Best of Little Nemo

The Best of LIttle Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay, Edited by Richard Marschall. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997. 216p., 10″ X 12.5″, out of print.

While Krazy Kat, on cursory viewing, looks unimpressive with its scratchy art, Little Nemo in Slumberland is impressive to behold in its large, colored form. Unfortunately, while Krazy Kat got more enjoyable the more I read, Little Nemo had the opposite effect on me. The more of these strips I read the less I was finding them interesting.

McCay’s strip, dating from 1905-1913, chronicles the dream life of a boy named Nemo. Each page-long strip begins in dream and ends with a panel of Nemo awaking in his bedroom. Early on Nemo’s dreams revolve around his attempts to get into Slumberland where King Morpheus wants Nemo to be the playmate of his daughter the Princess. Nemo’s is often thwarted by a character named Flip who looks like a cigar smoking clown in a three piece suit, wearing a hat that says “Wake Up” on it. Later the story moves on to various adventures involving Nemo, Flip (who becomes a friend of sorts), the Princess, and a host of other characters, including a trip by some kind of airship across the US (and to Mars).

One of the problems with this collectin of Nemo strips is its lack of chronological order. The book is divided into 6 sections and the strips are only chronological within each section, making it harder to track the progression of the strip.

What makes Little Nemo impressive is the surrealist quality of McCay’s imagination and the realist style with which he illustrates the dreams. This is not a minimalist strip by any visual means. McCay fills every bit of his large pages with amazing illustrations and beautiful colors (unlike any other newspaper strip I’ve seen).

The problem becomes with the banality that develops in this oneiric landscape. The strips become rather dull from a lack of something, perhaps interesting characters, or thematic change, or… Isolated strips show McCay’s creative genius, but in large doses, much of the strips are unimpressive. Even a best of collection like this, featuring about 200 strips, is too large. A smaller culling of the strips would perhaps best suit the display of the real “best” strips.

One problem is that the characters are completely void of any personality. As well, the dialogue and word balloons are almost unnecessary as a whole. The balloons crowd around the words, adding to the feeling that they are afterthoughts, often explicating what is clearly seen in the panel or providing mindless chatter. The text in the final “waking up” panel is the most interesting and relevant, as invariably Nemo or some relative (mother, father, grandfather) provide a comment on what he ate before going to sleep or noises he was making. This panel and dialogue asks as a punctuation mark to each strip.

Page layouts are one element that are often put to creative uses. McCay never deviates from rectangular panels but he occasionally stretches the panels to very heights and widths to coincide with elements of the story. You can see such in this strip I found online. The panels grow along with the bed.

McCay can be considered the master of a certain kind of panel transition sequence, a moment by moment transformation of some element (or all elements) in the scene. Many of the strips rely on such a sequence: Nemo and friends slowly being frozen in an arctic landscape, a room slowly filling with water, a stairway’s individual steps slowing growing larger and larger as Nemo progresses down them, the rotation of a room as Nemo and company find themselves walking on the walls and then the ceiling (all while appearing rightside up to the read), or just a fixed view of characters moving about in the same background. These are all impressive sequences that slow down the narrative and often are the only narrative in the page, time and space that is rarely utilized in a comic, particular newspaper strips. McCay’s manipulation of the backgrounds and scenes into a plastic malleable medium is more impressive than any of Dali’s melting clocks. Here’s a beautiful example where Nemo stays the same size but his background is slowly transformed to show that he is growing.

This collectino of Nemo strips has impressive large reproductions of the strips, though again sadly not chronological nor even are all dated. I can’t not recommend that you take a look at some Little Nemo strips, but I’d also say that it’s better to skim for the most visually impressive ones. It’s far more in the visuals and the sequence thereof where McCay shines rather than in any sort of narrative of character, plot, or dialogue.