Nemo! by Ray Bradbury (book review).

Ray Bradbury doesn’t really need much introduction, being among the best known Science Fiction authors of his generation. Suffice it to say that some of his novels, most notably ‘Fahrenheit 451’, are regarded as absolute classics, while his screenwriting credits include such films as ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘It Came From Outer Space’. But one of his more obscure adaptations was a screenplay based on an American strip cartoon that ran between 1905 and 1926, ‘Little Nemo’, by cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay.

Neither Winsor McCay nor ‘Little Nemo’ are well known today, though many people will have seen excerpts from McCay’s animated short of 1914, ‘Gertie The Dinosaur’. But he was in many ways ahead of his time. Chuck Jones, for example, places McCay alongside Disney as the two men most responsible for creating what today we’d recognise as modern animation.

Unfortunately, not much of his original work has survived after a fire and, while his influence on writers and filmmakers has been recognised by those who grew up reading his cartoon strips, remarkably little is actually in print today, which makes it difficult for contemporary readers to assess his qualities. But, alongside George Herriman’s ‘Krazy Kat’, McCay’s ‘Nemo’ strips demonstrated how cartoons could be more than vehicles for slapstick comedy and visual gags: both artists experimented with the conventions of the medium and created works of great beauty and surrealism.

Bradbury was one of the many artists influenced by McCay and it’s not hard to see why ‘Little Nemo’ might have struck a particular chord with him. It’s fundamentally about our two parallel sets of experiences, one in the real world and one in the world of our dreams. The protagonist, Nemo, is a small boy who would find himself transported in his dreams to a fantasy world known as Slumberland, inhabited by various characters and dangers. It’s a bit more subtle than a mere imaginary world after the fashion of L. Frank Baum’s ‘Wizard Of Oz’ books or dreams as a way of moving between realities, as with Lovecraft’s ‘Dream Cycle’ stories. Instead, McCay created fantasies that related to the anxieties of real life and, in turn, the crises within the dreams would be remembered when Nemo awoke, usually comforted by one his parents.

What Bradbury has tried to do here is turn what McCay does with pictures into something that could be acted out on stage or in a film. In all fairness, while the screenplay has some charm, it’s not altogether as engaging as you might imagine. One problem is that Nemo simply hasn’t aged well. Even in 1905, he probably wasn’t a very realistically portrayed child and, more than a century later, he feels altogether too contrived to be convincing.

There’s also the main theme of the early part of the play, Nemo’s visit to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, an event that isn’t much remembered today. His anticipation prior to the event is perhaps relatable but the sheer wonder such events would have brought to children and adults at this time in history is hard to visualise through a screenplay alone. Bradbury gives it a jolly good try and it’s clear that he himself must have had some connection with Nemo’s feelings here.

Still, the sense of loss Nemo feels when the show closes down and he realises he’s missed his chance to see many of its wonders is palpable and the subsequent theme of the play, where Nemo tries to recreate them himself in his imagination. Bradbury clearly relates to the sense of loss many artists must feel when they see buildings and sculptures being pulled down simply to make space for something new.

The absence of McCay’s artwork also hurts the book to some degree. It’s just too difficult to get a sense of the surreal settings McCay created from a screenplay alone and the success of ‘Little Nemo’ as a comic strip obviously depended on the magical combination of words and images. Still, there are obvious call-backs to McCay’s original cartoons, as when Nemo finds himself in an underground forest of giant mushrooms, similar to a scene McCay drew for the strip in 1905.

For sure, an interesting piece of writing, ‘Nemo!’ doesn’t quite hit the mark as entertainment. Unless you happen to know about the ‘Little Nemo’ strips in depth, you’re unlikely to find the screenplay sufficiently engaging enough to be drawn into what probably is quite a well realised fantasy world.

Neale Monks

April 2018

(pub: Subterranean Press, 2011. 171 page deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-397-6)

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One thought on “Nemo! by Ray Bradbury (book review).

  • “The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland” was reprinted by Fantagraphic Books, beginning with Volume 1, in 1989. I have a complete set in my collection. Anyone with a serious interest in Comics Art will be well aware of “Nemo”; discussions of, and illustrations from, “Nemo” feature in major works dealing with the history of Comics Art. Winsor McCay’s creation is universally considered one of the masterpieces of the art form. David M. Lee-Smith (retired librarian, New Zealand).


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