Review: 'The Comic Strip Art of Lyonel Feininger' is authoritative

A comic review article by: Eric Hoffman

In 1906, fine artist Lyonel Feininger produced two comic strips for The Chicago Sunday Tribune: The Kin-Der-Kids, a whimsical strip that follows the journey of a motley assortment of adventurous, globe-trotting children, and Wee Willie Winkie's World, an even more expressionistic – yet equally charming – strip detailing the tapestry of a young child's fantasy world. Neither strip lasted very long; Feininger soon turned his attention from comic strips to his foremost interests of painting and sculpting. The Kin-Der-Kids, a Sunday comic, would run a total of fifty-nine weeks and the subsequent Wee Willie Winkie's World for twenty. 

Lyonel Feininger

Prior to this authoritative, complete collection of both strips, edited and introduced with usual acumen by comics historian Bill Blackbeard, and published by stalwart reprint publisher Fantagraphics, the only repositories for Feininger's singular work – matched in creativity, originality, and imagination by only perhaps Herriman's Krazy Kat or McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland – were a few installments in Blackbeard and Williams' watershed The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (1977), and a long out-of-print Dover edition (1980; also overseen by Blackbeard), collecting the entirety of The Kin-Der-Kids only.

Lyonel Feininger

Both of those books, and this complete Fantagraphics reprint, faithfully reproduce the strip in its original 10x13 format; this new edition also manages to improve on the previously lackluster color reproductions of the prior collections. Thanks to Blackbeard's efforts, and the efforts of other comics historians, Feininger's brief foray into comic strips has been accorded the accolades it deserves and is rightly recognized as some of the finest work of the early decades of cartooning. 

Lyonel Feininger

As usual, Blackbeard gives an insightful and informative introduction to the work, providing a thorough examination of Feininger's place in the early comic strip industry. Feininger, a German-born artist, was hired by The Chicago Tribune to produce a comic strip original to its pages, an era when the size of the comics audience, perhaps due to its relative newness and novelty – the medium that was less than a decade old – was notoriously widespread. Moreover, the medium had not yet developed its language enough to become formulaic. As a result, the subject matter of comic strips was entirely open and experimentation ruled the day. Some strips were successful, and some – like Feininger's – were not. Consequently, the comics strips from this era remain among the most imaginative, adventurous and brave material as yet attempted.

 

Lyonel Feininger

 

As Blackbeard observes, The Chicago Tribune's editors' interest in Feininger was understandable: Chicago had a large German immigrant population, a generally literate group with a strong awareness of the current literature and arts of the homeland. Feininger was a popular cartoon illustrator for the German newspapers; what's more he showed an obvious talent for draftsmanship and a fine artist's sense of page composition. Yet unlike many other cartoonists of that time, Feininger had yet to make the transition to the comics pages. Enticed by The Tribune's offer, what Feininger produced – teasingly surreal strips where physics and logic are distorted by a dream-like fabric of the unreal – fell flat with its unsuspecting audience. The similarly unexpected Little Nemo, Blackbeard reminds us, also had a difficult time finding its audience. The Tribune's editors did not give Feininger's strips the opportunity to develop, cancelling them both, and in the case of The Kin-Der-Kids mid-story.

Lyonel Feininger

For 29 weeks The Kin-Der-Kids followed the exploits of the Kin-Ders, a German American family consisting of Daniel Webster Kin-Der, a Puritanical pipsqueak with top hat and glasses, described as a "mental gymnast and Infant Prodigy," representing the mind, his brother Piemouth, representative of the stomach, Theodore Kin-Der, known as "Strenuous Teddy," representing strength, Aunty Jim-Jam and Cousin Gussie, the kids' caretakers, Mr. Phileas P. Pillsbury, an inventor, Uncle Kin-Der, the head of the family, and Mysterious Pete, whom Feininger's character summary describes as "a somber shroud of inexplicable significance."

The Kin-Der-Kids set off from New York City in a bathtub boat. As they make their way out to sea, they receive a message from Mysterious Pete, a barefooted, feather fedora and blue blanket-festooned entity, who rides a cloud complete with a sign straight out of a Warner Brothers cartoon: "Private Cloud! Keep Off!" The Kids then encounter a group of whales, one of whom they kill then sell to passing fishermen, who provide them with a meal. Piemouth eats more than his share and, a la Monty Python's Meaning of Life, expands to a hideous size.

