Excerpt from 'Little Nemo in Slumberland'


By Winsor McCay

Sunday Press Books

Copyright © 2005 Sunday Press Books
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-9768885-0-5

Chapter One




It was a most incredible time, full of fantastic events and amazing accomplishments. A time of World's Fairs, of trains running underground, machines flying in the air, unreachable ends of the earth being explored; and the daily newspaper brought these wonders into millions of American living rooms. Then, one Sunday morning in October, 1905, through a medium only beginning to discover itself, mirroring that era's blend of fantasy and technology, Little Nemo in Slumberland arrived.

Color Sunday comics were barely a decade old when Little Nemo first appeared. Right from the start, this groundbreaking feature was a critical success but less than a big hit with newspaper readers. Yet the genius of McCay became appreciated over time, and Little Nemo, some 50 years after its appearance, became the first comic strip to bridge the culture gap between popular pulp and fine art. (The comic was the subject of an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966.) From the 500 or so pages created over the years came art, design, and story concepts that continue to influence how comics are created today.

I first discovered Winsor McCay's masterpiece through a fortunate find, part of a large collection of old newspaper Sunday comic sections. Unfolding the pages, I immediately recognized that Little Nemo was in stark contrast to the other strips uncovered in the collection. This was in 1970, and with its intense detail and surreal content I thought it more akin to the psychedelic fare of the day (much of which was inspired by the fantasy and poster art from earlier that century). There were no reprints readily available before the 1970s; few beyond the comics cognoscenti were aware of this work, and then mostly through bits and pieces. The majesty of McCay's work is only hinted at through reduced reproductions, often with weakly reproduced colors or in black-and-white copies. My own was the ideal introduction to this historic masterpiece, the way its creator intended - and through the years it has been a dream to see these pages made available in their original size. The need to see the artwork in this form is perhaps more essential with Little Nemo than any other comic strip. Although most Sunday comics up until the 1930s, some even till the 1960s, appeared in the full broadsheet format, only Nemo took full advantage of it, evoking a feeling of grandeur through size and McCay's attention to minute detail.

This book was originally planned for 100 pages, to mark the centenary of Little Nemo in Slumberland. Not an easy task, as it was hard enough to narrow the selections down to the one hundred and ten pages presented here. I hesitate to call them the best of the first series, but they are certainly favorites, of mine and the many people who have written about Little Nemo over the years. Some of their comments are included in the text portions of this book. In addition to selecting particular pages, care was taken to keep the story continuity intact.

Color correction and restoration are contentious issues when reprinting old comic strips. Some say it is more natural to leave the aged yellow look of the page, while others feel that a pure, proof-sheet white is the best way to see the work the artist intended. This volume tries to do some of both, attempting the look of a "new" newspaper page to recreate the reader's experience of a century ago. Hours were spent on each page to accomplish the imperfect ideal. Along with an original size broadsheet come many of the imperfections of this most ephemeral of media. Many of the flaws of the pulp paper (fiber, discoloration) and the printing process (smudges, off-register colors) remain, but those caused by time and handling (tears, holes, yellowing) for 100 years have been corrected to reach the desired aesthetic. Nowadays, few people remember those pre-TV Sundays where the high point of the morning was spreading the comics pages out on the living-room carpet, where we savored each panel, delighting in the action and colors. Far fewer can recall the original Little Nemo arriving in their home each week. It is my hope that this volume will give the reader some sense of that experience. So find yourself a large table, or better still, a living-room carpet, turn back time, and enjoy Little Nemo in Slumberland again, for the first time.



In all this noisy, explosive, garrulous pandemonium one finds here and there a moment of rest and refreshment; the work of the few pioneers of decency and decorum brave enough to bring their wares to the noisesome [sic] market and lucky enough to infuse the refinement, art, and genuine humor into its otherwise hopeless atmosphere. Preeminent among them stands the inventor of Little Nemo in Slumberland, a man of genuine pantomimic humor, who has apparently studied his medium and makes the best of it. -RALPH BERGENGREN "The Humor of the Colored Supplement," Atlantic Monthly, 1906

The original of Little Nemo was McCay's young son, and each of his weekly adventures is the story of a dream that concludes with a small drawing in the bottom right corner where the boy is awakened by a voice-in-a-balloon from the next room telling him to hurry up and get out of bed, or something of the sort. "I always resented that last picture," one visitor to the exhibition said the other day, "I wanted it all to be true."

