Current Reviews


Winsor McCay's Little Nemo In Slumberland volume one

Posted: Wednesday, May 7, 2008
By: Dave Wallace

Winsor McCay
Winsor McCay
Checker Books
Like many readers of modern comics, I've never spent a huge amount of time studying the history of the medium. The majority of my reading consists of books that were written in the last few decades, and despite recognising the importance of pre-Silver Age comics in the medium’s development, I haven't spent a huge amount of time studying them or learning about their creators.

However, I'm interested enough in comics that I've picked up bits and pieces of historical information along the way and, lately, I'm finding myself more and more interested in reading older works than I am in the current scene. As such, I jumped at the chance to review this collection of stories featuring a character that holds a significant place in history: Little Nemo.

Despite recognising the names of Little Nemo and his creator, Winsor McCay, this book was my first real exposure to both, and I wondered whether my lack of foreknowledge and the absence of any kind of nostalgic connection to the character might stop me from getting as much out of the book as Nemo enthusiasts might. However, those concerns were allayed as soon as I started to read the book, and I found myself quickly won over by the charm, imagination, and storytelling skill that McCay brings to his pages.

For those of you who are still thinking that this book centres around the adventures of an orange-and-white clownfish who's lost his dad, allow me to provide a brief summary of the strip.

Little Nemo In Slumberland follows the night-time adventures of the titular young boy as he experiences vivid dreams that take him on journeys of the imagination through all manner of magical, exotic, and exciting environments. At the end of every episode, the boy wakes up (or is woken up--usually to be told off by his parents) and the dream ends.

It's a formulaic structure--although the stories do become slightly more sophisticated as the strip develops--but one that allows McCay the latitude to include all manner of outlandish concepts and fantastical ideas that require no more justification than that of Nemo's overactive imagination.

However, despite its title, this large, hardback volume provides more than just a collection of reprints of McCay's most famous creation. The first section of the book collates a series of stories called "Tales of the Jungle Imps" written by George Randolph Chester of the Cincinnati Enquirer (the newspaper in which the stories were originally published), and illustrated by McCay.

These stories take the form of illustrated poems that describe the (imaginary) circumstances in which various jungle animals gained their distinguishing features. As such, they're highly reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling's "Just So" stories. In fact, I assume that they were inspired by Kipling's stories, which were published in 1902--immediately prior to the appearance of "Tales of the Jungle Imps" in 1903.

Whilst the "Jungle Imps" stories might not be the most original or inspired, McCay's artwork lends them a lot of charm and really works to enhance their appeal. Bizarre images--such as a giraffe without a neck, a crocodile with a tiny mouth, and an elephant with a regular-sized nose--bring Chester's concepts to life wonderfully (and are all a lot funnier visually than I've made them sound).

Some readers may find McCay's renderings of the Imps mildly offensive, due to the racist sterotype that McCay has used as a model for the primitive, brown-skinned characters. (It’s a stereotype that also crops up in the later Nemo stories.) However, the book doesn't censor the images, or attempt to tone them down in any way.

As with the recently-republished Tintin in the Congo story by Hergé, the publishers have trusted their audience to bring an appreciation of the current social standards of racism to their reading of the work--allowing it to reflect the attitudes of the time without truly offending those of us who are approaching these century-old stories from a contemporary perspective.

While the "Jungle Imps" stories provide an interesting glimpse of McCay's early work as an illustrator, the bulk of the collection is taken up with the Little Nemo strip--with the book covering the publishing period from October 15, 1905 to August 15, 1909. Although the early adventures of Nemo are a little repetitive and formulaic, McCay's talent as a draughtsman is immediately obvious.

Starting off as a fairly simple and straightforward series of imaginative adventures, McCay's strip explores dreamlike environments in which anything is possible--though many of the concepts are rooted in some kind of reality (McCay seems fond of circus imagery, and has a particular talent for drawing realistic animals).

