The Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream Kickstarter is still going strong. I think they’ve finally reached the point where no-one is going to LOSE any money from it, so! Hopefully we can sell a few more copies before the final ten days are up. I’ve got a lot to say about my piece, so I figure now is as good a time as any.
This was a fantastic project and I feel lucky to have been involved in it. In high school, I discovered Winsor McCay’s work while reading about Bill Watterson. In 1989 Watterson delivered an incredible speech at Ohio State University’s Festival Of Cartoon Art called “The Cheapening Of The Comics”, and I found it online at some point when I was was supposed to be boning up on Picasso, or whatever. The speech lit a fire in me as a teen. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s here. I hope you have a similar reaction.
The thrust of Watterson’s speech is as follows- at the turn of the 20th century, comics were these huge, colourful, beautiful things that took up an entire page of a broadsheet newspaper. If you were a kid at the time, they were about as big as you were. Comics were a tentpole feature that sold newspapers. They were a world you could step into. Check out “The Explorigator”, for instance, with its world of sky pirates, skyscrapers, crystal palaces and vast zeppelins. Newspaper comics were a forum for unique artistic expression with an enormous reach, where the creators were rewarded handsomely for their efforts and able to live comfortably without having to compromise any of their heart or integrity. Check out George Herriman’s subversive Krazy Kat for evidence of this.
But… the machinations of commerce slowly choked the life out of the comics. The comics were printed smaller and smaller. Creators made work designed for efficiency and merchandising potential, not to stir the heart or the soul. By the late 70’s, we had Garfield, who hates mondays. He hates mondays because someone thought people might buy a Garfield mug with “I hate mondays” written on it. He has no reason to hate mondays. He doesn’t have to wake up for work. He’s a fucking cat!
In the speech, Watterson laments this debasement of his artform. Because the comics page had shrunken so drastically in dimensions in the 100 years or so since its inception, he wasn’t able to do the work he wanted to do. He felt he was being cheated. So were the readers. So were we, the kids of the future, if you think about the beautiful body of work Watterson WANTED to leave behind. Those fully painted, multi-page comics at the beginning of the Calvin And Hobbes collections? If he’d had his way, the whole BOOK would have been like that!
There’s another line in this speech that stuck with me. “I consider it a great privilege to be a cartoonist. I love my work, and I am grateful for the incredible forum I have to express my thoughts. People give me their attention for a few seconds every day, and I take that as an honor and a responsibility.”
Because of Watterson’s speech, I felt I had a duty to make good art, too and I took it pretty seriously. I would tell myself that if I wasn’t making brilliant work then I was making the world a worser place. Watterson’s speech made me feel like art was a battleground- conditions were getting worse, artists and audiences alike were getting more complacent and the only way to combat that was by being as good as I could possibly be, and show the way forward. I’ve relaxed in the years since- I know that life is tough and most people are just trying to get through it however they can- but the artist half of my brain still has that same fire, that same idealism. I’ve always felt the weight of the responsibility Watterson talked about.
So I felt that weight doubly hard when I got asked to draw a new page of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, which I considered to be the high watermark of what Watterson was talking about- the incredible standard of comic art that was once common but has now been lost to a prior age. If I was going to try and continue McCay’s work (if only for one strip), then I had to shoot exactly as high as he did, more than a hundred years ago.
Only problem with that is- I’m not McCay. I don’t have his background or years of experience. I’m nowhere near as good a draughtsman as he is, so if I tried to shoot as high as him I would only miss. Therefore, if I was to try to match his level of quality I had to shoot higher, and attempt to improve upon his work- to make up for my deficiencies by trying to do the things he couldn’t. That famous quote from Norman Peale feels especially appropriate here, given the subject matter of the strip I ended up making-
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”.
So, to accomplish this task, I gave myself four criteria for making this comic:
1.) It had to feel like a dream.
McCay’s comics, despite being set in Slumberland, don’t feel like dreams. They feel like a bunch of spectacular stuff that happens to a kid who then wakes up, but they don’t feel like dreams necessarily. Dreams have their own logic and their own surreal sense of structure. I understand why McCay didn’t work too hard to replicate that quality- Little Nemo In My Aunt’s House, Except Not My Aunt’s House? probably wouldn’t shift quite so many papers, but still- the challenge I set myself was to take the unique properties of dreams and try to make them work inside the framework of a Little Nemo comic.
2.) The layout needed to be carefully considered.
McCay’s pages are beautifully laid out in a way few comics are. However, the layouts are informed purely by aesthetics. Since McCay drew his original Nemo pages, other artists who admire him have studied the ground he and his contemporaries laid and built upon it to great effect. Look at Chris Ware, who built a page in his comic Building Stories around an old woman descending a staircase, ageing as she goes. The staircase, the building, the page itself becomes a metaphor for her entire life. Perhaps I could put as much thought into the layout and structure of my own page.
3.) I needed to care about the characters.
Bill Watterson voiced a common complaint about the work of Winsor McCay when he said
“I admire Little Nemo more than I actually like it. McCay was clearly more interested in his stage than in his actors, and a stage, no matter how grand, can’t carry a play. Regrettably, the characters are cardboard dress-up dolls, devoid of spunk or wit… I think the strip suffers for its unimaginative writing.”
In his adult-centric stories like Hungry Henrietta or Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, McCay proved himself to have an ear for dialog and a knack for poking fun of the social mores of the day, but these skills never transferred to his fantasy stories for children. Nemo is fantastical and imaginative in its visuals, but personally, I couldn’t give less of a shit about whether or not Nemo gets down with Princess Whats-Her-Name. So, I thought, maybe this could be an area where I could improve on McCay’s work.
4.) I had to be authentic to the period.
As much as I could, I wanted to be on the exact same playing field as McCay was back in the day, so I wanted to make this comic as if I was making it back in 1905. I wanted to replicate the period, from the world of the strip and the cultural touchstones within it, to the colouring process. McCay used the Ben-Day printing process to great and beautiful effect. I don’t have access to the same equipment as McCay did, so I would create a digital equivalent of the same process using Photoshop.
With all this in mind, I set out to create the strip that ended up in the book. Over the course of this week, I’m going to show you how I attempted to achieve each one of these four criteria, and give you some insight into some of the hidden meanings embedded into this piece. Come back tomorrow for part 2.
Oh, and here’s another link to that Kickstarter, with contributions by Paul Pope et al. Our book is printed at the same huge size McCay would have been working with in 1905, so Watterson would approve, I’d hope.