An Incredible Ride To the End
An appreciation by Bill Watterson (C) 1997.
from The Best of Little Nemo, published by Stewart, Tabori, & Chang. pg. 195.

Considering that, in a cartoon, anything can happen that the mind can imagine, the comics have generally depicted pretty mundane worlds. Sure, there have been talking animals, a few spaceships and whatnot, but the comics have rarely shown us anything truly bizarre. Little Nemo's dream imagery, however, is as mind-bending today as ever, and Winsor McCay remains one of the greatest innovators and manipulators of the comic strip medium. Nobody did fantasy like this before, and very few have tried it since.

To be perfectly honest, however, I admire Little Nemo than I actually like it. McCay was clearly more interested in his stage than in his actors, and a stage, no matter how grand, can't carry a play. The inventive visual effects notwithstanding, I can't read the strip without thinking how much more enchanting Slumberland would be if the characters, rather than the backdrops and costumes, advanced the story. Regrettably, the characters are cardboard dress-up dolls, devoid of spunk or wit.

You know something is wrong when a man of McCay's obvious composition and drafting skills draws such pathetic-looking dialog balloons. The balloons themselves often impede the visual flow of the panel, and McCay rarely allowed enough space for the words. Were the words a complete afterthought? At best, the dialog is a series of exclamations and explanations made redundant by the pictures. With the possible exception of Flip, every opportunity to use a character's voice to reveal his personality is squandered, and I think the strip suffers for its unimaginative writing.

I also find McCay's artwork more impressive in its industry than in its character. McCay's pictures are fancy, but they lack either whimsy or guts. His palaces, cityscapes and boulevards are sterile facades, and his Art Nouveau line keeps everything flat and decorative. Slumberland, like its inhabitants, is more surface than substance.

That said, the strip is still one incredible ride. Every page is a marvel of design and ornament. The constant invention, the playful distortions, the subtle coloring, the panoramas of architectural splendor...never has another comic strip taken such full advantage of the visual possibilities for surprise. Eighty years after the strip was drawn, it not only continues to delight and awe, but it also provides a long forgotten glimpse of how exciting a comic strip can be.



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