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Little Nemo in Slumberland, Winsor McCay’s influential comic strip

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Little Nemo in Slumberland, New York Herald, January 7, 1906

One of the most famous Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips today was published in July 1908. Considered a masterpiece, it shows the young Nemo atop his bed which had grown crazy long legs and was walking among buildings.

At this stage, creator Winsor McCay was working for the New York Herald for a few years and had already produced many illustrations and comic strips. He came to work for publisher James Gordon Bennett in 1903 where he was doing caricatures of officeholders. But it was in Telegram that he began experimenting with the comic strip form: a sequential panel called “Hubby Goes Shopping with the Usual Results” was published on December 24, 1903.

McCay was dreaming of having his own comic strip, a form of art that was in its earliest stage of development and, in consequence, where everything was possible. Newspaper comics were also the main attractions for publishers like James Gordon Bennett or his today most famous concurrent William Randolph Hearst at the New York Journal.

McCay’s first comic didn’t work but he found success quickly enough, with Little Sammy Sneeze, before creating his two most celebrated comic strips less than a year apart, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Both of them were about nocturnal adventures. Whereas Rarebit Fiend targeted an adult public, telling a complete story on the page, only connected by the concept of nightmares brought by indigestion, Little Nemo was the children’s version, exploring the fantastical kingdom of dreams and featuring recurring characters (also with a lot of food before bedtime!)

Little Nemo – 1905/10/15, the first Little Nemo comic strip

The origins of Little Nemo in Slumberland

This is in the Sunday edition of the New York Herald published on October 15, 1905, that readers were introduced to the fantasy adventure that was Little Nemo in Slumberland.

They meet a six-year-old boy named Little Nemo, immersed in his dreams when an emissary of King Morpheus tells him that the monarch requires his presence. The readers will learn a little bit later that he wants Nemo to be the playmate of his daughter, the Princess of Slumberland. The child follows the strange messenger into a world that loses all rationality. He ends up falling into his dream and returns to reality by falling out of his bed.

It took months and months for the young boy to reach the kingdom of Slumberland, as each week he tried to reach his destination, exploring the world of dreams and living wondrous adventures, only to be awakened and brought back to reality. But Nemo continues his journey until he finally arrived at the Palace where he met The Princess, along with other characters.

Afterward, Nemo and the Princess lived new whimsical adventures together, before being accompanied by villain-turned-friend Flip. They rode royal dragons, elephants, and rollercoasters, visited the North Pole, met Santa, went ice-skating in Jack Frost’s ice-cream palace, faced pirates, and more.

Nemo will have other companions throughout the years and story arcs. Separated from his friend, Nemo arrived and transformed Shanty Town where he met a sick girl named Mary. All of this resulted in a very long parade held in his honor!

At some point, Nemo learned that Slumberland was destroyed, and Nemo’s adventures became a blend between the waking world and the dream world–with the famous Waking bed story taking place in this period. Slumberland didn’t completely disappear, though, and made its return for good more than a year after his destruction was announced. Other story arcs included a voyage to Mars and a trip around the world. Until, you know, Nemo wakes up one last time in the comic strip.

Not as long as Rarebit Fiend, Little Nemo was published in the Herald from 1905 to 1911. In the spring of that year, Winsor accepted a job offer from Hearst at the New York Journal. The strip was renamed In the Land of Wonderful Dreamland and ran from 1911 to 1914. Nemo stopped dreaming for at least a decade, as McCay had to focus for contractual reasons on editorial illustration. When McCary returned to the Herald in 1924 (now known as the New York Herald Tribune), he revived the strip under its original title. The last Little Nemo comic strip was published on January 9, 1927.

Little Nemo – 1908/07/26

Little Nemo, a surreal and vibrant comic

Every Sunday, Nemo would take a new journey while asleep, and every Sunday, readers would discover a new page full of vibrant and dreamlike images.

Some elements of Little Nemo could be found in real life. The somnambulant adventurer was inspired by McCay’s son, Robert. The architectural design resembled the Coney Island Amusement park near his home in Brooklyn. It took inspiration from the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition held in Chicago or from the buildings of New York.

But most of all, he used his own imagination, infused by the Art Nouveau style, to create the most unique comic strip of its time. In the world of dreams, the rules of physics and logic were nowhere to be found, and McCay used surreal imagery to create Slumberland, full of strange animals and animated objects.

Winsor McCay was also an early animation pioneer, giving us the first dinosaur on the big screen with Gertie and a source of inspiration for Walt Disney. He invented different animation techniques that became standard in the field. It’s then no surprise that Little Nemo was such an animated comic strip.

As he dealt with surreal and dark themes, he used visual elements to build the pacing of his story. From the varying size and shape of the panels, through repetitive imagery, perspective, and architectural cues, the adventure of Nemo took form and became alive in front of the eyes of the readers.

Those eyes could be quite dazzled by the use of contrast and vivid color, which differentiated Little Nemo from other comic strips. McCay annotated the Nemo pages with precise color schemes for the printers, and The Herald was above all its concurrent in that domain.

As much as Little Nemo in Slumberland was a visually beautiful comic strip, McCay was not as talented when it came to dialogue. He was putting the bubble before the lettering, and the text could be illegible, though he was also often redundant and simply unnecessary. The art was doing all the work, and it is quite easy to be immersed in the comic strip without reading a line of dialogue. Though it has to be said that McCay had a cast of developing characters, with new personalities, abilities, and traits. Be Warned: Little Nemo is still a product of his time and some representations are quite offensive today.

Little Nemo – 1911/04/30

Reading Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo

Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo comic strip is in the public domain. You can find it online at:

In the 1980s, Fantagraphics published every Little Nemo strip from 1905 to 1914 in six hardcover volumes, which are now out of print and now only available second-hand at various prices:

Initially published in two volumes, Taschen recently released a new edition collecting all 549 episodes of Little Nemo, alongside a 140-page illustrated essay from art historian Alexander Braun. :

Finally, published by Sunday Press Books (with Fantagraphics in charge of the distribution and marketing since 2022), a specialist of comic strip reprints, came two volumes collecting the best of Little Nemo in large format in order to reproduce the feel of an original broadsheet page size. Those two volumes are also out-of-print (so only available at an expensive price second hand):

 

Last Updated on March 27, 2024.

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