In a letter to cartoonist Clare Briggs, Winsor McCay, the artist and animator, explained that he could no more stop putting pen to paper than he could cease filling his lungs with air.
"I never intended to be an artist," McCay wrote in the earnest missive. "Simply, I couldn't stop myself from drawing. I drew for my own pleasure. I never wanted to know whether or not someone liked my drawings.
I never thought about the money I would receive for my drawings. I simply drew and drew."
There was acclaim to be had, of course, and money to be made, most of that long after McCay's death in 1934. More than a century after his most famous work Little Nemo in Slumberland awoke readers of the New York Herald, rare originals command six figures, most recently in March 2020, when a Sunday strip dated Sept. 6, 1908, realized a record-setting $168,000 at Heritage Auctions
One year later, yet another extraordinary Little Nemo original makes its auction debut during Heritage's April 1-4 Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction event. This one is an even earlier work, from Feb. 23, 1908; and this one is even more coveted, as it comes from the Befuddle Hall story arc that takes place in a funhouse whose topsy-turvy, twisty-bendy, inside-out architecture looks like something that might have inspired Inception.
In their 1968 book A History of the Comic Strip, published in conjunction with an exhibition of original art at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the Palais du Louvre, Pierre Couperie and Maurice C. Horn write that McCay was comicdom's "greatest innovator" of the early 20th century. And, they wrote, Little Nemo in Slumberland was his "masterpiece of elegance, simplicity, and poetry."
"Its plot is very simple," they wrote. "Each night Little Nemo is carried in dream to Slumberland, and each morning is brought back to the daily reality by the harsh shock of awakening.
On each of his nocturnal rambles, Little Nemo penetrates a little more deeply into the dream. One after another he meets those who are to be his companions and guides."
This original work is the only known trip to Befuddle Hall ever to come to market.
And it's an extraordinarily significant one: This important piece of comics history was displayed in 2005 at the "Masters of American Comics" exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. There, McCay was shown alongside George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff and Charles M. Schulz.
In his essay written for the exhibition's catalog, author Tom DeHaven wrote that McCay was "the finest draughtsman the comic-strip medium has ever produced, and its single greatest fantasist, and the man who synthesized the chaotic vocabulary of the early funny papers, devised and developed a sustaining, flexible grammar and created the fluent common language of the comics. Since McCay, the basic unit has been the page, the page, and not the panel. He was essential. And he was a genius. And who needs hallucinogens, who needs hookahs, when you're one of those?"