Saturday, December 24, 2011

Little Nemo in (Christmas) Slumberland

Christmas Thoughts from the Best Comic Strip in the World

When professional cartoonists talk about the most recent best best best strips of modern times, it is a three-way tie between Doonesbury, The Farside, and Calvin and Hobbes.  (Usually Calvin and Hobbes comes out top-ranked, if people are forced to make a choice.)  In turn, if we move back to the start of it all, there is universal agreement on the granddaddy of best-ness, the series that even Bill Watterson acknowledges as his definition of a masterpiece.  That is Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.  It ran primarily from 1905 to 1914, with a brief and still-copyrighted (and hence still out-of-print) revival in the 1920s.  And oh my friends, what a strange and magic time that must have been.

The premise is simple: in our dreams, we travel to far and strange lands.  There all of us meet glory and harm, threat and expectation.  The strip's title character, a boy of circa ten years old (age is not really important here), Nemo, is trying to reach the mythical kingdom of Slumberland, where the king needs his help.  Along the way he has more adventures than Tintin on acid, but often the sequence of events is ruined when Nemo wakes up, usually in a tangle of bedding in the last square of the narrative.

The art and design is exquisite, the pacing jump-cut swift, the dialogue baroque and marvelous.  If somehow we combined Dr. Seuss with Dennis Hopper's shrooming photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, we might end up with something like this.

Wikipedia will step in now, to summarize for us:

"Certain episodes of the strip are particularly famous. Any list of these would have to include the Night of the Living Houses (said to be the first comic strip to enter the collection of the Louvre) wherein Nemo and a friend are chased down a city street by a gang of tenement houses on legs; the Walking Bed, in which Nemo and Flip ride over the rooftops on the increasingly long limbs of Nemo's bed; and the Befuddle Hall sequence, wherein Nemo and his friends attempt to find their way out of a funhouse environment of a Beaux-Arts interior turned topsy-turvy. McCay's mastery of perspective, and the extreme elegance of his line work, make his visions graphically wondrous. The eccentric dialogue is delivered in a dreamy deadpan, and often appears to be hastily jammed into tiny word balloons that can scarcely contain it. A typical line: 'Whoever named this place Befuddle Hall knew his business! I am certainly befuddled.'"

Which brings us to Christmas.  In a set of entries from about 1910 or so, here are two episodes.  These are scans from the fabulous collection by Taschen brought out in 2007; the headnote essay is titled "The Greatest Strip that Ever Flopped."  (As with so much of great art, it went underappreciated in its own time.)  Here are some panels, along with transcribed dialogue.

The person in the grass skirt is the Imp, sort of a Shakespeare Fool character, often up to no good, while the clown with the cigar is a manifestation of Flip, also a helper / hinderer kind of Scaramouche figure.  The sign says (in case it's not legible on this website) "Christmas Festivities Postponed!  Gone to Hunt for Little Nemo."  It is signed by the King of Slumberland.  The dialogue in Panel 1 reads like this: "The fellow said, who ever finds us will get a million dollars.  I said, why don't you find us? But he was too sleepy."  Second clown (a disguised Nemo): "He didn't know us.  Ah! Say! Look! There isn't going to be any Christmas! See the sign, Flip?"

(I might mention that the reason Flip and Nemo look like over-filled water balloons is that they were lost in the palace in a previous episode and got so hungry they began to eat the letters and borders of the strip itself.  They are bloated on printer's ink.  Back to Christmas.)

Next panel.  "What do you think of that old Doctor Pill having a bed like that?" (Dr. Pill often saves or helps Nemo.)  The Imp remains silent but Nemo says, "I guess he takes pretty good care of himself.  But say, I am thinking about Christmas!"

We all know what happens if you leave children (or adults acting like children) alone with a big bed.  Time to start jumping up and down.  Note the extraordinary rendering of space and anatomy.  In the right hand side panel, Flip rolls through space as if in zero-G, long before we had any photographs like this.  What a wonderful imagination the artist has.

The Imp just babbles nonsense before joining in the fun.  Flip says, "Yip! Look at me! Whee! Say!     I don't believe in Santa Claus, do you?" Nemo answers hesitantly, wanting to be accepted by his companion but also unsure of himself. "Nah, eh: I mean, say --- someone is coming!"

And an off-camera voice says, "What!!! Nemo is lost? And there'll be no Christmas? This is a fine how de do!!! Where can he be? Huh!"