What most impressed about McCay's stories was that here, on record, were dreams that paralleled dreams I had had as a child and had forgotten, and that all children must have. What astounds me is that McCay could remember and recreate them, supposing that he did not have the collaboration of an improbably precocious youngster to ghost for him. -JOHN CANADAY "Little Nemo at the Met," The New York Times, 1966

* * *

Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland was, among other things, a middle-class response to the Yellow Kid and his ilk. It was also a masterpiece. McCay began his career as a circus and sideshow billboard painter (one of the few careers lower than a cartoonist in the hierarchy of artistic endeavor) and brought a circus poster artist's flair for spectacle and color to his Nemo pages, complete with art nouveau flourishes. -ART SPIEGELMAN



Winsor McCay was born Zenas Winsor McKay in 1867, probably in Canada. He was named after his father's employer and he quickly dropped Zenas in favor of Winsor. He was raised in Michigan, where he commenced drawing at a prodigiously early age . And never stopped. His attention to (and memory of) detail was amazing. Winsor McCay, the boy, loved to draw and was very good at it.

McCay's first job as an artist was at Wonderland, a dime museum and amusement park in Detroit where he drew portraits of the customers for 25? each. His facility for observation and his amazing ability to draw quickly made him a popular attraction.

In 1891 McCay moved to Cincinnati. There he settled into the only type of work he knew - he went to work as a staff artist for a local dime museum. He married, had two children, and took on extra work painting signs and, eventually, making drawings for a local newspaper. It was there that he first developed his skill with a pen - everything up to that point had been crafted with pencil and brush. It was in Cincinnati that McCay created his first Sunday comic strip, Tales of the Jungle Imp, a highly advanced effort for the time, exemplifying the artist's understanding of time and motion.

In late 1903, he took advantage of an offer to work for the New York Herald and began the most prolific chapter of his cartooning life. From 1904-1911, McCay produced a string of comic strips, some well-known, some short-lived and obscure, the sheer volume of which surpasses the lifetime work of some equally famous cartoonists.

His first long-running Sunday comic was Little Sammy Sneeze, followed by Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (signed "Silas" as it was printed in a rival paper) and Hungry Henrietta.

So with three strips running each week in two different newspapers, as well as other daily cartoons and drawings for the Herald, McCay was finally ready to create his masterpiece. And on October 15, 1905, Little Nemo in Slumberland debuted.

1905 was the heyday of vaudeville and a frequent feature was the chalk-talk artist - an artist who could stand in front of an audience and draw on a chalkboard. McCay, who liked nothing better than to draw (and never seemed to have enough money, no matter how much he earned), took to the boards on June 11, 1906, and his "lightning sketches" act was a big hit. Within five years of arriving in New York, McCay had become one of the top artists and performers in the city. Both his comic strips and his vaudeville act were based on pacing and movement. He was about to combine all of these elements into one new art - the animated cartoon.

While he wasn't the first person to make an animated cartoon, he was the man who defined the industry. The quality of his cartoons would not be matched for another 25 years - his pacing and understanding of the medium were far ahead of his time. And he drew all of the 4,000 cels of his first film, Little Nemo (natch!), himself! This while he was still drawing his three strips and performing his vaudeville act. The Little Nemo film was released to theaters and used in his act, as was his second, How a Mosquito Operates - this 6,000 drawings long. When these films were released into wider distribution, McCay's fame spread, especially to the fledgling animation community.

When the Herald rejected his request to take some time off to perform in Europe, McCay waited until his contract was up and jumped over to the Hearst paper, The American, in July of 1911. The Herald lost its star and McCay lost his freedom. All McCay wanted to do was draw. All Hearst wanted was someone who did as he was told. Nemo was published in the Hearst papers under the title In the Land of Wonderful Dreams, since they owned the Nemo name. The coloring was less than what he was used to and he was devoting most of his energy to his next animated film, Gertie the Dinosaur. The lack of attention showed, especially in the blandness of the 27 daily strips he created for Hearst from 1911 to 1913. His editorial cartoons, however, were masterpieces of pen work, and that's where Hearst decided to relegate his talents.

By 1914, he was told by his employer that he was to give up his comic strips and do "serious" editorial work. McCay's East Coast vaudeville bookings began to dry up as Hearst made it known to the proprietors that he would "prefer" that they not engage McCay. McCay signed a contract with Hearst not to appear outside of New York City. Now all McCay had to look forward to each day was a compulsory appearance at the newspaper office to make pen-and-ink editorial cartoons.

