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A look at Dream Another Dream

Exhibit honors pioneering "Little Nemo" comic strip

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Art by James Harvey from Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream
  • Art by James Harvey from Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream

In 1905, cartoonist and animator Zenas Winsor McCay, who had already established himself with the series "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend," debuted "Little Nemo in Slumberland." The weekly strip followed a young boy through somnolent adventures, encountering strangers in strange lands with a motley crew of cohorts, journeying to fantastical environments, with predicaments aplenty. No matter where in dreams Nemo and companions went, nor in what kind of fix they found themselves, the final panel was the same: wakefulness and a return to reality.

More than a century later, this work is still staggeringly impressive. As artwork, it's a brilliant composition of line and color, enchanting representations of both a fantasy world and the reality of the characters who explore it. Narratively, it displays a keen grasp of dream psychology and its potential to reach ecstatic levels of bliss, then plunge into deepest terror. Viewing the strips 10 decades later, we feel not at all removed or disconnnected from the protagonist's path (even if the strip includes some jarring, decidedly dated stereotypes).

In 2014, Locust Moon, a Philadelphia comics store, art gallery and small press, teamed with Pittsburgh-based cartoonist Jim Rugg to create Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream. This large-format book gathers contemporary comic artists to honor McCay's masterpiece, venturing into his domain with their own inks and pencils. Now The Toonseum is hosting an eponymous exhibition of a few dozen of the book's pages, and it is truly spectacular.

The two dozen participating artists — including Rugg, Carla Speed McNeil, Peter Bagge, Yuko Shimizu — tend to follow one of three basic constructs: recreating an existing Little Nemo epic; taking Little Nemo on a brand-new journey of their own device; or using their own characters within McCay's format. Some are color, some are black-and-white; some page-sized, single-panel works, some meticulously laid out step-by-step narratives.

All demonstrate the reverence McCay has inspired as the father of comics serials, his continued relevance to modern comics artists, and the debt he's owed. All are absolutely spellbinding and a vivid reminder of comics history through a contemporary lens. If you've ever enjoyed a comic, whether as an adult reader of graphic novels or as a child grabbing that section of the Sunday paper, this exhibition is not to be missed.  

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