Note: This is the fourth in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.
These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!
All illustrations and captions in this particular post were incorporated into the original essay, along with captions or comments in brackets [like this], by the Survey I instructor Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes.
Little Nemo: 1904-1915
by Rio Aubry Taylor
This collection, published in 2000 by Taschen under the Evergreen imprint, purports to include every weekly Sunday strip featuring Little Nemo from 1904 to 1915. Though not presenting Winsor McCay’s strips at their original size of 16 x 21 inches, this book’s sheer girth makes up for its lack of dimensions. As it is, the measurements of the book (about 9.5 x 12.5 inches) ensure that the strips are large enough to be readable and that the collection on a whole is not unwieldy. The reproduction of the colors and line work are crisp, bright, and pleasing to the eye and, of course, McCay’s art is beautiful and surreal. This collection showcases some of the best surreal comics produced at a critical point in the evolution the medium. It also demonstrates how McCay’s work does a better job at dreamlike story telling than either the traditional literature that came before or the modern media of today.
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I had always known that the character of Little Nemo existed in the multifarious milieu of children’s entertainment. I did not, however, realize his extreme significance to the history of American cartooning. I mostly knew Nemo as the star of the popular Nintendo title Little Nemo: The Dream Master, which I vaguely recognized as being based on an animated film. The game had Nemo explore large multi-platformed levels as he threw candy at animals who then let him ride on their backs in order to defeat enemies. As with many video games of this type, I absolutely loved it, and the surreal backgrounds and characters seemed totally natural to my young mind. Looking back on it now, the game’s very existence is a standing testament to McCay’s vision and influence. I sometimes wonder how many people my age got turned on to McCay’s strips after being introduced to the character in the video game scene.
As is stated in Bill Blackbeard’s brief introduction, the original run of Nemo’s adventures is called Little Nemo in Slumberland but was changed to In the Land of Wonderful Dreams in 1911 when McCay changed publishers. The earliest strips showcase Nemo’s attempts to reach Slumberland through his dreams, always aided by a different denizen of King Morpheus, the ruler of said kingdom, who wishes for Nemo to be a playmate for his daughter. The format of these strips is straightforward and evidences McCay’s evolving style and penchant for storytelling. In these simple adventures Nemo struggles to make it through dangerous and frightening dreamscapes with the aid of King Morpheus’s various strange and fantastical servants. However, by the end of each strip Nemo always seems to get frazzled and lose his bearings, causing him to wake up in a tearful fright. The last panel of every strip shows Nemo suddenly awake in his bed, where he sometimes must be consoled by one of the adult members of his family. These early pieces often make gags of Nemo’s parents scolding him for eating some strange combination of food before bed (“The next time your mother lets you eat raw onions and ice cream before bedtime I’ll, well…”).
Though I find these stories incredibly entertaining, I wonder if some of them may have been rather frightening to children at the time; it seems as though McCay may have intended for his strip to be read by a slightly more mature audience. For example, at one point Nemo must travel through a kingdom consisting of people made entirely of glass. By the time the strip is over Nemo has accidentally shattered all of that week’s supporting characters. In another strip a giant turkey tries to bring Nemo to Slumberland by devouring his house and everything in it. Nemo’s parents feature in this dream, but get lost when the Turkey drops Nemo into a sea of cranberry sauce. Nemo then wakes up wondering about the fate of his parents. The strip seems to imply that Nemo’s parents might have died within his dream, a heavy notion for the average child!
I find the first twenty or so weeks worth of material to be gratifying but slightly irksome to follow. These early strips showcase McCay’s evolving styling as a cartoonist as he experiments with how best to present his narrative. My largest trouble with these strips are the continually present captions at the bottom of each panel. These captions narrate the action of the panels in such a way as to make the pictures redundant. I find the captions especially distracting because the sentences usually do not end with their connected panels, but rather continue to the next. This creates a disconnected flow by allowing for two parallel tellings of the same story. The captions appear to be broken down by an arbitrary and predetermined amount space rather than anything else. Though this style can sometimes be aggravating for the modern reader, it serves as a piece of history for those interested in the evolution both of McCay’s style and comics in general. Of course, McCay was a pioneer in his field and it did not take him long to modify his work and make it better. In fact, throughout this entire collection the observant reader can see evidences of McCay’s experimentation and breakthroughs.
After about twenty weekly strips McCay begins to summarize each strip at the outset before telling his stories simply with the action and dialogue within the panels. This lends to a more pleasant reading experience that gets even better ten weeks later when McCay abandons narrative captions altogether and begins to tell his stories almost entirely through dialogue. Though some exposition sometimes occurs at the beginning of each strip, the author usually incorporates it into the tales through conversations between the characters or in-story written communication such as signs or letters.
As stated above, the earliest strips are simple and can generally be seen as stand alone episodes. The story really picks up, however, when McCay introduces Flip, who soon becomes a main character. Once introduced, and until Nemo finally meets his future playmate, Flip’s sole existence seems to be to divert Nemo from reaching the princess, whom Flip would like to woo himself. Standing in stark contrast to Slumberland’s motto of “don’t wake up,” Flip’s hat actually reads “wake up,” and when he first encounters Nemo that is exactly what our protagonist does! The initial rivalry between Flip and Nemo gives McCay a solid chance to elaborate on both Nemo and Flip’s respective personal characters. Whereas the previous strips present Nemo as a curious but rather impersonal hero, these strips showcase Nemo’s general nobleness and outstanding sense of what is right and wrong. As the story progresses, these traits contrast heavily with Flip’s rascally and somewhat needy personality.