The early strips also show a surreal bent at times, such as the strip in which Nemo is trapped in a cluster of gigantic collapsing mushrooms--a story that foreshadows the more confident surrealism of later episodes. Later examples of surrealism include Nemo growing to a gigantic size so that the world appears in miniature, and his discovery of a street full of townhouses on long spindly legs (these images wouldn't look out of place in a Dali painting or a Pink Floyd video).

Gradually, the strip evolves in style--with McCay adding more and more speech bubbles and relying less on flat prose captions in order to tell the story. As interesting as the strips are in their own right, it's even more interesting to see McCay's storytelling style develop from the early illustrated poems, to single-panel cartoons, to comic strips, all the way through to (by the end of this collection) full blown comics pages that form the prototype for the longer-form storytelling that we see in comics today.

By the end of the sequence of strips collected here, McCay has moved from self-contained story pages to inter-connected and linked stories that flow from page to page with such recurring characters as Flip and The Princess, who are developed into multi-faceted personalities more than most cartoon-strip characters tend to be.

McCay also benefits from the limitations of his format--with an artistic discipline and an economy of storytelling that is surely the result of having to tell a complete story in just one page. He also shows off some very innovative drawing techniques--such as the breaking of panel borders, which he frequently uses as part of the illustration itself rather than as a mere boundary for his drawings.

These are artistic tricks that still seem innovative when we see them used today, and I was truly surprised to see McCay making use of these fairly sophisticated techniques in works that were created over 100 years ago. There's also a real delicacy to the colouring of the strips that gives them a sense of depth and detail far beyond that of comics that were produced decades later.

I was additionally surprised to see such intellectual depth in this collection of stories that were nominally intended for an audience of children. McCay clearly seems to be writing with adults in mind, too--with some fairly dark and disturbing elements that I imagine would appeal more to adult artistic sensibilities than to children looking for a simple visual thrill.

The strip contains nods to such sophisticated themes as the Freudian interpretation of dreams and the theories of Darwin, which aren't explicitly stated but the ideas are there to be inferred if you choose to interpret them that way. However, McCay doesn't forget to include striking visuals that will resonate with a younger audience, and there's an abundance of imagination in Little Nemo that ensures that it will appeal to less worldly-wise readers, too.

Looking at Little Nemo from a modern perspective, it's interesting to note the contemporary details of early 20th-century life that you can see reflected in the strip. There are elements of social commentary in McCay's stories that reflect the state of America a decade before it was to become involved in the first World War.

It's also interesting to see how historical artistic trends influenced Little Nemo, too. McCay's approach to illustration seems to have been coloured by the art nouveau movement, reflecting his immediate artistic influences in the same way that you can see psychedelic and pop-art elements in the 1960s and 1970s work of Jim Steranko, or cutting-edge graphic design elements in more modern books like Jonathan Hickman's Nightly News.

This collection also contains quite a few extras. There are several pages of reproduced black-and-white pages that were McCay's original proofs for the strip (complete with his handwritten notes)--providing insight into the creative process that will surely be welcomed by McCay enthusiasts.

There is also a gallery of promotional material featuring posters and playbills, advertising for the strip, and even some early examples of Little Nemo illustrations being used to sell other merchandise--which will surprise anyone who thought that the licensing of comic book characters for the purposes of advertising and merchandise was a recent trend.

This hardcover volume is a fine package with only a couple of very minor drawbacks. Although the quality of the reproduction of the original strips is impressive, the format of the book is still smaller than the original broadsheet newspaper printings. As a result, some of the text occasionally feels a little cramped and squashed, making it difficult to read.

However, unless you're willing to shell out on the extra-large (and considerably rarer and more expensive) reprinting of the series from Sunday Press Books this is the best presentation of Little Nemo that you're likely to find anywhere. It's also worth noting that this book doesn't collect the strip in its entirety: you'll have to wait until volume 2 for the reprints of the later strips.

Despite my small nitpicks, this collection is still required reading for anyone who's interested in the medium of comics. The book’s simple and clear style of presentation allows McCay's illustrations to speak for themselves--showing his innovation of new comic book storytelling techniques at a time when comic books didn't even exist, and leaving a legacy that has surely influenced every illustrator to follow in the artist's footsteps (whether they know it or not).

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