Locust Moon’s upcoming book Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream is not simply a tribute to Winsor McCay, it’s a showcase for some of the most creative comics art being made today and a wonderfully imaginative set of short pieces. This is essentially the comics equivalent of a “tribute album,” only much more interesting, because unlike in the musical situation, where young artists would simply play the old songs, here the young artists create new works in the style of and inspired by the old master. It’s a very old-fashioned artistic practice in the western world, in fact, but it’s not often seen in today’s copyright-obsessed era, which codified and restricted an organic artistic practice so wonderfully exemplified by this book. It’s comic book jazz.
The narrative material itself is wonderful, open stuff. Following the pattern of the original McCay strip from 1909, a young boy sleeps and has fantastic dreams, going on incredible adventures that are as often as not ironic observations on the world, or some other sort of clever joke, and end with Nemo waking up in his bed, chastising himself for letting his imagination run away with him. With that basic framework, and each story lasting a single page, in the ordered 19th century panel style and classic McCay-style lines, the artists improvise brilliantly.
First, there’s the narrative experiments. “Little Nemo in Coin-Operated Land”, by Peter Hoey and Maria Hoey, imagines Nemo doing his laundry and having an adventure watching the machine slowly flip over and over.
In another story, “Little Nemo in Escape From Slumberland”, by Paolo Rivera, tells a Pirate-flavoured sea adventure story set to the lyrics of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. Brendan Leach departs almost entirely from the formula with his 1950s street-tough female leather-gang story “The Vipers in Slumber City”.
(The Vipers is also one of the several stories to end with cat-sleep interference, something familiar to all who share their lives with feline folk.)
And then there’s the astonishing sort of artistic experimentation, such as Jenna Trost’s story being told as a photocomic involving puppets.
Or Box Brown, whose excellent comic about Andre the Giant displayed so much heart and wit, and who draws a witty science fiction tale here.
Later stories are even more creative, some dispensing with the clear narrative and dialogue balloons entirely, or rendering extremely dark visions reminiscent of Arkham Asylum. Still other contributors such as Dean Haspiel work in modern references, making his Nemo an old man and includes references to Haspiel’s current characters. (In defence of Haspiel, I think Winsor McCay wouldn’t have objected to a bit of self-promotion at all. On the contrary, in the late 19th and early 20th century, self-promotion to the point of “hucksterism” was admired.)
Part of what makes all of this such fertile artistic ground is something that Winsor McCay himself no doubt noticed, namely that we’re exploring the world of dreams, here. Not just dreams, but the epic, midnight dreams of a child, whose imagination has yet to be given boundaries to be ignored: for a child those boundaries simply don’t exist. While some of these stories are darker than others, some more grounded in existing popular culture than others, when you take them all at once, the effect is almost psychedelic. The other comic that came to mind for me when reading this book was Alan Moore’s Unearthing, a swirling cacophony of images deliberately designed to circumvent reason and logic. It isn’t as if each of these stories, taken on their own, is deliberately challenging in that psychedelic way – on the contrary, many are charmingly simple. But seeing all of these dreams stacked up next to each other, each executed with such talent, one can’t help but contemplate one’s own dreams, and the limits of imagination.
Over 100 years in, Winsor McCay is obviously still inspiring, and probably the most wonderful moment in the whole book is, after you’ve read all the various modern contributions, the very last one is by McCay himself. And it fits right in: it doesn’t feel 100 years old. It’s just as funny and creative and observant and has as sure a sense for how to use words and pictures to tell an effective story as it ever was. A fitting end to a book busting with artistic treasure.