Art Nouveau in Metacomics: The Autonomy of the Artist in Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland

© Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 15 October 1905 (Fig. 1)

Metafictional narratives are often employed in postmodern novels to dig into the self-reflexive dimension of the authors. They emphasise the artificiality of the works to eliminate the boundaries between fiction and reality. Being aware of the structural components of narratives, metafictional works pose questions about the creation of fictional writing. Described as ‘fiction about fiction’, metafictional works must first create an illusion and then question the ‘realness’ of it. In the genre of comics, some illustrators have borrowed the idea of metafiction to employ in visual literature. In other words, they explore the creative processes of the production of comical narratives in metacomics.


© Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 22 October 1905 (Fig. 2)

One of the classics, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–11, 1924–27), is a pioneering example of metacomics. McCay’s series (read online) is about the dreams of his protagonist Nemo. Each of the strips ends with Nemo waking up from his nightmares. In the early stage of the series, his narrative tells the journey of Nemo to reach Slumberland to meet the princess. In these dreams, Nemo encounters many weird creatures in nature, therefore, McCay’s style is heavily influenced by the movement of Art Nouveau. Jumping between the realms of fictional reality and dreams, the tension between artifice and nature is exposed to his readers’ eyes. In this sense, since metacomics reflect the limitations of visual narratives, such tension is a metaphor for the issue of artistic control. Therefore, Little Nemo in Slumberland is a self-referential form of arts, as M. Thomas Inge states, that indicates the awareness of the limitations of comics and the autonomy of the artist.


As Scott McCloud states, panels are the basic divisions of temporal and spatial zones that segment the fictional space. Throughout the dreams, although moment-to-moment logics are employed, the changes of colours are obvious near the end of each strip. In fig. 1, 2 and 3, when Nemo’s world of dreams is about to crumble, the colours of objects and backgrounds become more and more saturated from a panel to another. The colours of red and yellow symbolise danger and thus are always present in the two last panels. Along with the use of colours, we can see the queer creatures breaking down into pieces gradually. As mentioned earlier, McCay’s Art Nouveau style can be seen from the overwhelming images of imaginative animals and creatures, for example, the mushrooms in fig. 2 and the birds in fig.3. These images are representations of McCay’s imaginative power. Therefore, when the dreams begin to crumble as the panels’ compositional and narrative components fall into pieces from frame to frame, Nemo loses his balance as he has no floor to balance on – This signifies that McCay’s artistic control is at stake.


© Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 29 October 1905 (Fig. 3)

The moment-to-moment sequences are disrupted when Nemo wakes up from a sense of horror in media res of the destructions of Slumberland. Such disruptions are illustrated through a non-sequitur arrangement of panels. As we can see from the strips, the narrative ends in scenes of Nemo waking up in his own bed which are not in the same continuity of his dreams. These abrupt transitions from the realm of dreams to that of reality represent the defeat of the artist’s imagination to the limitations of the genre. It conveys a sense of frustration as the artist finds it impossible to fully express his artistic ideas while maintaining the integrity of the structure of comical narratives.


As the series develops, Nemo finds himself more and more reluctant to wake up from his dreams. Nemo’s psychological complexity mirrors that of McCay as he is unwilling to conform to the limitations of the genre. Therefore, borrowing the postmodern notion of self-referentiality, McCay shows his philosophic uncertainties through acknowledging his narrative as an artifice. Little Nemo in Slumberland is a metacomic that reflects the struggles of an artist when trapped in the conventions of visual narrative conventions. Like many literary genres, cartoonists face a lot of boundaries. They can only publish their comics pictorially in segmented frames and thus limited display spaces and rooms for textual narratives. Many cartoonists like McCay have expressed their frustrations towards these limitations through metacomical narratives, therefore, comics are not confined to the genre of popular literature as their creators have been fusing ideas from the realm of high arts in their works. The tension between artistic imagination and limited autonomy of the artist still remains one of the greatest struggles in the creative process of a literary narrative. Since our imaginations are unlimited, perhaps it is impossible for us to fully express our ideas in any physical or visible forms — we are as desperate as little Nemo trying not to wake up.

By Chan Tsz Yan Audrey

Categories: Books, Fantasy and Sci-fi, Modernism and Postmodernism

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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