From Frank Pe's Little Nemo: After Winsor McCay (2021) | courtesy of Magnetic Press

Frank Pé’s ‘Little Nemo: After Winsor McCay’ Is a Different Sort of Slumberland

Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo comics strip is in the public domain, and French artist Frank Pé applies his reinterpretation in Little Nemo: After Winsor McCay.

Little Nemo: After Winsor McCay
Frank Pé
Magnetic Press
August 2021

On 15 October 1905, readers of the New York Herald were introduced to a young cartoon boy affectionately called Little Nemo. Each weekend, as a part of the Sunday Supplements, Little Nemo would journey in his dreams to Slumberland, a world of wonder and imagination, as a guest of King Morpheus, king of Slumberland, to be a playmate for his daughter, the Princess. These weekly episodic stories in art nouveau-style would always find Nemo ending his nightly visits to “Slumberland” by either falling out of bed or waking up to a call from his parents to get up and get ready for Sunday School.

The strip was called Little Nemo in Slumberland. It would be published by the Herald until 1911 when its creator, the renowned early master of comics art, Winsor McCay, was tempted to William Randolph Hearst’s New York American newspaper. He continued telling Little Nemo’s stories under a new title, In the Land of Wonderful Dreams, until 1914. In 1924, McCay would revive Little Nemo in Slumberland back at the series’ original home, now called the New York Herald Tribune. It would run until its eventual conclusion in 1927.

Today, McCay’s Little Nemo comic strips are widely recognized as some of the earliest examples of formal experimentation in the comics form. Lauded for his prodigious use of form, colour, timing, pace, panel size and shape, perspective, hatching style, architectural detail, (etc.), McCay’s work has inspired many renowned cartoonists, like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman

And now, we can add French artist Frank Pé to that list.

Little Nemo: After Winsor McCay is Pé’s attempt to “pay Winsor homage by approaching the adventures of Little Nemo in [his] own way” (p. 5). While much in his gorgeously illustrated volume demonstrates Pé’s commitment to McCay’s vision, some rather substantial alterations ultimately give his version of the work a feeling of inauthenticity. Sadly, it is these changes, sometimes necessary but other times puzzling, that subsequently makes for an uneven return to McCay’s surreal playground of Slumberland. 

There is no denying that Little Nemo: After Winsor McCay is an example of beautifully designed and gorgeously structured comics storytelling; truthfully, I could look at the book all day. Pé’s dedication to reflecting McCay’s obsession with spatial organization and productive page layouts is evident in nearly every page. An experimental formalist of the earliest kind, McCay’s comics (especially the earlier episodes) often used the layout of the page to respond to the narrative.

In one particular episode from 22 October 1905, the final two tiers of the page are staggered in such a way as to allow each panel to grow and accommodate the increasingly large mushroom forest around Nemo, only for them to shrink to claustrophobic size when the mushroom forest collapses around him. While few (if any) of Pé’s layouts can replicate McCay’s productive designs, he is able to incorporate nuanced formal brilliance through polyptych images and panel content that refuses to remain bound within the confines of the panel borders.

Another stellar element of Pé’s commitment to honouring McCay is the many fantastic, mythical, and surreal creatures he populates his pages with. McCay was known for having a distinct interest in creature creation; many of his strips feature otherworldly beasts of his design, including Magoozla, Whiffenpoofs, and Ozzle Bupps! Of course, McCay was also very fond of the more traditional animals, frequently drawing elephants, lions, polar bears, and other animals into his work. Pé continues that trend by ensuring that nearly every episode in the book features recognizable animals or new surreal creatures. They contribute mightily to the beauty of the text.

Unfortunately, while the comics are a treat to look at, they fail to elicit a similar response through their narrative. While I quite enjoyed the metanarrative approach that included Winsor McCay as a character within the comics (another element that McCay was fond of exploring), Pé somewhat succeeds in telling stories of surreal magnitude and dreamlike proportions, they all end up feeling utterly un-McCaydian.

Take, for instance, the character of Flip. When first introduced in 1905, Flip is jealous of Nemo because he feels as though he deserves to be the Princess’ playmate. Over the course of McCay’s 549 comics, he and Nemo become very good friends. McCay wrote Flip as a trickster, son of the sun, and nephew to the powerful Dawn Guard, making him Slumberland royalty (though he was rarely treated like it). Eventually, once he ceased his squabbling with Nemo, Flip joined Nemo and the Princess on many adventures and quickly became one of the series’ most interesting characters. (This character shifts to the centre of the narratives during the strips’ stint as In the Land of Wonderful Dreams at the New York American newspaper from 1911-1914). Under McCay’s pen, Flip was a stoic, headstrong troublemaker with a red-hot temper. 

The trouble with Flip is that he has often been read as a caricature of Irish Americans at the turn of the 20th Century. His defining characteristics, his green-toned face, cigar habit, and temper, were frequently associated with negative depictions of the Irish. In other words, bringing Flip into a 21st Century Little Nemo story certainly does require some navigating, but Pé’s depiction sterilizes him so dramatically that he becomes almost unrecognizable.

