Thursday, July 30, 2015

Little Nemo and the Imp

Winsor McCay is best remembered for his comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland; you may also know him for his cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur or the strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. You may possibly have heard of the strip Little Sammy Sneeze, or even perhaps A Pilgrim's Progress. It's less common to hear of his strip Tale of the Jungle Imps, a 1903 comic strip which preceded Little Nemo. And yet, it's an important work in his career if for no other reason because that strip introduced his African "imps," one of which would become a cast member in Little Nemo starting in 1907 (said imp is called "Imp," "Impi" or "Impie," but not with much consistency). By linking these two strips, was McCay perhaps the first person in comics to use the idea of a "shared universe?"

But Impie is, of course, a problem; the grass skirt, giant painted lips and unintelligble dialogue cause discomfort to 21st century sensibilities. The sequence which introduced Impie began inauspiciously with Nemo, his friend Flip and the Princess of Slumberland putting ashore from the Princess' yacht to an island inhabited by cannibals, who attempted to cook the three children for dinner; the Princess' guards arrived in time to save them. Matters brightened significantly the following week as the natives' adult chief (noticeably taller than the protagonist children) apologized and took them for a ride in his car. The chief spoke perfect English and his motorcar (with goats instead of wheels and a frog instead of a horn) was a very fun McCay visual.

At the end of the visit to the island, Flip was kidnapped by some of the young "imps," against the chief's wishes. Then, in the July 14, 1907 strip, we had the definitive first appearance of Impie; Flip escaped his captors and was reunited with the others at the yacht, lugging behind him a large crate. When the crate was opened, Flip proudly displayed one of the imps who had caught him: "Here's the party who tried to steal me! Now, he belongs to me!" This seems to be the one and only instance where Flip claimed "ownership" of Impie, but it's certainly problematic if you want to enjoy Little Nemo in Slumberland as anything other than a historical artifact. Very quickly, Impie displaced the Princess as Nemo's second-closest comrade (after Flip, of course). Although he seldom spoke, Impie would often cause mischief which Flip would frequently exacerbate; while the problems Flip caused for the other characters had a taste of malevolence in them, Impie usually made trouble seemingly without intending to.

Impie appeared throughout the publishing history of Little Nemo in Slumberland, although as the years wore on, he would at times vanish from the strip for several months at a time. Towards the end of the strip's run at the New York Herald, Impie's role was mostly replaced by a boy whom Flip took under his wing (said boy was sometimes called Splinters but like Impie used other names). After Winsor's passing, his son Bob McCay made use of Impie in his own strips and comic books in the 1940s. The Little Nemo cast of characters have seldom been seen in new material since the 40s, but recent years have seen a resurgence of interest through new collections and stories. These included last year's four-issue mini-series Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland by Eric Shanower & Gabriel Rodriguez. And yet, that mini-series did not feature Impie. It's noteworthy that Flip - who almost always smoked cigars in the original strips - was reintroduced with cigars, but very quickly gave them up in favour of candy canes, one way in which Shanower & Rodriguez bowed to changing standards. The other is Impie's absence; rather than revamp Impie into something a little less, well, racist, they simply replaced him with the Frunkus (seen above). Like Impie, the Frunkus did not speak English and existed to accompany Flip and cause mischief with him, but as a furry, colourful monster, he lacked the stigma surrounding Impie.

The dawn of the 20th century frequently depicted black children in popular culture as "imps" and "picaninnies." I'm kinda hoping the trend in the 21st century will prove itself to be "human beings." Fingers crossed!

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