Dichotomies are dangerous, though useful, monsters. As silly as debating the relative merits of Star Trek and Star Wars can be, these conversations inevitably probe our relative biases and also outline the vast set of consequences of specific artistic choices or sensibilities.
One of my favorite fictional dichotomies is between Krazy Kat and Little Nemo. They’re almost indisputably the two most highly regarded newspaper comics ever produced. Both have been lauded by critics. Both are also surreal. Both were produced in the first half of the 20th century. Both also appeared, at least for part of their run, in Hearst newspapers. And yet they couldn’t be more different.
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat ran from 1913 to 1944. It stars a simple-minded cat named Krazy Kat and a grumpy mouse name Ignatz. In a typical strip, Krazy Kat pines for Ignatz, only to have Ignatz throw a brick that hits Krazy’s head. Although dazed and wounded, Krazy Kat interprets the attack as an expression of Ignatz’s affection. Sometimes, Offissa Pup, a dog police officer, arrests Ignatz, and the strip ends with Ignatz locked up in jail, with Krazy Kat still helplessly pining away.
Such a description makes Krazy Kat appear simplistic. But for fans of Krazy Kat, this is one of the strip’s strengths. Krazy and Ignatz’s dynamic becomes emblematic of romantic relationships and differing personality types. The guileless Krazy gives his love freely and interprets even personal injury in a way that reinforces his worldview. In contrast, Ignatz seems like a grumpy cynic. Does Ignatz love Krazy, as Krazy believes? Is Ignatz’s brick-throwing really a cynical, damaged expression of love? Or is Krazy a masochist? Or both?
Enhancing such a universalist interpretation is the fact that Krazy’s gender isn’t clear. Sometimes, Krazy is a “he”; other times, a “she.” This helps prevent Krazy’s loving, arguably masochistic tendencies from feeling gendered in any stereotypical way. It also enhances the simple nature of the strip, which can feel as if a love story has been boiled down to its most essential elements, stripped even of conclusive gender.
Indeed, the story isn’t really important in Krazy Kat. If there is a story, it’s essentially replayed and replayed, in strip after strip, with almost no continuity or progression. This too aids the feeling that what we’re reading is something universal, even primal. Yet within this repetition and simplicity, every strip varies the plot is some way or another, and the strips themselves are filled with endless variation and whimsy.
Take, for example, the dialogue. Herriman filled the strips with language that put poetic concerns, such as alliteration, over communicating any specific point. Much of the dialogue is phonetic, emphasizing the sound of the words over ease of reading. Krazy Kat may be simplistic, but it arguably requires a good deal of work from the reader.
If you try to figure out exactly what’s being said, you can often get lost in what appears to be word vomit with little apparent point. Your only option is to go with the flow and enjoy the sound and the charms of the dialogue on its own merit. Krazy Kat forces you to surrender to it, and even its dialogue insists that you submit yourself to its expressionistic whimsy. It breaks all the rules, yet manages to be charming.
This same expressionistic attitude tendency, seen in the dialogue, is just as pronounced in the artwork. Krazy Kat is oddly blocky, and his tail looks like a jagged lightning bolt. Herriman filled the backgrounds with rock formations and bizarre plants, inspired by his vacation home in Arizona. Typically, these shift between panels, even when the characters are standing still and depicted from the same side. Sometimes, it’s not even clear what’s being depicted, except that it’s an interesting design. Only settings relevant to the story, such as Offissa Pup’s jailhouse, seem remotely stable.
The whole world is fluid in Krazy Kat. The setting, the dialogue, Krazy’s gender — everything. Consistency isn’t a virtue here; whimsy is. Arguably, this makes the entire strip expresses Krazy’s carefree attitude.
Even the panels sometimes feel unstable. While mostly laid out on conventional rows, some are narrow, others wide. Some are tilted. Others are missing their panel borders. Occasionally, Harriman drew curtains or stage lights on the borders, or used other indications that suggested a panel was somehow staged or artificial.
Sometimes, other characters appeared. Besides Offissa Pup, the most common other character was Kolin Kelly, a dog who owned the brickyard from which Ignatz got the bricks (or failed to do so, depending on the strip) with which he beamed Krazy (or failed to do so, depending on the strip). Other characters might appear, doing something bizarre, which was typically never explained. What mattered wasn’t explanations but how the characters interacted with this new thing. When characters sought explanations in Krazy Kat, they were typically confounded, almost as if the strip was teaching its readers to go with the flow, or to focus on the present, or at least enjoy this particular comic on a more visceral level.