We all know the magic that has been evoked.  You can't say in a movie or a cartoon, "Tigers? There aren't any tigers around here!"  As soon as you say that, you have tempted fate, and the speaker is doomed to turn around and find an escaped zoo tiger staring him in the face.  Never, EVER say there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

The web format here doesn't do the majesty of this justice.  (The Wikipedia entry is very thorough and clear, but it too has format problems.)  You really need to buy the book.  But until then, let's wrap this up.  Left to right, the dialogue zips along as follows:

Flip: "Blamed if that isn't Santa Claus! I always heard there was no Santa Claus."
Nemo: "Here I am! Here I am! Santa Claus, hey! Here I am!"

Santa says, "I'll find him! I'll find him and there will be a Christmas. I'll find him!"

Why is Santa driving a big blue car?  It's a dream, why not, and in dreams, cars drive through bedrooms all the time.  How modern our Santa is, with the latest miracle, the automobile.  That will be a plot point in a moment.

The noise and commotion wake the real Nemo up, who looks in confusion at the Christmas tree (much larger and grander than most of the era).  He says, "Oh! I was dreaming! Oh! I'm glad it was a dream! Um Merry Christmas."

The tree's presence may be part of the magic of the moment.  When my mother was a child in the 1930s, there was no tree when she went to bed on Christmas Eve.  Her parents bought it after she went to sleep, installed it in the middle of the night, and my mother woke up not just to a present (such an an orange, a rare treat) but to a decorated tree.  Santa supposedly brought not just gifts, but the Christmas tree as well.

But what happens?  Does Santa find Nemo and return to his Christmas duties?  Here is Part 2.

Santa's car is leaving a wake of lost presents behind as Flip, Imp, and Nemo race to catch up.

Panel 1:
"Santa Claus didn't know us.  Now he's gone to hunt for us.  We --- "
"We'll get him! He's just down the hall. Come on! Oh! We'll catch him!"

Panel 2:
"My! But he's excited! He's scattering his Christmas presents everywhere!"
"Keep a-runnin. I smell the gasoline from his automobile. We're gaining!"

Panel 3:
"I'm too fat to run very much faster! He will be surprised to know we were here, won't he?"
"Yes! If we don't catch up with him, he'll hunt for us 'til next Christmas!"

Panel 4:
"We are getting pretty close to him now. Let's holler to him."
"He can't hear us for the noise his auto makes! I see him! I see him!"

At the time this was published, other than a preliminary form of bus, most readers had not ridden in a car yet, though they had been assaulted by the noise of a passing vehicle and had smelled the unfiltered exhaust.  This marks the end of the horse-drawn era.  Note too the amazing parade of presents along the bottom edge of the panel, which work visually as a foreground but which also document what was then a fantasy assemblage of extravagant (and tossed-aside) gifts.  Many kids reading this would say, "pick up the toys!  Nemo, slow down, pick up the toys!"

The smoke increases with each panel; note too the "trendy" bike in Panel 5.  No velocipeds here: this is indeed the modern era.  The dialogue, in case the web version is not clear....

Panel 5:
"Hey! Hey! Santa Claus! Hey! Hey!"
"There he goes! Hey! Stop! Here we are! Hey old man! Stop. Here we are!

Racing along with his exhaust billowing out, Santa says, "I'll find Little Nemo. I don't care how big Slumberland is! If he's here, I'll find him! Sure!"

In Panel 6, Santa, apparently a Sunday driver, has hit something, making an explosion that knocks his hat off.  (Apparently Santa is bald.  Who knew?)  The jack in the box springs out and Imp is thrown off his feet.

Panel 7 takes up most of the page.  The camera has shifted (how this so deliciously pre-dates and yet predicts the conventions of cinema!), and Flip says, "That settles him for a while.  He's done for."  Nemo worries about the consequences of what he has started, and so says, "That's too bad!  He's mad!  We'd better get away. Come on!"

Santa ruefully says, "This is what I get for being up to date.  I'll use the reindeer after this."

Final panel shows a properly sized Nemo by his real-life bed.  Back to safe and drab reality.  Colors fade, perspective calms down, drama ends.  The dream is over.  Meanwhile his mother, usually kept off-camera (like the parents in Charlie Brown), scolds, "Nemo! If you expect Santa Claus to call here, you must stay in bed.  he'll not come if he sees you up, so go back to bed!"

True words, mom.  This blog entry is being posted on Christmas Eve, and so that all of us have the best possible chance of presents, we will stop chasing Santa in his new fine blue car, we will hope that he has indeed gone back to reindeer, and from AVC's family to yours, a Blessed Christmas, and to all, a good night.

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