Register Thursday | May 28 | 2020

Light Bulbs

Illuminating the bright-idea symbol.

SOME ART FORMS are born self-reflexive. Like the hip-hop song, the comic strip has been “meta” from its inception. By the first decade of the twentieth century, cartoonists were routinely rapping about their own rapping. In one strip from that era, Winsor McCay—the genius who gave us Little Nemo in Slumberland—draws himself at the drawing board, invoking aloud the muse of daily laffs: “Oh! For an idea! What is funny? What can I draw? Oh! For a joke! Let me think!” In taking as his subject his very inability to come up with a subject, McCay joins a venerable tradition whose later practitioners include Yeats (“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”) and Beckett.

All that, though, is by the way. I mention the McCay strip to remind the reader of how ill-suited comics are to probing their characters’ innermost thoughts. McCay’s solution is a laughably stagy apostrophe; he gets ...

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