In 1924 he left Hearst and returned to the now Herald Tribune and tried to revive Little Nemo. The effort lasted for two years, but proved to be out of touch with the public. McCay was allowed to purchase all rights to the character for $1 - a magnanimous gesture that doubled as a sad evaluation of his efforts.

He died in 1934 after spending his last eight years back at the American drawing editorial cartoons for Arthur Brisbane. McCay was a light-hearted man who just wanted to make beautiful pictures. He wanted animation to be an art. He wanted newspaper strips to appeal to the eye and the soul. He wanted to draw. No matter how many barriers stood in his way, he managed to accomplish that.



When the newspaper comics and strips came into existence at the turn of the last century, they were simply a weekly pageant of blatant vulgarity, four to eight partly colored pages filled with the doings of street urchins, tramps, comic dogs, cops, and moochers, while there were virtually no strips of intellectual allure at all. This roughhouse array appeared only in the most sensational newspapers of the time, notably the Hearst and Pulitzer dailies. This initial isolation would have been fine with proper people - except the general public quickly sent the circulations of these papers sky high, and undermined the sales of the self-styled respectable papers, which led to the competitive addition of the raucous funnies to virtually all papers, upsetting and irritating their more strait-laced readers, who tended to belong to the educational and religious coteries. These community leaders deplored the fact that the dreadful Sunday cartoons were being devoured by kids everywhere. Horrified, they professed to represent many thousands of outraged readers who demanded that the comics somehow be abolished.

Among the first papers that attempted to respond to these plaints was the New York Herald, which had been greatly impressed by the wonderfully fanciful Rarebit Fiend cartoons of a young artist named Winsor McCay and hired him to draw a full-page fantasy comic strip that would rival the very best children's books of the time - and put the noisy vulgarity of the Hearst and Pulitzer comics to shame. This lovely and witty work, as we all know, was called Little Nemo in Slumberland. It was hailed by social leaders, churchmen, and educators across the country. Clearly its charms would cause children to scorn the crude scrawls of the other comic works in no time at all. But, of course, it repelled most kids on sight. The circulations of the scurvy papers continued to soar - and the sales of the Herald slumped. Where was this multitude of concerned people which was begging for high quality graphic humor on Sunday? Not buying the Herald, for sure.

What the good people failed to grasp, of course, was that a few - and the most popular - of the lowbrow scrawls in the other papers were scrawls of genius, which would continue to run in U.S. papers well into the new century, dominating the fun of Sunday morning in homes across the country. The popular strips were soundly on the wavelength of the reading public in general, which Nemo, for all of its intrinsic brilliance of art, design, story, and comedy, simply was not. To the Herald's credit, it kept Nemo going for the better part of a decade, finally letting McCay and his masterpiece move into the hands of Hearst, who wanted McCay's graphic talents for the editorial cartoons of his New York American, although part of his agreement with McCay was to carry Nemo in the Sunday American. Before long, unhappily, the readers of Hearst's national chain of newspapers complained that they cared not at all for Nemo. Their kids thought it was a waste of space as one color page out of the weekly four pages that composed the Hearst comics. Hearst held out for a while, running Nemo on the back page of his weekly magazine section when he could, but finally he had to close the great page down for good in his papers to admit new work by George McManus and Cliff Sterrett, continuing to pay McCay his full extant salary for the editorial cartoons alone.

No one made much public fuss over the abrupt demise of Nemo in the Hearst journals, but the still-devoted editorial staff of the Herald called McCay's pen back to that paper's comic pages in 1923, when it merged with the New York Tribune. The editors felt they could afford Nemo now since their combined Sunday comics would contain eight pages, and one unpopular feature should not annoy their readers unduly.

Sadly, however, after only two and a half years, Nemo's guardian angels on the Herald executive staff apparently retired or died, and the majestic work was dropped without warning or comment in January 1927. Vale Nemo - harassed and eschewed by newspaper money men and a disinterested mass readership, the minimally appreciated but classic production of inspired graphic genius slipped into limbo in the merrily boozing twenties, apparently without serious journalistic or critical dismay. Before anyone of vocal eminence noticed, it was gone.



Excerpted from LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND by Winsor McCay Copyright © 2005 by Sunday Press Books. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.