Little Nemo in Comicsland
Heer, Jeet, The Virginia Quarterly Review
At the beginning of the last century, a little boy named Nemo was haunted by recurring nightmares of a bizarre and unruly land where the conventions of everyday life were turned upside down. By day, the boy was firmly lodged in the respectable and decorous world of middle-class white America. His frumpy parents kept up appearances in a solidly genteel household, complete with a white picket fence on the outside and an African American maid toiling away in the kitchen. The family's regular rounds included hosting cousins and in-laws, going to church on Sundays, and making the occasional jaunt to the department stores-which were just starting to emerge as palaces of consumption.
Nighttime allowed Nemo, a shy seven-year-old whose hair became rumpled as he tossed and turned in bed, to escape into the fabulous and slightly sinister realm of Slumberland. Unlike the daytime republic governed by President Theodore Roosevelt, Slumberland was ruled over by King Morpheus, a Jove-like patriarch whose furrowed brow and Old Testament beard commanded respect. In the echoing hallways of Slumberland, Morpheus was constantly receiving curtseys and bows from courtiers draped in colorful attire that combined the fripperies of eighteenth-century Versailles with the colors of a circus. Slumberland even had slaves, a profession recently abolished in the daytime America. There were other signs that Slumberland was hardly an ideal egalitarian society, including the rough treatment meted out to African "jungle imps."
These slaves and imps were among the more disturbing oddities that Nemo encountered during his nocturnal voyages. Slumberland also abounded with butterflies large enough to umbrella you during a rainstorm, a giant turkey that gobbled up houses for Thanksgiving, a glass princess who shattered if you kissed her too passionately, carriages that were pulled along by horse-sized rabbits, and airships that could carry you to Mars.
Of course, once you got to Mars, as Nemo did in 1910, you might have noticed that the line between fantasy and reality was not so firm as you had first thought. The red planet turned out to be ruled by a ruthless capitalist who owned not just every square inch of property, but even the air. Polluted by industrial emissions, populated by genetically modified monstrosities, and papered over with gaudy ads, Mars was the ultimate corporate dystopia. The poor Martians had to pay for the privilege of breathing.
Like Jonathan Swift's Lemuel Gulliver or Lewis Carroll's Alice, Nemo was a sober and innocent soul who traveled to a bizarre fantasyland which on closer inspection turned out to be a parody of the home that was left behind. Yet there is a significant difference between Nemo and his distinguished literary ancestors. Gulliver and Alice gained a foothold in our imaginations thanks primarily to the writerly skills of their authors (assisted in Carroll's case by some charming John Tenniel illustrations). Nemo, by contrast, was a comic strip character whose newsprint universe was constructed by the pen of a cartoonist, Winsor McCay.
As imaginative a fantasist as the United States ever produced, McCay created unique effects that could only work in the art form of comics. Take as an example the famous Sunday page that ran on July 26, 1908. The early panels show Nemo snuggled in bed and ready for sleep, wearing pink-striped pajamas. Nemo is startled to find he's not alone, since he hears the voice of Flip, his flip-pant, cigar-chomping Slumberland companion. Before he can even adjust to Flip's presence, Nemo is amazed by the fact that the bed he's been sleeping on is starting to grow. Along the first, squat row of four panels the legs of the bed slowly rise, taking Nemo and Flip closer and closer to the top of the page.
In the next tier, the panels have lengthened to accommodate the new size of the bed, which has decided to take Nemo and Flip outside. By now the bed is so big it has to crouch a little just to get outside the front door. …