Perchance to Dream in Little Nemo's Big New Dream and Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland


Little Nemo's Big New Dreams
Written and Drawn by Various
Edited by Josh O'Neill, Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens
Published by Toon Graphics

Two recent books, Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland (IDW) and Little Nemo’s Big New Dreams (Toon Graphics), find different ways to pay homage to the legendary cartoonist Winsor McCay. McCay’s early 1900 comic strip Little Nemo In Slumberland is an artistic feat that in many ways has never been equaled in comic strips. In a day of ever shrinking newspaper comic strips (if even present at all,) McCay’s full page strips of a boy who every night as he falls asleep is whisked away to faraway Slumberland to be the playmate of King Morpheus’s daughter showed how an cartoonist could manipulate his space to create environments and things that you’ve never seen before. Toon Graphic’s anthology Little Nemo’s Big New Dreams (an abbreviated and resized repackaging of Locust Moon’s Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream reviewed on Panel Patter previously by Ron McMonigal) contains a two page comic/review by Art Spiegelman, repurposed from a 1987 review of a book on McCay, where Spiegelman examines comic page by McCay. In McCay’s full page strip, Nemo’s bed transforms into a long-legged animal and carries Nemo and his Slumberland friendly pest Flip out of Nemo’s house and over the roofs of a city. “... [McCay] understood the architecture of a page!” Spiegelman enthuses.

In Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, 26 artists try to recreate McCay’s visual architecture. There’s a rhythm to McCay’s storytelling that seems very tricky to capture but most of these cartoonists mimic McCay’s pacing if not almost perfectly capturing his spirit. Part of the challenge is that in the final panel of most of McCay’s strips, Nemo has to wake up. The selections found in Little Nemo’s Big New Dreams are fairly successful in capturing the cadence that McKay tapped into. The sublime unreality of our dreams and (in some cases) nightmares, where we could be stalked by cats or kaiju McCay’s elements. Hans Rickheit’s stab at a Slumberland comic traps Nemo in body horror comic, more similar to Charles Burn’s recent X’ed trilogy than any Nemo comic. Jamie Tanner’s comic feels like something out of a bleary eyed Kubrick film and completely unlike McCay. But even in these extremes, the spirit of McCay lingers.

Cole Closser's contribution to Little Nemo's Big New Dream

It’s interesting to see how the cartoonists approach McCay’s legacy in this book. Some of the artists tell fairly representative Little Nemo stories, creating more homages to McCay than anything else. Craig Thompson’s strip takes Nemo into a dream of shark planes and jelly fish clouds even as he reveals an obvious but wonderful truth about these strips and Nemo’s relationship to the characters in his dreams. Other cartoonists use McCay’s architecture but tell their own unique stories. Bishakh Kumar Som’s story of a woman confronting her past is that dream we all have of having to live through our choices and mistakes again. It’s not a Nemo story but is one that uses the Slumberland structure to relay a very human experience. The final way that these cartoonists approach Nemo is to recontextualize McCay’s work. Paulo Rivera’s stream of consciousness strip is a whirlpool of ideas and concepts that makes McCay’s cartoons much more frightening as Rivera confronts our own fears through the architecture of the page.

Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland
Written by Eric Shanower
Drawn by Gabriel Rodriguez
Colored by Nelson Daniel
Published by IDW 

As the cartoonists in Little Nemo’s Big New Dream engage with the structural architecture of Winsor McCay, Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez approach a different kind of architecture in their Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland. In their stories, originally a four issue series from IDW Publishing, they tackle more of McCay’s thematic concerns. In their book, the daughter of King Morpheus wants a new playmate, a new Nemo to join her so King Morpheus sends the denizens of his kingdom into a new boy’s dreams. With the larger span of pages to tell their stories, Shanower and Rodriguez abandon the architecture of the page that Spiegelman praised and instead focus on the childlike magic of Slumberland. 

Rodriguez’s artwork in some ways feels more like traditional comic work than anything McCay did. Gone are the wild page constructions or the bendy and pliant reality. Instead Shanower and Rodriguez’s story is more constrained as they spread out the storytelling over so many pages. Other than one or two dazzling moments per chapter, the construction of the pages feel very conventional. But as this new Nemo enters Slumberland each night, Shanower and Rodriguez focus their attention on the wonder of Slumberland. This Nemo’s (whose real name is James but the Princess insists he’s Nemo) dreams are full of dream-logic buildings and characters. Rodriguez’s delightful line and Nelson Daniel’s candy-like coloring are visually delightful. I wish my dreams looked like Nemo’s. 

The architecture of dreams in Return to Slumberland
Shanower and Rodriguez’s story basically becomes another “child in a magical world” story, like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz or any other number of fantasies. Taking what McCay did in a single broadsheet and stretching it out over pages dilutes the concept of Nemo in Slumberland of its uniqueness. Their exploration of a child’s imagination running wild is still wildly and ambitiously magical but does this need to be a Little Nemo story is a question that has to linger in the back of your mind as you read this book. This Slumberland teeters and mostly falls into being a typical fantasyland much more than the magical bending of reality and page that Winsor McCay achieved over and over again in his strip.

Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland is about a boys dreams while Little Nemo’s Big New Dreams are about cartoonists dreams of Winsor McCay and his unique view of reality. Both books wonderfully transport you to worlds of imagination and dreams but Little Nemo’s Big New Dreams contains comic strips that are enlightening, both about McCay’s skills and craft but also about these modern cartoonists own work and their exchange of ideas with the legacy of McCay.