I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Finding Little Nemo

by Cory Gross
July 3, 2011

The stereotype of the great artist is one who goes unappreciated in his or her own day, only to have their considerable talents and innovation recognized in retrospect. Unlike poets, painters and musicians, those who revolutionized the art forms of illustration and animation frequently remain unknown. Winsor McCay is just such a name, his work understood only by a handful of genuine appreciators while creations like Little Nemo pass through general audiences unremarked upon.

McCay's talents as an illustrator emerged in 1886 while he studied in a Michigan business school. He wanted to train at the Art Institute of Chicago, but a shortage of funds landed him a job as an illustrator for circus posters. Later he moved to Cincinnati, married, and started a series of newspaper comic strips. As comfortable in front of audiences as he was behind the drawing board, McCay began performing vaudeville "chalk talks". These acts of artistic improv gave him the insight and notoriety to begin his most famous strips: Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend in 1904 and its spin-off Little Nemo in Slumberland in 1905.

These reflective, surrealist cartoons and their dry sense of humour had their devoted fans during the pre-war years, but they never had very large followings. Though McCay's obvious skill engendered loyalty and admiration, it was still hard to compete with the popular slapstick antics of contemporary comics. Undaunted, the artist appealed once more to the vaudeville audience to pioneer the medium of animated cartoons.

Little Nemo's first adventure on the silver screen was in 1911 in a ten minute short about McCay himself. A live-action framing sequence shows McCay's incredulous friends challenging him to make his drawings come to life. The artist himself explains how: by compiling a sequence of 4000 pictures to be filmed one frame at a time. The end result is a climactic two minutes of Nemo and friends cavorting in lushly illustrated, hand-colored glory.

Cel animation techniques had not yet been invented, which made McCay's detailed cartoons a tedious chore. Thus his next film, 1912's How a Mosquito Operates, is an almost excruciating ordeal of repetitious sequences. Perhaps he was too focused on his other release of that year: Gertie the Dinosaur. Heralded as the first character invented for animated film, Gertie was a charming brontosaurus with whom McCay interacted on stage. As she was projected on the screen, he would bark orders. When he instructed her to bow, raise her foot or wave to the audience, she would. As a treat, he would offer her a pumpkin via well-timed throw. Just as he tossed the vegetable behind the screen, it would appear on film to be scooped up in Gertie's mouth. After voraciously eating a whole tree and drinking a whole lake (and after comically abusing a hapless woolly mammoth), Gertie would give McCay a ride on her back. As with the pumpkin, McCay would walk behind the screen only to appear on it as a cartoon. 

Gertie the Dinosaur was so popular that McCay commissioned a roadshow version in 1914. This extended cut featured the same sort of live-action exposition as Little Nemo, in which McCay demonstrated the technique of animation. Gertie was also his last film of the pre-war period. Those few years were not kind to the artist, as the Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend strip ended in 1913 and Little Nemo the year after. His talents were conscripted for patriotic posters, and in 1918, McCay animated The Sinking of the Lusitania to encourage the war effort. In 1921 he returned with a series of short films based on Rarebit Fiend, a Gertie sequel, and a few other characters. The Little Nemo strip enjoyed a revival from 1924 to 1927. McCay passed away in 1934.

Little Nemo's return to animated film was arduous. The idea originated in 1982 and floated around numerous studios. A concept reel was drafted in 1984, utilizing the directorial talents of future Studio Ghibli alumni Yoshifumi Kondo. This all-too brief reel features a stunning aerial race between Nemo on his flying bed and a Wright Bros. style plane through an eerie drowned cityscape. Its strong echoes of Hayao Miyazaki are no doubt a remnant of his own prior involvement in the project, which he later described as one of the worst experiences of his career. Isao Takahata was also involved at one point, but left along with Miyazaki and Kondo to create their famous studio. Ray Bradbury, Chris Columbus, John Canemaker and Moebius were all attached at one point or another as writers. Ken Anderson and Brad Bird were animators on certain sequences under the consultation of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Most of the animation was done in Japan by TMS, who delayed production because of their work on Akira. The Sherman Brothers were asked to write songs. 

Eventually the film was released to resounding yawns, underwhelming audiences of 1989. Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland did garner a few industry awards and a unique place in history as one of the first anime to receive theatrical distribution in the United States. As such, it's a disappointing but fitting tribute to an artist who has gone largely unrecognized for his contributions to illustration and animation.


For Cory Gross, the past is a lifestyle choice. Native to the ranchlands of Western Canada, he works as a museums and heritage professional in Calgary, Alberta, teaching science, nature, history and art. He also volunteers with a number of science and history organizations in the city, holds a graduate degree in theology, and enjoys travelling at home and abroad. His love of Victorian science fiction and antiquated adventure stories is on display at his blog Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age