Krazy Kat usually tops the list of best newspaper comics, especially when those lists are produced by academics or fans of black-and-white independent comics. In The Comics Journal‘s 1999 list of the best American comics to date, Krazy Kat was ranked the best comic — including both comic strips and comic books — ever produced. But Krazy Kat was also appreciated in its own time, and it was one of the first comics to be praised as a serious work of art. Its fans included E. E. Cummings, Frank Capra, H. L. Mencken, and Jack Kerouac. Krazy Kat has fared well over time, as critics have seen it as a reflection of Dadaism and a prefiguration of postmodernism (especially for the strip’s remarkable lack of stable referents). Comics professionals who have cited Krazy Kat as an influence include Charles Schulz, Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Hunt Emerson, Larry Gonick, Bill Watterson, Patrick McDonnell, and Chris Ware. Michael Stipe has a tattoo of Krazy and Ignatz.
But by far the most important admirer of Krazy Kat was William Randolf Hearst himself. Krazy Kat was never very successful commercially, and many were confused by how it eschewed comics conventions and was essentially a funny animal strip without proper gags. But Hearst loved the strip so much that he gave Herriman a lifetime contract guaranteeing the artist full creative control. And when Herriman died in April 1944, Hearst ran the remaining completed pages and then cancelled the strip, rather than have someone else take over, as was the standard practice at the time.
Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo appeared in three distinct periods. It began as Little Nemo in Slumberland in 1905, appearing until mid-1911. That year, McCay moved to a Hearst newspaper, continuing the strip as In the Land of Wonderful Dreams, which continued until mid-1914. Little Nemo then took a ten-year hiatus. In 1924, McCay returned to the same paper that had originally published Little Nemo in Slumberland, and he revived the strip under its original title. The revival wasn’t popular, and it ended in December 1926.
Like Krazy Kat, the basic premise of Little Nemo is remarkably simple. A typical strip featured the boy Nemo (Latin for “no one”) in a surreal landscape, and would end with Nemo tumbling out of bed, revealing that everything had been a dream. But right from the start, these dreams continued from one installment to the next, almost as if he were really having these adventures during his sleep, despite the dismissive, gag-like ending of each strip.
The strips thus had continuity with one another, although a reader could read any given installment and enjoy it. Each strip presented a different surreal or inventive situation, explored visually on the page, while also continuing the story.
Although the strip dealt with a dream world, McCay’s artwork was exceptionally detailed and precise. Page after page, panel after panel, the sheer skill on display is shocking even today. McCay especially excelled at architecture. Even as Nemo tumbled through bizarre settings and situations, and the stories featured a kind of dream logic and explored common psychological fears and fantasies, the settings were always rendered with intimidatingly masterful precision. The events depicted might be dreams, and they might be surreal, but they felt real. To read a page of Little Nemo is to immerse yourself within something both imaginative and fully realized. The eyes are drawn back over panels already read. They plunge into the setting, marveling at McCay’s linework, and get lost in the sheer architectural precision of the page.
McCay’s style was heavily influenced by Art Nouveau, particularly in the way characters are outlined in thick lines. Panels and pages are composed almost like Art Nouveau posters. Both Art Nouveau and McCay didn’t shy away from decorative and intricate detail. Also like Art Nouveau, McCay delighted in color; in fact, he paid careful attention to it, leaving color annotating for the printers.
Beginning with the second strip, McCay began to vary panel shapes and sizes in unprecedentedly ambitious ways that mirrored the imaginative story at hand. As Nemo enters a forest of mushrooms, stretching upwards like trees, the panels grow taller and taller, forming a staircase-like pattern on the page. But using dream logic, the mushrooms are composed of individual cylindrical slices, like ancient columns, that topple as Nemo stumbles into them. As they collapse, the panels grow shorter, until Nemo is buried. McCay repeated this idea in the next strip, in which Nemo walks on stilts, and then falls, as the panels similarly grow taller and then shrink.