Mysterious Pete then appears to Aunty Jim-Jam and Cousin Gussy, relaxing in what appears to be a finely furnished midtown Manhattan apartment, providing them with a vision of the Kids lost at sea. Jim-Jam and Gussy thus set out to find them, travelling by hot air balloon. They eventually locate the kids and attempt to rescue them, yet the rescue hits a snag when their balloon is suddenly wrecked. Meanwhile, the kids take part in a motor boat race, reach land and engage in a football match. Strenuous Teddy competes with some circus strong men. All the while the Kids manage to stay one step ahead of Jim-Jam and Gussy, and are intervened upon by Mysterious Pete. They eventually return to sea, are wrecked by a water-spout, and are taken capture by Russians, when the story ends.

The entire strip comes off like a lengthy shaggy dog story; no reason is provided for the family's bathtub excursion down the East River. Events unfold like a dream following its own logic of a weekly adventure filled with mishaps and generally slapstick humor, with engagingly frenetic visual accoutrements; like some proto-Pogo, objects and characters are frequently arrayed with words: there are clever signs and descriptions everywhere, from Mysterious Pete's cloud to the Kin-Der-Kids' bathtub spout to Jim-Jam and Gussy's balloon. Nearly every character is given dialogue – often declamatory and usually a non-sequitur of some kind. Rarely is the comic static; motion of some kind is almost always implied. Objects, including people, are continually falling or being thrown aside, while the fish provide a kind of Greek chorus, commenting upon the events as they unfold. 

 

Lyonel Feininger

Feininger's strips are heavy on detail: witness the splash-page inaugural strip "Triumphant departure of the Kids in the family bathtub!!" Here the Kids vie with numerous other vessels: steam ships, ocean liners, tugboats, and so on. The Statue of Liberty, torch under arm, waves them a fond adieu, handkerchief in hand. Daniel Webster's nose is planted firmly in a book (The Early Navigators, appropriately). The tableau is an interesting mélange of high and low, from the expressionistic clouds above the city to the caricatured faces of the people below. The dialogue, perhaps due to Feininger's native German (though admittedly typical of strips of this era) is lacking in sophistication, yet the inspiring tableau of Feininger's artwork more than makes up for its relative unsophistication.

 

Lyonel Feininger

 

Wee Willie Winkie's World, The Kin-Der-Kids' replacement, is, by comparison, nearly wordless, and while it is just – if not more – visually daring as its predecessor, it is also considerably less cluttered. It is for this very reason that I prefer Wee Willie Winkie's World to The Kin-Der-Kids; the strip seems more dreamlike, more poetry than slapstick, and while it does generally follow the same concept of a young child taking part in high adventure –capturing a child's sense of wonder about the massive world taking place beyond their homes and schoolyards – this adventure is clearly the result of Wee Willie Winkie's overactive imagination.

Thus, while fantastical elements occur in The Kin-Der-Kids, there they have a more magical realist vibe, whereas Wee Willie Winkie's World is almost pure surrealism: objects come alive, houses, trains, trees and windmills anthropomorphize, a storm cloud transforms into an old lady watering her garden, a puddle becomes a face that spits out water at a child preparing to splash in it, a sun yawns as it rises into the sky. The strip contains no word balloons and, if not for the concise narrative captions accompanying each frame, would be entirely wordless. In this sense, the strip is reminiscent of the silent films of that era, in which scenes alternate or is interspersed with title cards.

In fact, in its narrative format, an image accompanied by a narrative caption, the strip most closely resembles a children's book, so much so that Blackbeard wonders in his introduction why Feininger never made the transition to children's literature, for which he seems so ably fitted: referring to The Kin-Der-Kids, Blackbeard writes: "One would have thought that the obvious high quality . . . in both art and story would have brought Feininger book offers from the very publishers of fine children's books whose works The Tribune sought to emulate in its comics pages."

Lyonel Feininger

 

In the end, The Chicago Tribune misread its audience: the literate German crowd, which had little interest in comic strips and even less in surrealist Nemo-esque adventures, considered Feininger's work too lowbrow to be of much use, while general audiences considered Feininger's work to be somewhat impenetrable; in other words, too high-brow. Feininger, disappointed by the lackluster response, stopped producing comic strips altogether (though, as Blackbeard notes, a decade later he would produce an array of carved wooden figures, houses, ships and locomotives based on The Kin-Der-Kids characters and backgrounds, and photographs of these handmade toys found their way into a book by Feininger, City at the End of the World [1965]; obviously the characters continued to occupy some part of him). 

Feininger's later career as a fine artist has retrospectively legitimized the comic strip as a true art form. This latest collection of Feininger's comics work, particularly for its reprinting of Wee Willie Winkie's World, deserves its place in every serious collection of early comic strip art.


Eric Hoffman is the editor of Cerebus the Barbarian Messiah: Essays on the Epic Graphic Satire of Dave Sim and Gerhard and co-editor with Dominick Grace of Dave Sim: Conversations and Chester Brown: Conversations.

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