Creative Nonfiction: Enter Sandman
Eve Strillacci is a college senior who enjoys reading, writing, and all the literary and poetic presence of everyday life. She believes that writing is the expression of the soul.
Batman, as it turned out, was ultimately irrelevant; it was Robin who caught our fancy, lithe, lively Robin, Batman’s gaily bedecked sidekick, who won my sister’s heart and mine at an early age. We did not care much for Batman’s brooding, his gruff, exterior and gruesome past. At age eight we were only interested in the good chase, excitement without much real danger, guided misadventures, as it were – exactly what Batman provided for Robin. Structured mischief, wherein someone would always save the day if Robin couldn’t, someone would always save Robin if Robin couldn’t. It was, in many ways, Robin’s own helplessness that drew us to him. He had no special powers beyond his own human abilities, no fancy gadgets, no hidden identities to conceal – he was only a boy in a brightly colored costume, chasing after his hero through the forbidding streets of Gotham night after night after night.
When we played make-believe Claire and I would fight over him. Batman, we figured, had the responsibility of getting everyone out the mess. Batman regularly defeated bad guys. He creatively escaped any number of tight fixes any number of times, and he rarely did it with any significant help. Playing the man was a serious commitment; Robin was simply along for the ride. We spent long afternoons tracing tic-tac-toe in the dirt, winner gets to be Robin, best out of three, you cheated, I cheated? Who says! until our fingernails turned black at the tips, fingertips brushing the soft-damp dirt that hid beneath the loose upper layer, concealing roots and rocky patches in its reddish tinge. All we wanted was a safe face to wear when we went exploring, a skin to don that we were sure would be protected, someone to show us new sights from our own backyard.
Poor Robin. We loved him for all the reasons that trapped him in his role, unable, in all his years of apprenticeship, to escape the Bat’s shadow. I’m not even sure where we first discovered him – if it was the children’s cartoon, or a movie, or maybe even the down-turned page of a drugstore comic book. Robin had been stitched into the fabric of our imaginations by a slow and careful hand, so subtly that we had not even noticed. But he came with his own needle of unease; he and his crime fighting companion inhabited a world I knew nothing about. Robin did not have an eight o’clock bedtime. He and Batman slunk around shadowy corners, sneaking softly through the underbelly of the city. Due to an unfortunate darting incident when I was very young I was not even allowed to cross the street. There were places Robin traveled that Claire and I, cheeks sticky from summertime popsicles, simply could not follow. There had to be someone who would skirt danger with us, someone just as scared and curious and young – there had to be. Years passed, and I never met him. But my eight-year-old instincts were right, and he was out there, sleeping snugly in his own warm bed while fantastical nighttime citizens frantically whispered his name: Little Nemo.
Winsor McCay first published the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland in the New York Herald in 1905, eighty-four years before my birth, ninety-two years before I first laid about in the sun and contemplated the perfect hero, one to whom all adventures came without being called (12). True mystery and magic would be just a little beyond his bedroom door, waiting to be thrown on as hastily as one dons a cap before heading out into the rain. Little Nemo was that hero, for all that the word barely seems to fit him. It isn’t until the fourth entry on “hero” in the American Heritage dictionary that a definition begins to vaguely suit Nemo: “the principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic presentation.” And this directly above an entry on submarines! Nemo is, admittedly, a timorous little thing. Each night in his dreams Nemo travels to Slumberland, a marvelously tricky landscape of Nemo’s own invention, wherein the King might call for Nemo to join him and his lovely daughter; the raucous bum Flip might engage Nemo in some nonsense proposition or another. Should his adventures become frightening, and they often do, Nemo needs only to cry out for his mother – and he often does. He will awake, safe, if rumpled, in his own warm bed. Not the most valiant traveler, but what Nemo lacks in guts he makes up for in style, benefiting from creator McCay’s searingly vivid imaginings just as surely as his readers.
