Exactly 110 years ago today, the October 15, 1905 edition of the New York Herald began running a seemingly innocuous comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland. The character inspired myriad cultural creations, including a 1989 film animated film of the same name and an NES video game, and changed the way the human subconscious was rendered on the page.
In each strip — the series ran in the Herald from October 1905 to July 1911 — Little Nemo begins his single-page adventure by falling into a deep and fanciful sleep and ends it by waking up. Often, this final panel would involve Nemo’s parents admonishing him for some pre-bedtime snack that had given him nightmares. “I knew it! You should not have eaten that huckleberry pie at bedtime,” exclaims Nemo’s mother in a November 5, 1905 edition. “The next time your mother lets you eat raw onions and ice cream at bedtime I'll, well,...” says Nemo’s father the very next week.
But in between the familiar first and last panels in Nemo’s bedroom, there was no telling where Nemo’s REM-inspired adventures would take him. In the very first strip, the King of Slumberland sends an emissary to Nemo, who is meant to be the playmate of the young Princess of Slumberland. But it takes pages and pages of adventures for Nemo to finally reach the princess, proving that Inception’s “dreams take place on an exponentially slower fourth-dimensional plane than reality” idea was at least a century old by the time it captivated movie audiences. By the time Nemo found the King in March 1906, the Princess of Slumberland had been waiting a long time for her new friend.
Nemo’s cartoonist, Winsor McCay, is largely acknowledged as the father of modern comic form, in addition to being the most innovative renderer of dream sequences. In 1908, McCay made the remarkable decision to shift the setting of Nemo’s dreams from the mystical realm of Slumberland to Nemo’s actual hometown, a choice that allowed the dreams to take on a familiar, yet unfamiliar aspect that characterises so many real-life dreams.
And it’s this familiarity, the sense that Nemo’s dreams can be — and often might be — identical to the reader’s that makes Little Nemo just as relevant now as it was more than a century ago. How many other items from the October 15, 1905 New York Herald can claim such relevance? Only the most die-hard of baseball fanatics still talk about Christy Mathewson’s World Series performance with the New York Giants. Ads for Liberty Bonds no longer feature imposing ironclads from the Spanish-American War. But Little Nemo’s dreams are still the dreams of humankind’s stress, ego, fear and joy. Nemo, in so many ways, is all of us.