Little Nemo in Slumberland, a comic by Winsor McCay, can be seen as the beginning of what would become the surrealist movement in art. Okay, sure, but what is Surrealism?
Surrealism, in the common vernacular, refers usually to off the wall strangeness and the use of elements that don’t go together in the making of the story or image. Here’s a classic example:
Obviously clocks don’t melt like that in real life, so seeing them limp and drooping is strange and disconcerting. And is that a molten horse? I could never tell. But Surrealism is more than just “weird”. It’s purpose is to unite conscious and unconsciousness, to explore experience completely through the lens of reality AND dreams, fantasy and the rational. It’s predecessor movement, the Dada movement, was anti-art and “deliberately defied reason” (per Encyclopedia Britannica), but Surrealism isn’t an anti-art movement; it’s a celebration of it, and a joyful exploration of the things that make up the universe.
Sure, it’s weird, but it’s the fun kind of weird (mostly).
So lets talk about Little Nemo. It’s filled with strange wonders and surrealistic encounters and creatures… and clowns. Lots of clowns.
Little Nemo predates the actual start of Surrealism, which started around 1920, in the gap of time between World War I and World War II but it shares some of the elements. It uses strange circumstances and impossible juxtapositions to explore life and reality through the lens of dreams- remember, Surrealism loves dreams. In the case of Little Nemo the dreams are literal; he’s asleep for the duration of each comic, waking only at the end to find his strange adventure never happened. And as you can see from some of the images of Winsor McCay’s comics I’ve used, his brand of Surrealist-esque style can be rather horrifying. Being chased by giant clowns? No thanks.
But what fascinates me is how perfectly Little Nemo fits into the Surrealist mindset. Sure, much of the art is “realistic” (in the sense that if there were giant clowns they might look like that- they’re not faceless or melting or have some other impossible element tied into their being), but the situations and the core concept of the art screams Surrealist. And in the image below there is no arguing the Surrealist nature of that bed:
Surrealism has always fascinated me. It can be humorous or horrifying, but regardless it always makes an impression; it’s mind-bogglingness is precisely its point. Little Nemo might not be technically Surrealist, but I think it hits those same places in my brain at least, and keeps me coming back and flipping pages, if only to see what crazy idea McCay came up with next.
If you’re looking for more surrealistic content and want something more funny than scary, nlindell has a great post about surrealism and The Far Side.