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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "LITTLE NEMO IN THE PALACE OF ICE" (1907)

In Part 3 of THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH, I discussed in some detail the circumstances under which I would currently rate gag comic strips as having or not having symbolic complexity. One of my examples was Winsor McCay's DREAMS OF THE RAREBIT FIEND, in part because I'd listed that strip in my 2008 ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY. As LONG AND SHORT should clarify, I've changed my mind on this matter. My current view is because most if not all FIEND-strips are no more than short gags, that structure keeps it from demonstrating true plurisignativity.

But thus the queston arises: what about McCay's subsequent and more famous strip, LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND-- an admitted classic, though I didn't mention it in my 2008 LIBRARY.  Since NEMO unlike FIEND did allow for story-arcs, that means it had the capacity for mythic complication, whether or not it took advantage of that capacity.

Though I admire LITTLE NEMO in terms of its artistic accomplishment, it's never been a favorite of mine. I esteem it more than a lot of its comic-strip contemporaries, but the repetitive structure never grabbed me, dealing as it does with a child-protagonist who wanders through assorted dream-world wonders until he wakes to prosaic reality. Thus I don't have a lot of NEMO stuff in my collection. However, I do have Dover's 1976 album, LITTLE NEMO AND THE PALACE AND ICE AND FURTHER ADVENTURES. Fortuitously enough, the "Palace of Ice" adventure does meet my criteria for a "mythcomic."

This story-arc lasts eight installments, which appeared initially as full-page strips. As I've established, brevity in itself doesn't absolutely prevent a comic from displaying mythicity; it just stacks the odds against it.

Dover begins their reprint with nine-year-old Nemo and his female friend, the daughter of King Morpheus, about to be admitted to the ice-bound palace of Jack Frost. However,Nemo and the Princess are pursued by another recurring character, the troublemaking Flip, son of the dawn-god. Though he's visually reminiscent of Negro stereotypes of the period, one source says that Flip is supposed to be an "ill-tempered Irishman."




Not only does Flip intrude upon Nemo and the Princess' visit to the palace, in the first strip he has a malign witch pursuing him, presumably a carry-over from a prevous continuity. Fortunately, the guards of the palace grounds bar the witch, and so she plays no real part in the arc. Flip himself becomes the source of conflict in the arc, which seems to have been the role he played throughout the strip. Nemo and Flip become companions in many adventures, though in this arc Nemo seems diffident toward Flip's presence-- probably because Nemo wants to see Jack Frost and his icy wonders, while Flip keeps disrupting things. He constantly demands to have his whims satisfied by threatening to summon his sun-god uncle to vaporize Jack Frost's world.

Though it's a short sequence, "Palace of Ice" does an exemplary job of potraying a world in which one sees an array of fantastic sights associated with cold phenomena. It is of course a child's version of the metaphysics of ice and snow, taking in from juvenile pleasures like toboggan-riding and snowball-fights as well as the more profound wonders of the Northern Lights and the mysterious North Pole, from which all the winds of the world originate. Every episode necessarily ends with Nemo's dreamland-journey being interrupted by some accident, be it one of Flip's antics or something native to Jack Frost's realm, like a snowball-fight by brainless snow-people.



The big meeting with Jack Frost is also a visual wonder, though actually nothing much happens as a consequence of the ice-ruler greeting Nemo and the Princess.



Sharp-eyed readers will note that Flip isn't present in Jack Frost's courtroom, and this turns out to be a set-up for the arc's resolution. Flip, almost always seen with a cigar in his mouth, resents being told that he can't smoke in the throne room. He disappears, and two strips later, he shows up with a series of ice-trucks in his wake. The truck-drivers then proceed to dismantle Jack Frost's fabulous ice-palace, breaking it up into square ice-blocks of the type used in household ice-boxes prior to the refinement of artificial refrigeration.  It's not explicitly stated that Flip summoned the trucks, and in one dialogue-balloon he claims that Jack Frost's people are forced to allow their palace's destruction "'cause they need the money, I guess"-- though given that Flip has been repeatedly threatening to destroy the realm, he seems more than a little implicated.

The decimation of the ice palace might tie into sociological myths on the evils of consumption, in which the beautiful art-objects of a declining aristocracy are broken up and turned into raw material for the use of the average consumer. He need not have been a Marxist to think of this; after all, he himself was creating beautiful art that was being used to sell periodical newspapers. In addition, the breakup of the palace mirrors the dominant narrative trope of LITTLE NEMO: that all the beautiful conjurings of the artist's pen are doomed to be dispelled by "cold" reality.

Another sociological motif would be the fact that while Nemo generally seems demure and respectful to everyone he meets, whether or not they are in positions of authority, his "shadow" Flip is irreverent and a frequent troublemaker.As others before me have suggested, Flip may be the "shadow" of Nemo's conscious mind, always more interested in strutting his own stuff than in anything else.

Since I have a deep interest in the history of fantasy literature, I suppose NEMO also leaves me less than enthusiastic because its type of fantasy depends entirely upon the vagaries of dream-- not unlike Carroll's Alice books, which may have influenced McCay somewhat. Five years before NEMO, L. Frank Baum created Oz, which some deem to be the first fantasy-cosmos created by an American author. Unlike Slumberland, Oz was supposed to be a real place with its own rules and culture-- though it's a further irony that the best-known cinematic adaptation of Baum chose to banish to the same gates of dream that contained Slumberland.

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