Remember the Great Curve? pt. 2

The other piece I wrote for Alex Segura’s Great Curve comics blog in 2006, commemorating 100 years of Little Nemo in Slumberland. Man, was I into that strip. The art is mind-blowing. There was this sharp line that year between having to scrimp to find any out-of-print Nemo books or merchandise, and it all suddenly blasting into production. Now you can buy full-size collections, complete collections, anything you like.

Fun fact: Winsor McCay’s buried near my house. I’ve been to his grave a few times.


Saturday hosts the centennial celebration of Winsor McCay’s magnum opus, “Little Nemo on Slumberland,” which debuted as a full-page comic strip in the New York Herald on October 15, 1905. On that day, readers met Little Nemo for the first time, as he answered King Morpheus’ invitation to befriend the Princess.

As was the custom for many strips of the day, “Slumberland” operated on a repeating gag about a cute kid, such as McCay’s previous creation, “Little Sammy Sneeze.” But while Sammy predictably upended canoes and carriages to receive a boot in the rear by the final panel, Nemo’s adventures were polymorphous. His extended quest to reach the gates of Slumberland began with a high-speed trip on a “night mare” steed, only to wake up while hurtling to his death. Falls and collapsing structures tormented the poor six year-old, who was also peppered with arrows, chased by ogres, and frozen into ice. This last tribulation provided one of the most horrifying moments in the story’s eight-year journey, when Nemo’s mother placed him in front of the fire to thaw, and all but his head melted into a puddle.

But if “Slumberland” was cruel to its protagonist, it was still better treatment than Nemo’s fellow somnadventurists received in the strip’s forerunner and contemporary, “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend.” There, McCay tormented a nameless cast with trips to Hell, physical mutilation and spontaneous combustion, under the pseudonym Silas. Nemo had a far better time of it, meeting Santa Claus, fighting pirates, and exploring Mars in between life-threatening experiences. Whatever the shape of the dream, Nemo was sure to wake up in the end, and often to find himself right back at his

“Slumberland” concluded in 1914 under the name “In the Land of Wonderful Dreams,” a title change necessitated by its move to Hearst papers. McCay died in 1934, having spent the latter part of his life on editorial cartoons, animated efforts. A revived vaudeville career was squelched by Hearst, a born conspirator.

Though erroneously touted as the father of animation, McCay is certainly the godfather, transforming brief stick-figure dances into works of ambition that reached for the moon while the rest of the fledgling medium tried to ascertain if the world was round. So convincing was his “Gertie the Dinosaur” featurette (which was most likely the first interactive film performance), that audiences unconditioned to animation, as noted by Alan Moore in the final issue of Promethea, thought they were watching a documentary of an actual living fossil.

His very first animation was 1911’s “Little Nemo,” (the first color film? Almost certainly the first color animation) which, like all his films, he drew entirely by himself: a titanic feat today, let alone with no mould yet cast for an expedient method of producing high-quality work. It remains a visually wonderful film, as does all of the McCay filmography, though several pieces may be boring to modern eyes without a strong story. Like its inspiration the film’s visual dazzle sometimes eclipses the tale. Bill Waterson, creator of the cherished strip “Calvin & Hobbes,” once wrote that McCay “is more concerned with his stage than his players,” a fair assessment given “Slumberland’s” crammed word balloons whose dialogue seems to have been the last part of the cartooning process to receive any attention.

But if actions speak louder than words, we can still glean nice characterization from the passive, obedient Nemo whose concern and care move him to independent action only to save the well-being of others, including his enemies. His foil lies in Flip, a clown-faced, hobo-dapper rogue with a Brooklyn accent who chomps on cigars and either deliberately or accidentally causes havoc wherever the two travel. More to his credit, Flip is “an outcast relative of the Dawn family” and “The son of the Sun,” who summons his uncle the Dawn to dissolve Dreamland when events don’t go his way.

