Once, a cartoonist went to battle for dreamland. It was 1905, hot on the heels of Freud's supremely unsettling The Interpretation of Dreams, and the cartoonist was Winsor McCay. He didn't bring intellectual theories to the fight, but something more potent: beauty. With Little Nemo in Slumberland, his groundbreaking newspaper comic, he presented a dream world that was as sublime as it was reassuring to his Edwardian readers.
Nemo rarely gets a good night's sleep, but he certainly isn't tormented by Freudian angst. Instead, his mind overflows with exotic exploits, wonderful creatures straight out of the circuses McCay loved, and companions to share it all with. Ultimately, Nemo always ends up safely back in his bedroom. "I wish I could sleep without waking up!" he says in one panel.
He's finally getting his wish — or something close to it. In Locust Moon Press' massive Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, 140 artists dispatch Nemo on a whole new set of adventures. Some send him beneath the sea, to the moon or to the laundromat; others make him Asian, a woman, an alien or a skeleton. He's even depicted through paper cutouts and hand-stitched dolls.
A couple of the contributors go so far as to kill Nemo: Bill Sienkiewicz transforms the famous bed into a grave marker. ("With apologies to Winsor McCay," he writes sheepishly. But how sincere can such an apology be?) Farel Dalrymple's triumphant entry is more subtly seditious; his Nemo is red-faced and pugnacious, his Slumberland ominously gray. Dalrymple briefly addresses the issue of race, too. This is a crucial challenge, and one to which very few of the contributors rise. McCay's "Impie" character demands to be remade, or at least confronted: He's half African tribesman stereotype, half minstrel.
Most of the artists simply eliminate Impie, but those few who remake him do it well. Ronald Wimberly's Imp is a powerful, eloquent protagonist — a real warrior. Cliff Chiang makes him a dark-skinned child with normal features who holds the original Impie's head in his hands, examining it. "How silly," he pronounces. Bodie Chewning has an army of albino Impie clones rise up against the tyrannical King of Slumberland.
And yet, for all this creativity, few of the contributors venture far from McCay's original ethos. Most of the entries have as little to do with real dreams as McCay's comics did. There are numerous falling and flying scenarios here, true, but the modern Nemos never have unexpected exams or find themselves naked in front of a crowd. Among a few exceptions are Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, whose entry injects some sex into one of McCay's favorite motifs — growing and shrinking — with towering, high-heeled women looming over a tiny Nemo.
But mostly the "dreams" are — as in the original comic — less actual dreams than fantasies of what we wish our dreams would be. For all their diverse imaginings, these creators share a common assumption: that a dream is as emotionally reliable as real life. It's surprising how few of the entries focus on the uncanniness of dreams, a quality that fascinated Freud. Even the nightmares have a narrow range of feeling.
A handful of the creators do try to evoke the uncanny. One who does is Bishakh Som, who places his dark-skinned, female Nemo figure in the midst of an Escherlike building. "What am I doing here?" she wonders, exploring delicately tinted halls. "What am I? Like, 30? 40? Do I even have a job?"
Such groping is a rare exception — in both the subjects and their creators. Instead, some contributors seek to emulate McCay's style as closely as possible. The results are delightful, if unchallenging.
J.G. Jones (with José Villarrubia) and Katie Moody manage to mimic McCay remarkably. Lisk Feng's strip is an homage to the fast-disappearing medium of the newspaper, including trompe l'oeil worn spots. It's as if she's literally trying to re-create the past, a simple time with simple dreams.
There is one artist who explicitly seeks common ground between McCay's vision and Freud's. R. Sikoryak depicts the old man himself telling Nemo about his theories. Alas, it's funnier in concept than execution, but Freud does give Nemo a pretty good explanation for the storylike nature of his adventures. "When the conscious mind intrudes upon the dream ... the dream loses its absurd appearance and approaches the pattern of an intelligible experience," Freud tells Nemo. Nemo, reclining on the proverbial couch, just looks groggy.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.