Nemo in Dystopia Land: The Man Who Owned Mars (1910)

Between April 24 and Aug 23 1910 Winsor McCay sent Nemo and Flip to Mars, making for one of the longest and most politically pointed of the Slumberland adventures. Mars was a dystopian vision of cement canyons of urban overgrowth, faceless workers rushing to their jobs in stifling clots of bodies or scooting around the unappealing cityscape in spherical flying cars. Running this overbearing urban machine is a capitalist nightmare in which everything, from air to words, come at a cost. “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Try to Enter Here Without the Price” reads an archway to the city.

Mars and even its most basic elements were under the sole proprietorship of one B. Gosh and Co. He owned and resold the basic elements of discourse and survival. Clearly a satirical mash-up of the Gilded Age monopolist and corrupt political boss, “He does certainly love money,” Nemo says. And clearly McCay, after all a newspaperman and political cartoonist, is building a critique of emerging consumerism, a growing class divide, and exploited labor in crafting B. Gosh and Co.’s Martian realm. Because words are literally for sale, we are told, “You see only people who have money can talk. Unless you buy them you cannot use them.”

McCay’s dystopia takes to satiric excess the key trends of early 20th Century America, consumer capitalism, monopoly and centralized control and urban scale. While he did thousands of pointed editorial cartoons in other pages of the newspaper, the Mars episode is one of the few instances where you catch the artist making an extended satiric vision of America’s turn-of the-century “progress” in his otherwise fantastic Little Nemo opus.

But here, McCay deploys his artistic genius to illustrating the sense of suffocation, anonymity, despair of among a people oppressed rather than liberated by modern “progress.” The caverns of Mars skyscrapers are so tall that sunlight needs to be shipped in. Workers are punished for trying to get to genuine sunlight and not allowed to cheer during sporting events. B. Gosh himself is a robber baron in the classic mold. We rarely see Gosh himself during these months on Mars. We see the dystopia narrated through his assistant, with Gosh himself occasionally barking in commands. When rebellious pirates kidnap Nemo, Gosh defeats and captures them. But Gosh’s assistant admits the boss will most likely turn the rebel chief into a personal advisor. “Old Gosh is a robber himself or he’d not own everything,” his assistant tells Nemo. 

This is a remarkably insightful episode in McCay’s Nemo run, and it reminds us how this milestone of wild fantasy and surrealism got much of its impact from the way McCay manipulated and exagerrated the experience of a rapidly changing 20th Century America. The Progressive Era was one in which Americans were imagining both light and dark results from “progress.” One of the best selling novels of the late 19th Century had been Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which imagined a utopian socialist future. But just prior to McCay’s Mars sojourn, we saw a number of dystopian rejoinders. authors like Jack London (The Iron Heel, 1907) and Hugh Benson (Lord of the World, 1908) as well as E.M. Forster (The Machine Stops, 1909). They warned of a future where aggregated power corrupted governments and corporations and technology created alienation. The Marie episode of Little Nemo in Slumberland not only fits within this dystopian mode but enhances it in ways only the comic arts can. McCay visualizes the anonymity and dehumanization of the crowd just as effectively as other comics artists of the day were trying to humanize the urban “masses.”

Perhaps I become tiresome, but one of the themes of this blog and my take on the cultural history of the comic strips is that this medium brought to a rapidly changing 20th Century America unique perspectives on the experience of social change. The best and most popular of these artists were in conversation both with their readers and with their times in ways that were unavailable to the other great mass media of radio, film and TV.

The entire run of Nemo on Mars is reprinted below. Pardon any long load times but I wanted to preserve the resolution so readers could zoom for detail.

Between April 24 and Aug 23 1910 Winsor McCay sent Nemo and Flip to Mars, making for one of the longest and most politically pointed of the Slumberland adventures. Mars was a dystopian vision of cement canyons of urban overgrowth, faceless workers scurrying to work or scooting around the unappealing cityscape in spherical flying cars. This is McCay’s consumer dystopia. “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Try to Enter Here Without the Price” reads an archway to the city.

Mars and even its most basic elements were under the sole proprietorship of one B. Gosh and Co. He owned and resold the air and even the words. Clearly a send-up of the turn of the century monopolist, “He does certainly love money,” Nemo says. And clearly McCay has emerging consumerism, a growing class divide, and exploited labor in mind in B. Gosh and Co.’s Martian realm. Because words are literally for sale, they are told, “You see only people who have money can talk. Unless you buy them you cannot use them.”

McCay’s dystopia brings emergent consumerism, monopoly control and urbanism to satiric excess, one of the few instances when you catch the artist making an extended satiric vision of America’s turn-of the-century “progress.” The caverns of Mars skyscrapers are so tall that sunlight needs to be shipped in. Workers are punished for trying to get to genuine sunlight and not allowed to cheer during sporting events. B. Gosh himself is a robber baron in the classic mold. We rarely see Gosh himself during these months on Mars. We see the dystopia narrated through his assistant, with Gosh himself occasionally barking in commands. When rebellious pirates kidnap Nemo, Gosh defats and captures them. But Gosh’s assistant admits the boss will most likely turn the rebel chief into a personal advisor. “Old Gosh is a robber himself or he’d not own everything,” his assistant tells Nemo. 

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