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Comics from the Golden Age

By: Michael Taube
March 29, 2018

t’s been close to a century since the last original panel of Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland” appeared in print. While other great comic strips have risen and fallen since Nemo took his final bow, few of them have stood the test of time as a true pen-and-ink masterpiece.        

McCay’s comic strips (“Little Sammy Sneeze,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend”), animated shorts (“Gertie the Dinosaur,” “The Sinking of the Lusitania”), and political cartoons are still regarded as artistically brilliant and visually stunning. Yet, the weekly, full-color Sunday strip about a young boy’s dreams, fantasies, and magical adventures in Slumberland with the green-skinned, cigar-toting clown Flip and ever-silent Jungle Imp remains the legendary cartoonist’s pièce de résistance.

Alexander Braun, a visual artist and founder of the German Academy of Comic Art, put together one of the finest collections ever assembled for this strip—Winsor McCay: The Complete Little Nemo (2014)—in two large volumes. Now, with the release of Winsor McCay: The Airship Adventures of Little Nemo, the comics historian has turned his attention to one particular component. While an infinitely smaller, slimmer, and less expensive book, it still provides a wonderful examination of this beloved subject in Little Nemo’s fantasy world.

By 1906, roughly a year after the strip was introduced in the New York Herald, McCay had become “one of the first comic strip artists to begin thinking in larger narrative arcs.” Little Nemo, unlike other early 20th century strips—including Richard F. Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown,” Rudolph Dirks’s “The Katzenjammer Kids,” and Frederick Burr’s “Happy Hooligan”—focused on continuing storylines instead of the gag-a-day concept. This strategy “meant more room for creative development,” according to Braun, “and, for the publisher, greater reader loyalty.”

McCay set out in Dec. 1909 to devise “the next coup for his little dream traveler.” He had reached the conclusion that King Morpheus’s “Slumberland,” with its “vast, sprawling palace complexes with secret corridors and enchanted landscapes,” could no longer contain Nemo’s wonderful dreams. Hence, he decided to introduce an airship in the New Year’s Day 1910 strip—and in a flash, the sky’s the limit for the young protagonist’s incredible adventures with his friends.

Why an airship—or blimp, if you like? It was a mode of travel that had captured the public’s imagination. This included Count von Zeppelin’s LZ1 and LZ2 and Alberto Santos-Dumont’s No. 6 (which had circled the Eiffel Tower in 1901), along with the unsuccessful journey of Walter Wellman’s America across the Atlantic Ocean in 1910. Hence, it’s probably fair to say these airship adventures gave Nemo’s readership, both young and old, a unique opportunity to witness fantasy flight and travel on the funny pages in a way they would never be able to experience in real life.

Nemo’s “odyssey,” as Braun describes it, first took him and his friends to the Moon and Mars. The former contained some rock-like creatures who come alive and giant rabbits with quizzical looks on their faces, while the latter “turned into a bitter reckoning with the American economic system” due to B. Gosh, the oligarch in control of the red planet. This was followed by a “victory tour of the sights and major metropolises of the East Coast of America and Canada,” with some quick stops at Yellowstone Park, Pikes Peak, Niagara Falls and, after many failed attempts, New York City.

McCay’s writing style, which was an unfortunate weakness throughout his brilliant career, was a bit of a jumbled mess at times. The strip’s humor was old-fashioned, which is to be expected, so roaring fits of laughter at Nemo, Flip, and the Imp’s antics are unlikely to occur in this day and age. Nevertheless, the overall storyline and character development for the airship adventures is strong, and there are many fun and surprising moments for modern readers to enjoy.  

The sixty-nine Sunday strips in the airship adventures, which ran from Jan. 1, 1910 to April 23, 1911, represent some of McCay’s best work. His artistic style, which has been described as art nouveau due to its exaggerated images, vivid colors, and vast landscapes and buildings, comes out in full force. For people who have never read “Little Nemo in Slumberland” before, it will either be a pleasant experience to witness a visually appealing comic strip—or a rude awakening to learn what this artistic genre used to be like.

Alas, the trip of a lifetime ended abruptly when McCay left the Herald in July 1911 and, like other leading cartoonists, joined William Randolph Hearst’s New York American. The great newspaper tycoon welcomed McCay “as the cream of the crop,” and the strip—which was reimagined without the airship and retitled “In the Land of Wonderful Dreams” during its run from 1911-1914—was his prize possession.  

“Thus the journey in the airship,” wrote Braun, “is not only one of the longest narrative arcs in the early days of comics but also a creative bombshell with which McCay recommended himself for greater endeavours.” In Braun’s view, “[a]part from short experiments in animation, there had never before been anything like it: Comic characters who moved, and in doing so, conquered three-dimensional space in the image.”

It’s highly unlikely our world will ever see anything quite like “Little Nemo in Slumberland” again. Newspaper inches have shrunk dramatically in the ensuing decades, and most publications wouldn’t consider devoting an entire page to one single, solitary comic strip. But thanks to McCay’s vision and imagination, we can always dream with the little boy who often fell out of bed when his nightly visits to Slumberland came to an end.