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#57 [Jan. 6th, 2009|04:28 pm]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

(Checker/Sunday Press/Taschen/New York Herald)

“There! Nemo has fallen out of bed again! I just heard a loud thump!”

All of Winsor McCay’s newspaper strips followed a formula. In Little Nemo In Slumberland the formula has the titular Nemo wandering through the titular landscape, sometimes dreaming about being late for something important or unable to arrive somewhere no matter how hard he tries, sometimes dreaming about being chased or riding elephants or being shot out of a cannon. Each strip ends as each dream does, with Nemo waking up, usually falling out of bed and being scolded by his parents for being such an uneasy sleeper.

McCay draws the dreams using fixed, two-dimensional viewpoints, so that we see the settings – whether almost Art Deco fantasy palaces or early 20th century New York streets – presented plainly, side-on. Rather than feeling static, his artwork has a sumptuous symmetry. This symmetry becomes bent and twisted in on itself in Nemo’s stranger dreams, such as when he visits Befuddle Hall, which stretches and infinitely duplicates Nemo and his friends while twisting around so they have to walk along the elaborately detailed walls and ceiling. Even without motion lines, which McCay rarely used, the poses of the characters communicate their comical leaps and falls perfectly. Each image is perfectly weighted, making Slumberland a place you could happily stare at for hours.

The heavily outlined inhabitants of Slumberland dress like clowns, with ruffed collars and puffballs down their fronts, while Nemo is given a variety of outfits that only parents would think were adorable. He is sometimes cowardly, sometimes brave and often kind-hearted in these dreams, as well as amusingly lecherous in an innocent, Georgie Porgie fashion. While visiting a kingdom of glass he can’t restrain himself from taking the pretty princesses’ hand and kissing her, making her shatter and causing a chain reaction to bring the whole land tinkling down in shards around him as he flees. When Cupid takes him to WooLand, Nemo has to be visibly held back from the Valentine girls, though when he chooses one she turns out to be made of cardboard.

Accompanying Nemo are a cast of fairies, pirates, giants and other dream characters including the princess of Slumberland, the Candy Kid, the prescription-happy Doctor Pill and two troublesome imps. The first is Flip, half his face permanently green with envy because Nemo gets to have all the fun, who frequently tries to lure him away from Slumberland. Flip’s genius scheme for snapping Nemo out of his dreams is to wear a really big hat with the words WAKE UP printed on it. He’s a loudmouth and a boor, but unflappably brave – when Nemo is dragged from his bed by a gigantic featherless Thanksgiving turkey in one dream, which berates the boy for plotting to eat him, they pass an identical turkey which just happens to be taking Flip in the opposite direction. Still smoking his cigar, Flip nonchalantly waves as if this is the sort of thing that happens every day.

The other imp is an import from McCay’s earlier strip, Tales Of The Jungle Imps, and here is where we are forcefully reminded that McCay started drawing his series in 1905. The Jungle Imp is a golliwog caricature with goggle eyes and ridiculous lips who speaks in strings of “Ig smugg uggle gig umble bum gimple gip!” gibberish. He’s not the only character represented this way. When the children of the world parade past in their national dress, America is represented by two native kids drawn in a perfectly natural style, but on the other side of the panel McCay draws two black kids who look like they’ve just walked in from a minstrel show. Though the Jungle Imp isn’t presented unsympathetically – Flip is almost always the source of serious trouble – this depiction is a jarring off-note in an otherwise beautiful symphony.

At the same time, the strip’s old-fashioned and unreconstructed nature is the source of a large part of its appeal. McCay got away with things in Slumberland that a modern cartoonist doing a children’s newspaper strip never would. After the Slumberland Navy rescue our heroes from pirates, they turn the cannons on the wrecked pirate ship and her crew, explaining how well the massive cannon will pulverise them. “I think I shall be happy here”, says Flip before the wreck is reduced to matchsticks, because that’s what you get for being a pirate in 1905 – you get blown the hell up. Nemo’s hilarious skirt-chasing in defiance of any idea of a latency period wouldn’t be likely to fly by modern standards and nor would the casual violence done to children and animals for laughs, nor the cavalier way in which fireworks are tossed around in the yearly 4th of July strips. Most importantly, the vital strips in which Slumberland turns alarmingly scary, violating all of its normal rules in the same way that nightmares violate our pleasant dreams, would never see print today.

In another of the yearly traditions, each New Year Nemo meets an aged version of the previous year on the way out, sometimes sadly fading away into the distance or tumbling off into space as the baby version of next year arrives to replace him. During one such dream, Father Time teaches Nemo how to change himself to whatever age he wishes. The boy experiments with growing up, but becomes trapped at the age of 99, too feeble and doddering to reverse the process or do anything but wander, half-blind and wailing, forever lost in the Father Time’s halls as a personification of a child’s terror at the idea of growing old. As always, in the end Nemo wakes up back in the real world, but for once his parents aren’t there to chasten him for falling out of bed or shouting in his sleep, but to hold him and remind him he was only dreaming after all.