In our first meeting, he is so uncharacteristically over-joyed to see Nemo that the two embrace, dance, and jump around shouting, “Let’s play together like the good old days! We’ll never be apart again!” (p. 12). This is so out of character for Flip that I was taken aback by how enormously this character had changed under Pé’s pen.

My instinct is that these changes are Pé’s way of distancing Flip from his past reading as a caricature. Yet, through this attempt, he has re-created Flip in such a way that who he used to be is no longer noticeable. Nearly everything that made Flip the lovable scamp/trickster that he was has been removed; his green-toned face is absent, his top hat (that originally read “Wake Up” as a way to keep Nemo away from the Princess in his dreams) is replaced by a wispy piece of hair on the top of his head, and, most importantly, his function as the creator of chaos and mischief is replaced by a penchant for obedience as Nemo’s sidekick.

All that remains to identify him as the character that we once knew are his red trench coat, clownishly large feet, and a cigar (maintained through an admittedly clever depiction that simultaneously challenges the concept of smoking). In truth, this likely wouldn’t cause an issue for readers becoming first acquainted with Little Nemo’s world, but it does cause substantial friction for those who are.

I recognize that the balancing act between maintaining elements of a character’s past and developing new ones is particularly difficult, especially when the character’s past is steeped in potentially offensive ethnic othering. That said, there have been countless re-interpretations of Flip over the years that have found ways to remain true to his character while altering the more difficult parts. I was hoping for more of that from Flip’s character here. 

That said, this is not an attempt to disparage Pé’s decision to distance Flip from his past as caricature; I understand, and even celebrate, the impulse. Indeed, Pé’s choice to remove Impie–one of the long-standing members of Nemo’s group of friends in the original comics and an incredibly offensive racial caricature of Black American children–from this work is a decision I applaud. As Stanford W. Carpenter, Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Institute for Comics Studies, writes in his Afterword, titled “Relics of Slumberland”:

Enough people have read Winsor McCay’s work that any new artifact that it inspires…will be judged by its fidelity to his life and work. That history includes Impie in all of his racially offensive glory…To his credit, Frank Pé made the creative decision to remove Impie from this American edition…[he] understood that Impie’s absence may be noticed by some every bit as much as his presence would be noticed by many others. But that doesn’t mean he needs to persist. Impie is a relic of another time.

(p. 80)

It is important to note that in the original French publication of this graphic collection, Impie was included. Carpenter discusses this by stating that the context of bringing these stories to an American audience “introduces an entirely different perspective to consider” (p. 80). Ultimately, even submitting Impie to a massive re-write (much like Pé’s Flip) would not be enough to remove the embedded connotations of racism that have become entrenched in the character through his offensive past. 

Yet, these are not the only three characters that populated McCay’s original comics. Ultimately, what does the most damage to Pé’s new collection is the absence of the other characters that become so important to readers alongside Nemo. The Princess, though unnamed by McCay (or Pé for that matter), is mentioned in passing but never comes face to face with Nemo in these new stories. Her father, King Morpheus of Slumberland, is never seen. Doctor Pill, the Princess’ chaperone, is nowhere to be found. The Dancing Missionary, Splinters, the Candy Kid, and other friends that could easily have been used to unite Pé’s new vision for the character with McCay’s are entirely absent.

It’s possible that these characters will make an appearance in the follow-up collection (these are only the first 40 pages of Pé’s 548, and Pé does promise that the “Princess’s big comeback” (p. 5) is forthcoming). But that does nothing to repair the absences felt within these stories that have been collected here. 

Today, McCay’s Little Nemo comics are undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Since they now reside in the public domain, it is not only relatively easy to read Nemo’s brilliant exploits digitally (The Comic Strip Library), but it also means that creators are free to use them, change them, and re-create them to suit their purposes without fear of copyright infringement. As a result, there are plenty of current and upcoming projects that revolve around McCay’s work with Little Nemo.

Examples include: a video game adaptation of Little Nemo has recently wrapped up its (fully funded) campaign on Kickstarter’ Netflix is working on a Slumberland film set to release in 2022 directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Jason Momoa and Marlow Barkley (as a gender-swapped Nemo) and; I have been working as the Principal Investigator of a social media research project, #WelcomeToSlumberland, focused on McCay’s Little Nemo for the better part of two years on Twitter. All this to say that interest in McCay’s Little Dreamer might be at a height unseen since the original publication of the strip or the 1989 Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (Hata, Hurtz) film. 

Pé’s Little Nemo: After Winsor McCay deserves to be counted amongst this growing list of properties exploring McCay’s characters and should be recognized for bringing one of comics’ greatest masterpieces before new audiences. While Pé’s offering isn’t the return to Slumberland that I’ve been dreaming about, I am I know there is much more to come. As an ardent fan of McCay’s little dreamer, I intend to continue following Pé’s work with Nemo (and hopefully more of his friends) because, regardless of what I might consider missteps here, there is an unlimited amount of potential when you partner a brilliant comics artist and illustrator, like Pé, with the fantastical world of McCay’s Slumberland. Most of all, I hope that this collection will encourage readers to seek out McCay’s originals works to experience for themselves.