Their adversarial chase to reach the princess first soon turns to a strong friendship, dragging each other into adventure and then extricating themselves. Perhaps the most impressive maneuver comes when pirates want Flip to walk the plank, and the audacious brat strolls out fearlessly, then proclaims that he can call his uncle and melt them all. “Shall I jump?” he asks cockily, and the horde of bloodthirsty pirates mewls for mercy.

They were joined, of course, by the Princess, a pleasant girl eager to show Nemo the wonders of her empire, but otherwise as flat a character as Nemo would be were he not forced into action by the story.

And then…there’s Impie. The character was imported from an earlier strip drawn by McCay and written by a fellow newspaper employee, called the “Tales of the Jungle Imps,” a series of modern fables about how animals got their current shapes at the hands of the Imps. In “Slumberland’s” version, despite his gross appearance, Impie’s father the king contradictorily seems to lead a peaceful, enlightened nation, and he speaks eruditely. Nevertheless, son Impie is an irreconcilable blend of awful racial stereotype and delightful irritant (his mischief gives Flip a taste of the treatment shown to Nemo and perhaps speeds their friendship), Impie has an unfaltering zest for fun and excitement, but perpetually exemplifies the conflict between the strip’s message of agape and the unity of mankind, and a string of characters that are at best described as unenlightened examples of the time. At worst, and more honestly, they are ignorantly racist caricatures, however benevolent their appearance.

A few others come and go from their ranks: Dr. Pill (the self-important royal physician), the Candy Kid (who’d probably join their play if he weren’t so genteel), the Old Magician or Old Priest, and an unnamed fellow who functions as Flip’s sidekick or boxing ring manager from time to time.

McCay graduated from Michigan State Normal College, known today as Eastern Michigan University (and the center of an impressive collection of comic art). He drew circus posters and performed vaudeville before landing in cartooning, where he pioneered a number of methods that have rarely been utilized, such as breaking a single background picture into several panels to chart characters’ movements through a scene.

McCay’s art nouveau style used the thick contours and scant interior detail that originated with the movement’s founder, Alphonse Mucha, to achieve an ornate style that came wonderfully characterizes the foglike fantasy of dreams and theater, respectively. But where Mucha’s posters used ornate designs to create whirling patterns, McCay frequently grounded his strips in concrete, photorealistic scenes, if only to distort them.

If it were only his mastery of perspective in both artificial and natural forms that made the strip notable, McCay might be more readily imitated today, but his instinct for storytelling techniques and visual tricks that reflect the material make him a harder being to mimic.

Though recognition for his work has only lately begun to rise, the man’s influence extends far, and can be found in a number of maor strips, books and movies.

Frank King’s “Gasoline Alley” played with dreams and distortion in much the same way, while children’s author Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen) and Pultizer-Prize winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman (Maus, In the Shadow of No Towers) proudly acknowledge the inspiration found in McCay’s skills and techniques. Walt Disney, while giving the artist’s son (and Nemo model) Robert McCay, a tour of the new Disneyland theme park, said none of it would exist if not for his father. Mark Waid named the main character of Kingdom Come, who inherits the Sandman’s dreams, after McCay. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have done “Slumberland” tribute issues in Promethea and Sandman respectively. There is also a fair argument to be made that The Matrix pays homage to Nemo’s story.

McCay died in 1934 and is buried in The Lawn section of Evergreen Cemetary, in Brooklyn, NY. Robert attempted to continue the Nemo legacy, but it never succeeded, and he slipped through the fledgling comic book industry, working alongside artists like Gill Fox. Disney, that bastion of copyright extension, pounced on an anime adaptation of the strip for stateside release, as soon as it was possible to do so, but despite a script by Ray Bradbury, the film flopped, perhaps deservedly given the completely alien plot elements of magic keys and an invading Nightmare King. The entire franchise is perhaps best known in America today for the video game adapting the movie into a Nintendo cartridge. The U.S. Post Office released a stamp commemorating the strip alongside 19 other Platinum Age comics in 1995.

It’s been 100 years. Isn’t it time the art world gave “Little Nemo” the credit it deserves?