Know Thy History: Little Nemo
I’ve been putting off doing a “Know Thy History” for Little Nemo out of fear. I’m afraid that I know so very little about this comic, one of the most revered comics that were published at the turn of the century.
Why feel apprehensive? Partly because Little Nemo was far ahead of its time. I mean, look at these sample images. They’re totally boss! Do they even look like they were made in the 1910’s? And, when you consider that McCay influenced prominent cartoonists from Moebius to Bill Watterson to Maurice Sendak, you can’t help but feel intimidated. It’s like trying to talk about Picasso: you hate to do a disservice to such a milestone work, but unless you’re a student of the man’s work, a much bigger fanboy is going to totally call you out on something you missed.
In the world of comic strips, Little Nemo was a total anomaly. It wasn’t the most popular strip of its day. Readers were all about The Katzenjammer Kids and Buster Brown. (I don’t want to imply were inferior, by the way, since they have their own excellent qualities.) After all, it’s a comic about little kid who’s going through some pretty vivid fever dream sequences… and by vivid, I mean “Little Nemo has been hitting the cough syrup pretty hard before bedtime” vivid. Like there’s a strip where a witch, who has transformed into a little girl, shakes off her angry pursuer by transforming a tree into a giant rhino. That’s pretty high concept, even today.
If it hadn’t been for Woody Gelman (founder of Nostalgia Press and creator of Popsicle Pete, a frequent Seanbaby target at Cracked.com), we probably wouldn’t be talking about Little Nemo today. He discovered an original collection of strips in 1966 and gave them the full treatment. He didn’t stop at just putting them in his latest Nostagia Press collection; he also toured the works at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, it’s been said that Little Nemo is the first comic strip to be exhibited at the Louvre.
The Louvre-worthy entry, by the way? This awesome one where houses sprout legs called “Night of the Living Houses.” Who knew museum curators could be pretty awesome?
It makes sense. Little Nemo has got style to spare. The strips are all about surrealism, and how far you can visually stretch the boundaries of imagination. In the art world beyond newspaper comics, the Post-Impressionist movement had come and gone. A lot of the influences of that era, like the colors and the compositions remiscent of Lautrec, Seurat, and Cezanne, can be fent in McCay’s art. At the same time, McCay may have had the jump on the Surrealism movement. Salvador Dali may have made elephants with long stilt-like legs one of his signature pieces, but Windsor McCay beat him to a similar concept by more than three decades with his long-legged bed. Take that, Dali, you mustachioed weirdo!
When Little Nemo debuted in the New York Herald, Winsor McCay already had two successes under his belt: Little Sammy Sneeze and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (where the character of Nemo actually made his debut). The Little Nemo strips follow a reliable pattern: weird stuff happens, and Nemo wakes up at the end. When he dreams, he’s whisked away to Slumberland, which is ruled by Morpheus (somewhere, Neil Gaiman was taking notes. Nemo personally enjoys the delightful company of the princess, whom, in one of the earliest strips, he must find after travelling through a mushroom forest (somewhere, Shigeru Miyamoto was taking notes).
There’s also Flip, the memorable grumpy, green-faced guy who always has got a stogie in his mouth (which is probably why is face is so green). At first, he totally princess-blocks our hero by wearing a hat that says “Wake up!” on it, thus pulling Nemo from Slumberland and into the waking nightmare that is reality. But later, Nemo and Flip are totally besties, because bros before ho…norable royal family members, amirite guyz?
One of the running themes in Little Nemo is the bizarre circus imagery. There are seriously more polka-dots, stripes, pointy hats, and ruffled collars than a Tim Burton movie. Slumberland is a place where most everyone dresses like a clown, especially Nemo, who’s shown to be at his most heroic when he’s in a clown suit with pom-pom buttons.
Another recurring theme, which goes hand in hand with the circus, are animals of varying size, intelligence, and creepiness. One strip can have Nemo on the run from polar bears while another has him soaring on the back of a giant bird.
Generally speaking, most of the imagery in Little Nemo is meant to be unsettling. A giant moon face straight from the silent films? Well, I’ll be seeing you in my nightmares tonight! Little Nemo can also be breath-taking, magical, and sometimes violent.
Winsor McCay wrote Little Nemo In Slumberland for the New York Herald between 1905 and 1911, and then In The Land of Wonderful Dreams for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American between 1911 and 1914. There was a brief revival a few years later, but no one ever talks about that. After he stopped doing Little Nemo, McCay went on to totally shame anyone who ever claimed the title of “Renaissance Man” by animating one of the first cartoons, Gertie the Dinosaur.
Little Nemo went on to inspire a 1989 animated movie called Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. There was also a video game, Little Nemo: The Dreammaster, which was my personal first exposure to Little Nemo. While I never actually played the game, but the commercial and its outlandish promises stuck with me.
It’s kinda nice to know that, years later, the source material beats expectations and then some.
Images from the Vintage Newspaper Comics Archive.