"Mac is the greatest of the serious ink splashers." - Damon Runyon

You can make the argument that the comic strip started with Winsor McCay. Chronologically, it's not quite true but, more than most, the American cartoonist who created Little Sammy Sneeze, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and, in 1905, Little Nemo in Slumberland sketched out what was possible in the form. He is the comic strip's Cecil B DeMille and George Melies combined - a glorious fantasist and technical innovator, a synthesiser of possibilities in an almost new art form and now, more than 100 years later, still one of the most accomplished and capable artists who have ever graced the form.

He was also a man of his time guilty of his time's prejudices, but let's park that for a moment and recognise his importance. As Tom De Haven argues in the book Masters of Comic Art, it was McCay who effectively devised and developed the grammar and language of comics. "Since McCay the basic unit has been the page," De Haven claims and there are few more beautiful pages than the strips McCay devised for Little Nemo - glorious Art Nouveau-influenced colour art replete with a startling eye for pattern and readability and an offhand surrealism that owed something, you feel, to his time spent working in a dime museum in Chicago drawing posters and banners to advertise its latest freak show attractions.

All of this is on display in Taschen's sumptuous new collection of the Little Nemo strips, accompanied by a companion volume written by art historian Alexander Braun. Little Nemo is the story of a boy's dream world, full of exaggerated and distorted figures, beds that grow legs, giants, simulacrums of American cities, elephants, zebras, clowns and, it has to be said, racist caricatures of black characters based on minstrel imagery common at the time.

If what you notice in his previous strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is its surrealist nightmare violence - Braun reproduces imagery of a face being pulled like putty (an image later reproduced in Terry Gilliam's film Brazil) and a demon hammering spikes into the dreamer's face - in Little Nemo it's the ornate dreamscapes that catch the eye.

And that's down to the mastery McCay had over page layout. In a recent essay in the Huffington Post entitled Why Comics Are More Important Than Ever (posited on the idea that if print and digital media are read by the brain in different ways then the comic strip is already a bi-literate form), Bill Kartalopoulos looks in detail at the way McCay would guide the reader's eye around the page in a Little Nemo strip. At work here, he suggests, is "the poetics of comics: the aesthetic experience of simultaneously experiencing a comic's form and content so harmoniously that the contours of the comic's theme can be read in its architectural blueprint."

This is McCay's achievement. Marrying form and content.

Not everyone is a fan. It is impossible now to overlook the casual racism on display unfortunately, and Roger Sabin in his 2001 book Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art argues: "For all their technical brilliance, the 'Nemo' stories were often emotionally cold. McCay was obviously more interested in his drawing than in his writing, and this was a flaw he never really overcame."

It's one possible reading. Against it, you could always set the Art Spiegelman story. When he was courting his eventual wife, New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly, the creator of Maus used to read her Little Nemo cartoons."This is how Art seduced me," Mouly once said.

Maybe not so emotionally cold after all then.

Winsor McCay. The Complete Little Nemo, Alexander Braun, 2 Vols, Taschen, £135