4 February 1998
LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND
(c) 1998 by Jon Lebkowsky
After so many zillion cups of almondetto mocha java espresso latte xanthine foo I admit that my neural presence leans toward hyperconscious mode, consequently I've lost touch with slumber.... As a child I experienced conscious and unconscious as more of a slush, and as an adult I'm drawn to artists who are most like children in their slushy perception of the boundary between physpace and dreamspace, surrealists who acknowledge the forceful presence of alternate realities. One of the greatest of these was Winsor McKay, who in the first decades of this century carried newspaper readers in the US and Europe on regular visits to Slumberland with his alter ego, Little Nemo.
If you've seen the Japanese animé version of Little Nemo in Slumberland, scripted by Ray Bradbury, released in the US a few years ago by Disney (and still widely available as a video rental), you have an idea what McKay's comic strip was about. However the contemporary animation was too cute to evoke the surreal quality of McKay's work...and too contrived in its depiction of the battle with Nightmare. (McKay, a pioneer of film animation, made his own Little Nemo film, which I've never seen, though I'm sure it lacked the Disneyfied button-brained chirping squirrel of the contemporary version.)
The original Little Nemo drew inspiration from McKay's work as a circus-poster artist and from the (pop) art nouveau movement's surreal edges, but he was a great individual fantasist in his own right who, according to Maurice Sendak, "recreated dreams that we all had as children but few of us remember--or care to remember....Nemo's dreams, like Alice's, have the unquestionable ring of veracity."
When I read the Little Nemo strip, my deja goes vu, it's as though I'm remembering a forgotten ambience, like recovering the lost scent of lapsed confections. Few artists evoke the forgotten tangle of preconscious realities as well as McKay. For instance, his Nemo strip for 12/3/1905 is dominated by a circular center panel depicting an orange Man in the Moon, his gaping mouth the cavernous entrance to Slumberland, surrounded by vertiginous scenes of Nemo cast adrift on his bed, mattress and pillow and sheets falling away. And in the 1/21/1906 strip, Nemo's bedroom fills with snow. He tunnels through to find himself in the wintry Valley of Silence, surrounded, then chased by by polar bears, only to awaken standing on his mattress in his cramped mundane bedroom. In these early strips Nemo was beckoned to Slumberland, but, distracted by other dreamstuff, he never quite completed the trip.
He eventually transcended all barriers to arrive in Slumberland before waking, and there he met the king, the princess, and the irascible Flip. There's a great set of panels from July 1906 where the princess invites Nemo to ride through the Slumberland garden seated in the open mouth of Bosco the dragon. Flip burns Bosco's tail with his omnipresent cigar: "I'll just touch him with this lighted cigar and see what will happen to them two..." O'course, Bosco is not amused... he inadvertently tosses off his two riders as he lashes ëround to roar at the cigar-wielding Flip. In the third strip Flip himself climbs into Bosco's mouth, ostensibly for a ride, but once he's seated, Bosco closes his mouth with a sly grin. In the next panel the doctor rushes past Nemo and the princess: "I've just received a hurry call, something terrible has happened to Bosco." Just what's happened is left to the reader's fevered imaginings...
I've been thinking a lot about the undifferentiated child's mind, how it makes no clear distinction between mind-blowing fantasy and mundane reality, accepting stimulus on its own terms. The toddler Jon L. was fascinated by the universe inside the washing machine, painted deep navy-black like the night sky, with spots of white like the stars. This looked so like a starfield, I was certain of a connection between the washer and outer space. I gazed dreamily into a household appliance and lose myself in my own version of slumberland. I sailed into surreal night where the surface of the moon can be a smiling face, a cosmic cow leaping through the stellar vacuum over the moon as earth recedes from view and an altered consciousness falls into the deepest reaches of the Vast Mysterioso. Though that place is beyond me now, I still find some sense of it in Nemo's adventures. Perhaps he will point me back that way as I cycle out.
The comics that I read as a child so shaped my reality that for a time I imagined a linear world of hard angles as you find in Bushmiller's Nancy and Sluggo or Marge's Little Lulu. In a psilocybin reverie years ago I climbed Mt. Bonnell in Austin and had a kind of metropolitan aesthetic kensho: no straight lines! The city's layout was completely nonlinear. Though I certainly must've known that cities were not constructed from some comic-book linear-matrix template, I didn't know it in my bones. At least, not until that moment. Very fucking weird, it was...the dissonance between internal linear presumption and nonlinear organic reality.
Following that experience I returned to Little Nemo and the lushness of McKay's vision, restructuring my inner world, creating a nonlinear psychic template that has since screwed me up in the best of ways.
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