A strip from early 1908 uses a similar device. As the cast distorts like a funhouse mirror, the panels similarly distort. (I remember reading this page for the first time at about 20, and it blew my mind. That’s the power of Little Nemo; it shows what comics can do and often makes you want to create your own comics in response, adapting these techniques for your own narratives and ideas.)
McCay’s architectural precision also allowed him to adapt cinematic techniques to comics, such as keeping the perspective over multiple panels of the same size, as if keeping the “camera” steady while watching action unfold. Today, comic books take this device for granted, but McCay used it to create huge visual feasts in a way few can rival today.
In a series of pages in 1907, the characters climbed like giants on skyscrapers. The city becomes a kind of volumetric playground, a jungle gym of possibility. It’s exactly the kind of thing I imagine when dreaming, or idly fantasize about during waking life, yet have so rarely seen represented visually. McCay did so in 1907, and the results are mind-blowing.
In a few pages in 1908, the dream world is turned upside-down, then sideways, and we thrill to the characters navigating this space, walking on vaulted ceilings and balancing precariously along structural supports in ways no architect ever intended. By itself, walking on ceilings is simply an idea, and it might be characterized as imaginative. But McCay transforms it into something that’s real, that’s fleshed-out, and it’s only in doing so that this rather mundane idea is transformed into something actually imagined.
This, too, is something I often find myself dreaming — and daydreaming — about. I look at the uneven panels of wood that comprise the ceiling, and I imagine them on their side and a miniature version of myself jumping from one board to the next, stringing rope across the gaps. Or I see the way a foyer opens into a living room, and I imagine the world turned sideways, so that this opening is a door into a room that tumbles down like a cliff, and climbing from one side of the gap to the next seems impossible. Scale and gravity seem arbitrary, as my brain tries to understand these spaces by navigating it in these odd ways, and while this may help me to understand myself and my environment in novel ways, I don’t share these experiences much for fear that I’ll be thought insane. There is probably no building I’ve frequented that I haven’t walked through sideways or upside-down, or scaled in miniature, or floated through and above, or felt the trimmings along the windows before my floating, tenuous, shrunken feet. Sometimes, reading Little Nemo is like reading a two-dimensional reflection of my own, secret architectural interactions.
In a famous page from 1908, Nemo’s bed sprouts legs and walks through a city, bucking like a horse before moving up to the level of the rooftops. Again, it’s an imaginative idea, but the idea itself means nothing without the execution; the idea plays out in three-dimensional space, and we see Little Nemo tossed around, in danger of falling from his precarious little bed.
In a page from 1907, the characters disassemble the strip’s logo, interacting with the letters they’ve knocked down. Here, some comparison to Krazy Kat may prove fruitful. Occasionally, Krazy Kat playfully introduces a knowing, metafictional element. But Little Nemo explores such an idea in three-dimensional space; the characters hold the letters of the strip’s logo, and the background stays constant — something Krazy Kat eschewed. Both strips could be characterized as surreal and sometimes metafictional, but in entirely different ways that have nothing to do with one another except the sharing of an adjective that defines them.
Krazy Kat‘s metafiction is a wink at the reader. Little Nemo explores how the characters might react to a metafictional element within their own world, in a way more tonally reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s conclusion to Animal Man.
In another metafictional strip, this one from late 1908, the details disappear from the artwork, since they haven’t yet been drawn. Essentially, the strip is unfinished. In our world, each panel exists as its own separate space, but to the characters, details are actually disappearing from their world. Eventually, the characters tumble out of the panel, unable to balance on the tightrope of the bottom panel border. The characters are aware that they’re being drawn, that they are fictive creations, and they’re not upset by this fact. But whereas this would be a simple gag, or a throw-away line, in a lesser work, here we’re asked to imagine what it would feel like to inhabit such an unfinished, two-dimensional world.
Little Nemo often feels like an encyclopedia of what comics can do.
Slumberland is a literal place in Nemo’s dreams, although it’s not always the setting of his dream adventures. Later in the series, Nemo and company take a tour of the world, which occasions some wonderful architectural renderings, and also tour the Moon and Mars, both of which are inhabited and function with the same sort of dream logic common to the strip. When McCay revived Little Nemo in 1924, after a decade of hiatus, his artistic precision was as strong as before, but he laid out the panels into an invariable grid, lessening the charm and power of his pages.