[In this Sunday, November 13 1910 episode of Little Nemo in Slumberland, Nemo and his pals fly over Coney Island, such as it was before the fire that wiped out much of Coney Island's own "Dreamland" and more. In this story sequence, Flip ended up lost on the subway system and stranded in Brooklyn!]
Though paired together as adversaries, Nemo helps Flip on more than one occasion, simply because he believes helping people is the right thing to do. When a Slumberland ally cautions Nemo not to help Flip, who is marooned at the top of a tower after a failed flight attempt, Nemo replies “I can’t help it. I can’t see anybody in such a fix. No Siree!” Nemo, who at this time has become a giant, then proceeds to help Flip down, but is later punished for his deed by being shrunk down to mouse-like proportions. This, however, does not stop Nemo some twenty strips later from saving Flip from being executed by King Morpheus’s royal guard. This marks a major change in the series as Flip evolves from Nemo’s supposed worst enemy to a beloved and cantankerous ally.
At this point McCay’s narrative really reaches a stride. At first Nemo and the Princess constantly try to avoid Flip as though he is an annoying neighbor, but later join him in a series of adventures outside and within the royal palace of Slumberland. During the course of their exploits they meet a host of interesting and colorful recurring characters, and even pick up another regular ally in the form of the unfortunately stereotyped Imp. The Imp, who appears in a supposedly tribal getup and speaks an incomprehensible nonsense language, follows Flip, Nemo, and the Princess on their adventures. Though McCay depicts him outwardly as a savage in black-face, the Imp proves to be a valuable companion and friend to the characters who gladly employ his help when needed. The stereotypical appearance of the Imp that McCay employs, though popular at the time, is now recognized by readers with modern sensibilities to be undeniably racist. The fact that the Imp becomes an important part of Nemo’s entourage, however, is testament to both Nemo and the Imp’s noble character and McCay’s sense of youthful friendship.
The question remains: what benefits can a modern audience get from reading this collection of strips? These artfully rendered adventures offer something that can only be hinted at outside the comics medium and is still, unfortunately, rarely found even there: a truly surreal entertainment experience. Though technology has grown in leaps and bounds, these strips still represent an artistic peak in dreamlike storytelling, for which the medium of comics presents a unique link between more traditional literature and newer forms of entertainment technology.
McCay’s Nemo strips offer superb and fantastical art that bring the reader into a special world that could not be presented in any other way. Whereas traditional literature can present a narrative with language alone, comics have the power to immerse the reader in a visual world of the artist’s choosing. In this, McCay succeeds in presenting his own unique graphic language in a precise and insightful narrative. Written descriptions could simply not suffice to describe the truly splendid imagery he creates to tell his stories, as neither could a draftsman of lesser talent. By the same token, newer technology such as film, though offering a more sensorial experience, has the tendency to reveal too much. What traditional literature lacks in showing a precise artistic vision, modern film makes up for by bombarding the senses with information, thereby disallowing the viewers’ imaginations from taking hold and leading them through the narrative. Only the medium of comics could succeed in presenting the truly surreal world of Slumberland.
The benefit of comics, which McCay uses succinctly to his advantage, lies in the fact that actions occur between the panels. In every comic the artist must choose which scenes to present to his audience, and which actions to leave out. The chosen scenes must be precise enough to continue the proceeding narrative. The audience then fills in the information between the panels in much the same way a reader of traditional literature might form images of the story in his or her mind. In a more mundane comic the panels flow continually through time and space in a linear manner. McCay, however, has the advantage of setting his characters in a world where the normal laws of space and time do not exist. This means that he has the freedom to manipulate the rules to an almost infinite extent in order to continue his story telling. His genius lies in the fact that his comics remain acute and readable, containing a clearly identified story and progressive narrative while simultaneously bending the normal rules that readers must submit to in everyday waking life. Through reading these comics the reader becomes a co-creator in McCay’s surreal world, subconsciously choosing for herself the timings and specifics of the strange occurrences between the panels. For this reason McCay’s comics, and others like his, might represent the entertainment medium that comes closest to actually emulating a real dream.
McCay touches on the sorts of experiences that anyone, especially children, can relate to. Because the normal rules do not affect his characters, they exhibit a sense of youthful exuberance, unbounded by any fetters except for that of the author’s imagination, which he consistently exhibits to be quite extensive. Nemo and company grow and shrink, meet strange and interesting creatures, and even travel to Mars, none of which seems out of the ordinary for the citizens Slumberland. Though many people may not realize it, they essentially live two lives, separated by their level of awareness and consciousness. Most people’s dream lives remain essentially unexplored, but McCay brings the regular ritual of dreaming into full focus. The strange adventures of Nemo and his friends showcase that other part of the human condition, the part most people neglect to talk about. The human mind is truly fantastic, and in its most creative depths can bring forth stories that no conscious mind could. McCay was able to reach into those depths in order to create a delightful experience that can still be enjoyed today, and for that we should be grateful!
[The above essay is ©2010 Rio Aubry Taylor, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]
About the author/student:
Further reading & resources:
Both books are in the Schulz Library‘s permanent collection.