Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland, v.2

The second volume of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland covers the final sixteen years of this ground breaking newspaper strip. Earlier I reviewed a volume of his early works, which concentrated on his Dreams Of A Rarebit Fiend comics and saw the McCay’s early use of dreamscape imagery and logic. In Nemo all of the seeds laid there came to fruition, creating work that continues to inspire a century later.

The most obvious innovation is little Nemo himself. Whereas the earlier strip was essentially a series of one shots, each page with a new dreamer, Nemo allowed for continuing stories and adventures, and for a growing cast of characters. Little Nemo was a fitful sleeper, who often found himself on the floor in the morning. Each page ended with his mother telling him to settle down or to get up. But when Nemo slept his was in another world. King Morpheus had brought him to his kingdom as a playmate for his daughter the Princess, but they frequently left with other characters to enjoy adventures, which in this volume included trips to the North Pole, Mars, and even a prehistoric land where cave man and dinosaur lived side by side. Chief among these friends are Flip and Impie. Flip was originally the wayward child of the Sun, whose presence in Slumberland carried with it the threat of the morning and the dream ending. He was a rival for the Princess. But by the time this volume’s strips were published he was a close friend, though still an irascible troublemaker. Impie, or the Imp, is described as a Zulu and as a cannibal, and represents the sort of racist caricature that were very much a part of popular culture at the time the strip was printed. There really isn’t anything that can be said to defend the way he is drawn, but he is treated with affection by Nemo, Flip, and the Princess. There is never any question but that he belongs in the group.

This volume covers a period during which McCay found himself moving from Nemo’s original home in the New York Herald to the Hearst papers and back to the Herald. His period with Hearst saw great changes in the story. Nemo the dreamer had always been content to let the dreams follow their own logic, once the comic changed publishers the more dynamic Flip became the central figure. Even the title was changed, to In The Land Of Wonderful Dreams. They begin with stories of the Princess and Nemo trying to get some time alone, away from Flip, and Flip doing all he can to be a part. Typically Dr. Pill comes up with a scheme to frustrate Flip and Flip’s determination overcomes it. After a while you get to feel that Flip deserves a break and he gets, with Impie taking the blunt of the others’ disapproval. By this time Flip, by any reasonable measure, the star. When he needs someone to play off, they don’t build Nemo back up, they introduce Shivvers, a new character. Stories centering on Nemo begin to seem out of place, particularly one in which he is challenged to a boxing match. In one story Shivvers says, “I could never live without Nemo,” but you have to wonder if that’s true. By then Nemo had already been relegated to the third string in his own strip.

From the time the strip left the Herald, and even after its return, the stories centers all but exclusively in Slumberland and adjacent fantasy realms. Gone are the incredible cityscapes of the first chapter. Still, his art remains rich and detailed. I was constantly amazed at how few pages I read in a given time. It just would not be rushed. If they last years of Nemo saw McCay energies pulled elsewhere, the comic continued to be a wonderful and rewarding way to spend a few minutes each Sunday then, and it continues to reward new generations of readers with its imagination and charm.

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