Winsor McCay spoke the saddest and greatest last words of any cartoonist. (Number two is Osamu Tezuka: “I’m begging you, let me work!”) McCay lived to draw; his greatest fear, he often said, was of losing that ability. On a July evening in 1934, the 65-year-old cartoonist called downstairs to his wife, “It’s gone, Mother! Gone, gone, gone!” He had just suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side. Shortly afterwards, he suffered a second stroke, from which he never recovered.
Many cartoonists, even many great cartoonists, find drawing a chore. But McCay loved to draw. He lived to draw. He built a side career as an animator so he could draw even more. Each Little Nemo strip overflows with more careful, lovely illustration than most of us could produce in a lifetime. McCay crowded his strips with duplicates, clones, and herds of identical figures; he couldn’t think of any pastime more fun than drawing sixty kangaroos or a hundred children in clown suits. Figures stretch and warp and bend; the panels themselves strain to accommodate the artist’s imagination, tipping over and reforming into weird new shapes.
This strip, of all strips, could never fill less than a full Sunday page. It’s wild and robust but strangely delicate, as if a strong breeze, or Mama calling from the kitchen, could dissipate McCay’s fine-lined, Art Nouveau fairyland.
This is what McCay loved so much, this Fabergé egg of a comic strip. He took pen in hand and sent readers tumbling into a shifting universe of princesses, dragons, elephants, hot-air balloons, ornate palaces, darkest wildernesses, walking beds, dreams that enter the waking world, and waking worlds that turn into dreams. At the end of each page Little Nemo wakes up and cries MAMA! And it’s gone.
Shaenon Garrity is an editor at Viz Media and the creator of the webcomic Narbonic. She writes about comics for comiXology, Otaku USA, and other publications.
Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay received 25.5 votes.
The poll participants who included it in their top tens are: Eric Berlatsky, Noah Berlatsky, Jeffrey Chapman, Hillary Chute, Seymour Chwast, Brian Codagnone, Corey Creekmur, Kathleen Dunley, Joshua Dysart, Jackie Estrada, Shaenon Garrity, Geoff Grogan, Danny Hellman, Kenneth Huey, Jones, one of the Jones Boys, Abhay Khosla, Sean Kleefeld, Chris Mautner, Joshua Paddison, Marco Pelliteri, Hans Rickheit, Matt Seneca, Matteo Stefanelli, Joshua Ray Stephens, Matt Thorn, and Mack White.
Hillary Chute specifically voted for the newspaper comic strips of Winsor McCay, which was counted as a 0.5 vote towards Little Nemo in Slumberland’s total.
Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland was a newspaper strip that was first published on October 15, 1905. The original run continued until April 23, 1911. There were two revivals. The first of these ran from April 30 to July 26, 1914. The final run of the strip was published between 1924 and 1927.
The strip is in the public domain. As such, there have been many competing book collections put out by publishers. The best, least expensive introduction (as well as the collection that does the most justice to the original published page sizes) is Dover Publications’ Little Nemo in the Palace of Ice, which retails for $14.95. Click here to view it on Google Books.
–Robert Stanley Martin