Besides architecture, Little Nemo is filled with animals of all sorts, perhaps reflecting a childish fascination with animals. Their curved lines are just as precise and just as beautiful as McCay’s architecture.
If Little Nemo has two flaws, the first would be its lettering. Word balloons appear to be sloppily done, sometimes with little concern as to their placement. It’s odd that McCay would pay so much attention to his artwork, including its color, yet allow the lettering to be so at odds with the strip’s architectural precision. Occasionally, this disconnect can seem charming, as if the word balloons express a human flaw in an otherwise pristine artistic composition. But more often, the lettering is simply a weakness, and there’s no denying that Little Nemo is an art-driven comic. The stories themselves are organized around visual ideas, and the text is definitely less important.
Little Nemo‘s second flaw is its racism. It prominently features a grumpy Irishman named Flip and a nearly mute, big-haired African named Impie, who’s depicted as a spear-carrying stereotype. Several strips contain similar African characters, and their cannibalistic propensity to put whites into cauldrons is a major feature in more than one story. Such stereotypes were common to the period, and they’re subordinated to the surreal and playful tone of the strip, so that they don’t feel malicious in their intent, despite their obvious racism. It’s also possible to read them as Nemo’s dreams borrowing more from popular culture than from any reality about race or ethnicity. This can’t be said about Ebony in Will Eisner’s The Spirit, another racial stereotype in a masterful comic produced a half century later. However, it’s easy for me, as a white person, to overlook the ugly implications of these stereotypes and isolate the artistic prowess at hand. I might not always be able to do so, and I couldn’t blame anyone in the least for not being able to read or to enjoy Little Nemo because of its racist stereotypes.
Like Krazy Kat, Little Nemo has had a profound influence on comics. Alan Moore has borrowed from Little Nemo on more than one occasion: particularly in the Miracleman dream sequence in ”The Red King Syndrome” and in Promethea‘s “Little Margie in Misty Magic Land.” Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman also borrows from Little Nemo. More generally, the formal innovations in Little Nemo have had a profound influence in pushing the medium forward, and virtually every experimentation with the comics form owes a debt to Little Nemo.
The strip remains fondly remembered outside of comics too. Maurice Sendak cited Little Nemo as an inspiration for his children’s book In the Night Kitchen. Little Nemo was also the subject of a Genesis song and got its own Google Doodle in 2012.
Both Krazy Kat and Little Nemo have had adaptations and continuations, but Little Nemo has proven to be particularly fruitful terrain for the latter, as well as for parody. Likely, this success, compared to Krazy Kat, owes itself to the fact that Little Nemo was able to sustain a continuing narrative, whereas it’s hard to even speak of the “story” of Krazy Kat in conventional ways.
Earlier this year, Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez began a continuation, entitled Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland, from IDW. A brief Little Nemo continuation is also reported to be a part of Alan Moore’s contributions to the forthcoming Electricomics (whatever that ends up being, after the embarrassingly amateurish way it was announced). In fact, the first Little Nemo revival (after McCay’s own, in 1924-1926) occurred in 1937! McCay’s son Robert revived the strip under the name Winsor McCay, Jr. Robert McCay also produced a comic book starring a grown-up Nemo. But neither survived long.
Little Nemo‘s also been the subject of two lightly pornographic parodies. Italian creator Vittorio Giardino began his excellent Little Ego, featuring an adult woman’s erotic dream adventures, in 1984. No less than Brian Bolland produced Little Nympho in Slumberland, early in his career.
In art, expression and precision, or creativity and control, are often seen to be at odds. Krazy Kat and Little Nemo are certainly a case in point, occupying either end of this spectrum. Of course, it’s a false dichotomy: there’s plenty of craft on display in Krazy Kat and there’s plenty of imagination on display in Little Nemo. But in Krazy Kat, all that artistic skill and imagination feels barely filtered; it’s wildly expressionistic, and its fans like its simple, primal power and its abandonment of conventional narrative concerns. And in Little Nemo, every wonderfully imaginative idea is played out with architectural precision and explored as part of a narrative, or how it might be experienced by the characters.
If you prefer Krazy Kat, you might also be drawn to the comics of James Kochalka. On the other hand, the carefully controlled nature of Watchmen, despite its use of the nine-panel grid, echoes the controlled precision of Little Nemo.
