Case Study

Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland

A young, tousled-haired boy about the age of seven is slumbering away in his bed, ensconced in a non-descript, middle class bedroom (fig. 1). He is jarred awake by the revelation that his bed is levitating, and slowly floating out his window and into space. So begins an episode of Winsor McCay's epic comic strip adventure, Little Nemo in Slumberland, which appeared in newspapers across the country between 1905 and 1914. Featured on the cover of the New York Herald's Sunday comic supplement (and syndicated nationwide), the comic presented the bedtime adventures of a small boy called Nemo. In the serial's debut, and in the weeks to follow, Nemo repeatedly attempted to reach the enchanted kingdom of Slumberland, only to have the journey preempted when he awakened and found himself safely at home in his bed. It was an ideal subject for a weekly comic in that the curtailed narrative induced readers to purchase the next installment. Such literature also taught its young readers an appreciation for the pleasures of both fantasy and delayed gratification.

A visit to an exotic world followed by a return to reality was a common trope in children's magazines and books, as evidenced by the widespread popularity of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, and J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. The cultural preoccupation with fantastic subjects did not go unnoticed. The writer Brian Hooker wrote in the October 1908 edition of Forum, "The present day is exhibiting a curiously vivid interest in fairy tales," and later pondered, "perhaps our very materialism is responsible for this new hunger after fancy." By the first decade of the 20th century images celebrating wonder and fantasy appeared in everything from picture books and comic strips, to department stores and amusement parks.

Little Nemo's bold visual style and epic story arc distinguished the comic from its competitors. Its ambitions included broadening the audience for comic strips by self-consciously referencing pictorial forms from an expansive range of high and low cultural sources. McCay's comic strips redefined the nascent medium and made an important contribution to the proliferation of fantastic imagery at the dawn of the 20th century. To best understand his cultural contributions it is useful to examine his aesthetic innovations, as well as the social and historical context in which his work found its audience.

Visual Analysis

McCay's work was characterized by its vivid use of color, skillful draftsmanship, intricate detail, and imaginative architectural forms. In this episode dated December 3, 1905, we can see how McCay expanded the narrative possibilities of the comic strip through his embrace of full-page design. Here he creates visual interest and momentum by varying the size and shape of the panels, culminating in the central circular panel, while unifying the entire page through symmetry and repetition. His graceful line work and use of flat areas of color are reminiscent of art nouveau poster art. It is also important to recognize that his fantastic imagery is rooted in the spectacular world of commerce and popular entertainment that ushered in the 20th century. For example, the emphasis on primary colors and the typographical flourishes found in the title panel are reminiscent of circus poster art. The comic's narrative, an imagined trip to the moon, was also the subject of an amusement park ride at Coney Island, a serialized novel published in St. Nicholas, and a 1902 film by Georges Méliès. McCay's comic strips produced a dream world shaped by the visual language of modern urban experience.

As the students read the comic strip, ask them to think about how words and images are combined to create the narrative. Talk about the essential components of a comic strip: the header/title, the panels, the gutters (the space between the panels), and the captions and/or speech balloons. How do these components divide time and space? How do the elements combine to advance plotlines? What is more instrumental to the flow of this narrative, the words or the pictures? Do either contradict or work against one another? How do text and image compliment, or complicate, the story? How are the different visual elements combined to create a unified, full-page design? Why does McCay vary the size and shape of the panels? How does this affect the flow of time within the comic strip? Emphasize scale, which will not be apparent from viewing the image online. Bring in a copy of the New York Times as a visual aid and explain that one Little Nemo comic strip took up the full page of a broadsheet newspaper (about 16 x 22 inches), as compared to newspaper comic strips today, which are compressed in size so as to fit as much content onto the page as possible. How does the size of the image affect the reading experience? The large scale of McCay's fantastical designs contributed to their transportive quality, as children could immerse themselves in scenes of faraway lands and magic kingdoms.

Historical Context

Weekly funny pages, directed at both children and adults, first appeared in newspapers in the 1890s, when the publishing barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst vigorously competed with each other for readers. They soon discovered that the colorful comic supplements boosted circulation. The initial audiences for comics were urban, working class immigrants and the content of the newspapers reflected their readership. R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid and Rudolph Dirks' The Katzenjammer Kids drew inspiration from the various ethnic communities who populated the tenements of the lower east side. Common elements of such comics include urban settings, crowded frames, and the use of anti-authoritarian, anarchic humor similar to that found in the slapstick comedy of vaudeville routines, with an emphasis on the child as a trickster figure.

As newspapers became nationally syndicated the content of the comics became less urban and culturally specific so as to appeal to a wider audience. By 1903 comics transitioned from being an urban phenomenon to a national craze. Little Nemo attempted to bridge the gap between the serialized adventure stories found in high-brow illustrated magazines like St. Nicholas, and the low brow humor of the Sunday supplements. This was undoubtedly a strategic move on the part of McCay's employer, James Gordon Bennett Jr., who wished to distinguish the New York Herald as a middle-class alternative to its more sensational counterparts like Pulitzer's New York World and Hearst's New York Journal.

Images glorifying childhood as period of unfettered creativity dominated the visual landscape of early 20th-century American fiction, magazines, and comics. Concurrent with the rapid expansion of mass culture, these dreamscapes directed viewers to revel in fantasy and delight in ungratified longing, thereby inciting the pleasures of consumer desire in its audience of young dreamers. This contributed to a shared visual culture that celebrated fantasy and the imagination. For McCay, Slumberland was a retreat from modernity; yet his spectacular landscapes were peppered with allusions to popular culture. References to circus posters, Coney Island thrill rides, and show window displays abound in his designs. McCay's use of the medium was highly self-reflexive and ambivalent: his work articulated the complex ways in which fantasy and mass culture were entangled at the turn-of-the-century.

Teaching the Source

This striking image is a potential jumping off point for further discussion of the rapid rise of a mass popular culture in American cities in the early 20th century. In my art history course, after dividing into groups to talk about how the visual design and narrative work together, I will ask students to research and write a short report on another example of 20th century visual culture that explores some of the same themes. Examples can take the form of children's literature, early film, amusement parks, poster art, advertising, or illustration. Students present short papers on any number of topics, including L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Georges Méliès' film A Trip to the Moon, the architecture of Coney Island's Luna Park and Dreamland, Barnum & Bailey circus posters, and the commercial illustrations of Maxfield Parrish. Students found commonalities in themes, visual motifs, and subject matter, pointing to the many ways that popular art forms intersected and influenced one another at the dawn of mass culture.

How to Cite This Source

"Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland," in Children and Youth in History, Item #476, (accessed August 10, 2021).