The Golden Age of the American comic strip, in the opinion of many, was in early the 20th Century; roughly 1905 - 1920. Newspapers were big business and their printing presses were the best around. A Sunday comic strip could easily fill an entire page with a dozen panels or more.
Among the best cartoonists then or now was Zenas Winsor McCay (1867? - 1934) who is best remembered for the strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. This ran in the New York Herald from 1905 to 1911. McCay was a brilliant draftsman; his elaborate, Art Nouveau-inspired designs stood out boldly against the cruder cartoon styles of other artists. McCay also had an abundant, almost surreal imagination. What better way to combine both talents than in a strip about dreams?
Little Nemo is a boy of around six-years-old. His name means 'No one' in Latin, and he is a fairly nondescript character. He is brave and scared by turns, as any child would be, with a kind heart. The Princess of Slumberland, daughter of King Morpheus, desires Nemo for a playmate. The strip, which ran only on Sundays, features Nemo's adventures as he tries to get to the Princess. It takes a long time. At the end of each week's strip Nemo awakens, and must wait until the next strip when he may resume his adventure, or have to start all over again. It takes 38 strips (one of which appeared only in the Paris edition of the Herald) before Nemo and the Princess finally meet.
Nemo's nemesis is Flip, a tough-guy in an outsize suit, with a cigar and a green face. Flip is nephew of the Guard of Dawn, who brings daylight and an end to the night's dream. It is only through time and Nemo's good character that he wins Flip over to his side, making him into a rough-and-tumble sort of sidekick.
Once Nemo has met the Princess and made friends with Flip, he begins to explore Slumberland. There are strange monsters, fabulous cities and a landscape that can change without warning. The sequence in Befuddle Hall, a huge Palace where the rooms are sideways or upside-down, is justly famous. McCay's skill as a draughtsman never wavers.
The oddest sequence of all comes in 1908, when Nemo gains magical powers and sets out to help the poor. It is more than just a wish to do good that drives Nemo; the sequence has definite religious overtones, which become clear on Easter Sunday, when Nemo raises a little girl from the dead. It is uncharacteristic of McCay's work. When Nemo loses his powers, the strip reverts to form.
In 1911 McCay was hired by William Randolph Hearst, and went to work on Hearst's New York American as an editorial cartoonist. His editorial work was of the same high quality as Little Nemo had been. He also started to experiment with animated cartoons, creating the classic Gertie the Dinosaur and even a short Little Nemo film. He revived Nemo for Hearts under the title In the Land of Wonderful Dreams, but this later version did not reach the same inspired heights as before. He returned to the Herald (by that time known as the Herald-Tribune) and revived Nemo again, with the same lacklustre results. After his death, McCay's son Robert (who had been the model for Nemo) revived the strip himself, with even less success.
Stage and Screen
The short film McCay himself made has already been mentioned. However, there have been other adaptations of Little Nemo:
In 1908, Little Nemo in Slumberland became a stage musical. It had a lot of talent behind it; McCay even slipped ads for it into the strip. It was produced by Klaw and Erlanger, arguably the most powerful theatrical producers of the day. The book was by Harry B Smith, and the music by Victor Herbert. It was a very expensive production to mount, but very successful as well.
In 1990, a feature film was made entitled Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland by the Tokyo Movie Shinsha Co. The English version premiered in 1992. The animation is fine, and the design works hard to emulate McCay's style, but the film received mixed reviews.
For further study of Winsor McCay's career and Little Nemo see www.bpib.com. From there you may read more about McCay himself, and find links to other Nemo-oriented sites.