It probably won’t surprise readers that I’m firmly on the Little Nemo side of this divide. I can admire aspects of Krazy Kat. (After all, I just wrote almost 1000 words explaining it and its appeals here.) But the lack of narrative and the primitive nature of the art make it hard for me to read much Krazy Kat in a single sitting. I think I’ll vomit if I read one more academic essay praising the ambiguity of Krazy Kat in the most theoretical of terms, in a way that has no correlation to my experience reading the strip itself. Krazy Kat certainly has its amusing charms, but they don’t amount to anything I consider important.
As rough as the lettering of Little Nemo can be, the writing in Krazy Kat is far less satisfying. The dialogue others praise as poetic reads like high-school poetry that’s trying way too hard and ultimately means nothing when decoded. The phonetic dialogue takes a great deal of effort for me to decipher, and then I’m almost always disappointed that the results are simply an expression of stupidity, or a basic feeling, with little greater resonance.
With Little Nemo, I feel like I learn something about comics and what it can do — not on every single page, but certainly at a far greater rate per page than virtually any other comic ever made. A great deal of the comics art I like has the kind of detail and precision of Winsor McCay’s. One of my favorite comics of all time, the French series The Obscure Cities, owes a tremendous debt to McCay. There, François Schuiten’s also excels at depicting architecture, including paradoxical architecture, and also shows the influence of Art Nouveau. That series also features fantastic or surreal elements, as well as some metafiction, but these elements are explored as part of a fictive world; we experience these elements through character and through narrative. In many ways, The Obscure Cities could be considered to carry forward the concerns and advancements of Little Nemo, transforming them into full-length narratives of great literary subtlety.
To me, Krazy Kat is two-dimensional. Little Nemo is three-dimensional. And that’s not only true because the panels in Krazy Kat are flat, with little sense of space and less sense of spacial consistency. Krazy Kat‘s themes, stories, characters, and elements are two-dimensional as well. Yes, there’s a lot you can tease out from the tensions and implications of such two-dimensional simplicity. If resonating the most using the least is the game, Krazy Kat excels. But I don’t see characters in Krazy Kat; I see sketches of characters. Nothing really happens. The figures don’t exist in space or time — even in the surreal spaces of Nemo’s dreamtime, which look and feel so real despite their absurdity. If you add another dimension to Krazy Kat‘s postmodern wink at the reader, you get the characters in Little Nemo holding the letter of its logo, wondering what they’re made of. The latter is to the former as a cube is to a square.
I can understand how Krazy Kat might inspire a comics creator. Robert Crumb inspired me in much the same way, to let go of artistic inhibitions and to not be afraid of missteps or feeling naked on the page. But Little Nemo challenges creators… not simply to express, but to do better, to be better, and to carry comics forward.
And it would be putting it mildly to say that the problem our art — and comics — face today is certainly not a lack of expression. Creators, like intellectuals, often struggle with their own lack of confidence. But the West, especially the United States, seems filled with would-be novelists, filmmakers, and comics creators possessed by the brilliance of their ideas without much awareness of how to express these ideas within a carefully constructed narrative of carefully chosen words and well-balanced themes. Even critics seem increasingly to lack this awareness. That architectural precision in Little Nemo is something to aspire to. It’s what separates the germ of an idea — a kind of two-dimensional thing — from its flowering on the page or on the screen. Certainly, some artists err too much on the side of craft, and many high-literary novels strike me as passionless, overly moderated artifacts. But passion by itself isn’t anything. Passion focused and honed into artistic precision, like what we see in Little Nemo… that’s enough to legitimate a lifetime’s work.
Personally, I find the ranking of Krazy Kat as the best comic ever made utterly absurd. To me, that feels emblematic of everything that was wrong with The Comics Journal. If I put Krazy Kat in my own personal list of the top 100 comics ever made, it would probably be because of the strip’s influence and a guilty nod to collective opinion. But I suspect that Little Nemo would make my top ten.
But that’s just my opinion, at this particular moment in my life. You’re welcome, of course, to disagree. Many comics critics I respect and admire prefer Krazy Kat to Little Nemo, and the conversations that ensue are frequently fascinating and illuminating.
That’s the joy of a good artistic dichotomy.