Little Nemo in Slumberland, Volume 1
by Windsor McCay
Checker Book Publishing Group
We think of surrealism as art galleries populated with melting clocks and fur-lined bedpans, but a century ago it infused popular culture via the Sunday funnies. Windsor McCay, a neat and genteel man, captured the essence of dream-like stories in the mind of Little Nemo, a boy who went to bed, but never slept peacefully. Every night a universe of animals and fantasy friends led him on ever more frenetic journeys. His stuffed animals came to life, his bed became a pirate ship or soared though the heavens, and every adventure ended with him back in bed in some contorted position and warped in his bed sheets.
Checker Books has pulled together an amazing collection of McCay material. This volume starts with a brief introduction and 40 panels of his “Tales of the Jungle Imps.” Today you’d get letters to the editor about racist stereotypes, but the panels are gently retelling stories like “How the Elephant Got His Trunk” or “How the Bee Got His Sting.” These are large size full-page Sunday funnies sheets with fanciful art, doggerel poetry, and a charm that still appeals if we overlook our political correctness.
Nearly four years of Little Nemo in Slumberland strips form the heart of this volume (October 15, 1905 to August 15, 1909). The strips begin with Nemo drifting into troubled sleep, his bed sinking into the floor or sailing away on a Technicolor ocean. As the strips progress, continuity builds as King Morpheus orders his palace guards to bring Nemo to Slumberland as chief playmate for his daughter The Princess. Troublemaker Flip, a cigar-smoking 23-year old friend who looks a bit like Boss Tweed, keeps them in trouble, and one of the jungle imps appears occasionally to add to the exotic feel of the story. The story isn’t the main thrust, but rather the sinuous reality and malleable architecture of the dream experience. And no matter how weird things get, there’s never more than a slight anxiety hovering over Nemo and friends.
The elaborate art work makes these strips so engaging. McCay is the first cartoonist to exploit the frame as an active part of the story — it alternately confines and liberates Nemo, and frames expand and contract to guide readers through a non-linear story telling experience. The colors are wonderfully hand done, looking more like a water color than a Lichtenstein half tone. A short section near the end of the book reproduces some of the same strips in black and white. These pen and ink panels are easier to read, but lack the emotional impact of the color versions. At the very end are some miscellaneous pieces of art, including posters for a short-lived stage show, promotional material, and a nice full color French illustration of Mr. McCay at his animator’s desk.
There are two complaints with this 300-page digest. Because the panels have been shrunk, the lettering is very hard to read, and sitting down with a child and sharing the experience is nigh on impossible. It’s not like the publisher can split the sheets, and the Audubon-sized book you need to do this justice would be prohibitively expensive. The other problem involves the pages immediately breaking loose from the cover when I received the book. I’m not sure if that’s a fluke or if modern binding methods are getting as bad as modern newspaper cartoons. Pick this up at a bookstore if you can, then you can always return it if it breaks. Little Nemo is truly the King of the Golden Age of cartooning.