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. 

Dodging the Draft With Mutt and Jeff

When Woodrow Wilson and Congress formally declared war on Germany in 1917, many Americans remained lukewarm on involvement. Volunteers for getting gassed and shot in the muddy trenches of the French front fell far short of goals. More persuasion was needed. And so Congress invoked the draft with the Selective Service Act that men to register for a draft lottery. Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff registered continued ambivalence in this Jan. 21, 1918 strip in which both characters muse on draft exemption strategies. For Jeff this involves reuniting with his estranged wife.

This is a great example of what critic Gilbert Seldes meant when he cited the unique grittiness of the comic strip. The rest of America is gearing up a massive propaganda machine to whip up patriotic fervor for a dubious venture. In the world of Mutt and Jeff, however, self-interested scheming, the stuff of humanity, is a given. At their best, newspaper comics offered counterpoints to all of the news that preceded them in the daily newspaper simply by localizing and personalizing the political and civic coverage in the rest of the news.

This strip is scanned from Fisher’s original art. More on Mutt and Jeff’s first meeting here.

Kat and Mouse: Herriman’s Creative Absurdism

Herriman enjoyed calling attention to the absurdities of his own strip. In these dailies (1919) he also uses his signature device of changing the background landscape from panel to panel. All together Herriman is creating an absurdist space in which Krazy, Ignatz and the Coconino County cast focus on language and interpersonal dynamics.

The unique aesthetic of the comic strip is its ability to create an immersive environment through visual style, composition and character that we fall into for less than a minute a day across three or four sequential panels. Herriman used the full palette available to those panels to ground us in his characters by making the physical environment disorienting and fluid.

Sherlocko the Monk (Part 1): The Great Mystery of the Everyday

The running gag in Gus Mager’s 1911-1912 small wonder Sherlocko the Monk is that this send-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective rarely uncovers a crime. Mager’s parody sleuth usually unravels “mysteries” around a henpecked husband’s scheme to avoid his wife, an absent-minded fop forgetting where he left the missing object, a neurotic too scared to show up for work. The mystery is really around character and behavior more than around misdeeds. And this is why Sherlocko the Monk is such a satisfying but under-appreciated relic of the first decades of the American comic. Sherlocko pulled together into a coherent narrative whole, themes and narrative conceits that had been germinating in a more haphazard way across many artists and strips since 1895. Sherlocko is the apotheosis of early comics’ preoccupation with social and character types, traits and obsessions. he took that trope and developed it into coherent theater. And along the way Sherlocko maps out where the comic strip had been by 1911 and where it was headed as an American popular art. 

The great deductive mind does indeed exercise itself, usually in the middle two panels of the 6 panel sequence by using physical evidence to rule out Watso’s grandiose suspicions of murder, kidnapping or grand larceny. But in the end the crime is simply tied to characters expressing their character. Bonehead is being stupid, Forget absent-minded, Henpecko fearful of his wife, Nervo being audacious. The solution to the “mystery” is character itself – the revelation of someone being who they are. 

Which is to say that Sherlock gets it appeal from putting a grand design around the discovery of the mundane and expected. That is its one-note joke but it is also what makes the strip such a nexus of trends in the form. Sherlocko the Monk embodies the focus of the comic strip on the everyday, the intimate, the idiosyncratic, the local. It helps us map the direction the comic strip would take as an American art form of the familiar and near at hand, the little observations, annoyances, character tics. It is the strain of American comics that gives us “They’ll Do It Every Time,” the gentle observational humor of Clare Briggs’ many one-panel series like “Real Folks at Home” or “There’s One In Every Office” or Family Circle. As photography replaced illustration in the 20th Century American newspaper, cartooning was consigned to polar realms – political and domestic. The newspaper comics page became the flip side of the editorial page political cartoons. One page caricatured the official public life of the nation, the other focused on the local, the intimate, the caricaturing of social interaction, domestic politics, personality types – an art of everyday-ness.