placing the origin of the world in their own navel, like to trace it to the moment in which Yellow Kid firstly uttered his street lingo with his iconic yellow pyjamas on, giving way to the primitive form of what has been called bubble and which, as we know, is cartoon characters’ main tool of communication. It was then when the resort that in a few years would turn cartoons into the new appealing element of American turn of the century newspapers was activated. And, in no time, and in that context, excellence appeared: in 1905, the New York Herald witnessed the birth of Little Nemo, a work by the first genius of cartoon art –and a pioneer of no less importance in the also incipient art of animation–, Winsor McCay, responsible for page compositions that were high architecture and, at the same time, potential films. A few months later, James Keeler, editor of The Chicago Tribune, seduced by the possibilities of this new art and compromised with the cultural identity and supposedly good taste of its readers, the fourth part of which were of German origin, had the happy idea of travelling to their mother land to recruit the best graphic artists around so that his masthead could compete in excellence with the findings of McCay on the New York Herald.

Lyonel Feininger was the biggest talent recruited by Keeler during his Old Continent hunt: originally a New Yorker, although looking like a natural-born German, Feininger debuted with his series The Kind-der-Kids on the pages of the newspaper on August 19th, 1906. No one was ready for that explosion of incredibly strange beauty, surreal poetry and outer (or inner) space strokes. The characters of the title were a delirious bunch of kids that embarked on an amazing trip inside their own bath tub: the group featured a sour nerd (Daniel Webster), who continually mocked his colleagues’ capacity to marvel, and a fatty kid (Pie-Mouth) with a tendency to menace the stability of such a fragile boat, among others. The picturesque group received mysterious visits from a character (Mysterious Pete) that, riding a cloud with his dog, sent cryptic messages to the drift kids who, sometimes, resembled infantile and miniaturised adults or old men. The bunch was sometimes joined by a Japanese mechanical boy rescued from the bottom of the sea: Little Japansky. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine Thomas Pynchon had the Kind-der-Kids in mind when he created the Chums of Chance of his monumental Against the Day.

It was all too good, or too strange, to last: the series was discontinued only five months later, on February 17th, 1907, after the readers sent the paper complaints about the excess of weirdness, and while the usual reactionary voices started letting themselves be heard among the public opinion demonising or debasing that newly-born means of expression that, thanks to McCay (who survived) and Feininger (who was one of the first casualties of that periodic battle), had reached the top for the first time. After many years, Art Spiegelman would highlight The Kind-der-Kids as one of those singular and visionary manifestations that question the thin line between high and low art, or between high and low culture. The truth is that from 1907 on, Feininger decided to devote all his efforts to high culture, trusting that no one would mess with him there… until he was faced with another kind of brutality: the stupidity of the swastika.

This Stolen Cartoon closed the thirteenth published instalment of the series, an episode beautifully called Melancholy Loss of the Jim-jam ‘Relief Expedition’s’ Balloon. On it, the kids’ aunt (Aunt Jim-Jam) contemplates, with her son Gussie and from the deck of the Pillsbury family boat –made up of the father (a seller of snake oil) and his five daughters–, how the balloon in which she had left the house to rescue her prodigal nephews is lost on the distance. It’s inevitable reading this poetic image of characters contemplating a lost chance as a premonition of the destiny of the immortal series’ ephimeral life.