Praised as “the most beautifully drawn and visually original strip produced in the United States” in Eric Smoodin’s “Cartoon and Comic Classicism,” Little Nemo in Slumberland is breathtaking. Even black and white reproductions are stunning – one only needs to examine a line of stiffly marching zebras, front feet poised mid-step, ornate halters blooming gaily against delicately striped heads to understand (24). Riding in his peacock coach, Nemo clutches slender reins, his small body dwarfed by the flare of feathers thrust up from his seat to arch splendidly behind him. There’s no escaping the rich decadence of McCay’s creation; Slumberland sings to the unanswered pioneer in all of us. Since its conception, McCay’s mild, unassuming protagonist has captured the hearts of Americans. Why is it that his pale, plain face lingers in my mind some fifteen years too late for childish daydreams?
On the days my sister and I did not play at crime fighters we played house. The two-tiered climber our father had built when our older sisters were young still stood that summer, sunken poles ensuring the structure stuck around far longer than its maker. We would climb the six or seven steps to the raised platform where the swings were hung and kick our feet off the sides, practicing grocery lists: books, bubblegum, and Band-Aids, or laying out our future homes – how close to the ocean we’d be, which places our husbands would be allowed, which rooms we’d keep to ourselves. These comfortable daydreams did not stretch the fabric of our sleepy, summer-time reality or threaten to unstring the cheerful yarns we’d spun in our heat-enforced boredom. Aloft, we were safe from any cutthroat Gotham crooks, and sometimes I would sink back against Claire, lean into the damp press of her shoulder against mine and lose myself to the fantasy – Adulthood, a destination far more mysterious than even Nemo had imagined, full of changed faces and strange promises that sat heavily on the tongue. Contract. Christening. Till death do us part.
Father Time badly frightens Nemo one night when seeking to occupy his young guest. He teaches Nemo how to alter his own age by touching wooden plaques with years on them, hanging, like house numbers, from the infinite halls. Together, they try nine and fifteen and twenty-five, Father Time crowing “But wait! I’ll make you older! What do you say?” (151). Forty-eight does not suit Nemo. Ninety-nine, an illicit experiment while his host’s back is turned, sends him home, weeping, to his mother’s puzzled embraces. What did Nemo need to grow up for? Childhood held all the thrills. He wasn’t counting the days ‘til his permit test. All Nemo needed to do was fall asleep and he was ushered into a tale to surpass your wildest imaginings (though not his). Flip might turn them all into stick figures for a lark. Perhaps the fairy Cheecaumo would turn him into a monkey and order him to cross a bridge built on the backs of her supporters (51, 65). Nemo would close his eyes, and it would all come flooding back. Lions could invade his bedroom (72). Ethereal voices might shout from behind the curtain, begging for the pleasure of his company (64). Whether he complied happily or not, adventure was sure to follow. Nemo was always being happened-to, and I just happened to love him. Robin stole through my heart uncontested for over ten years before Little Nemo unseated him, sneaking through my memories to retroactively claim a decade’s worth of unfulfilled desires and interrupted adventures.
What does gentle Nemo have that Batman’s intrepid pal doesn’t? Why does Little Nemo in Slumberland still strike a chord, some ten years after Claire and I chased each other around the back yard, howling and feigning great feats of acrobatics whenever the other wasn’t looking? Robin is definition number two: “a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose…” Robin isn’t afraid of the future – he seeks it out with all the passion in his young heroic frame. He is a rousing, relatable character, but what eight year old can truly relate to a life on the run, to hours wasted behind dark buildings, waiting for a glimpse of your next mark? I knew as much about waiting as I did about grocery lists. Robin’s story was an engaging one, to be sure, but Nemo’s magic was in his ordinariness. Nemo and I were the same, both curious and uncertain, awake to every glorious possibility that Winsor McCay threw our way. “Nemo” literally means “no one,” but rather than razing Nemo, this nameless reality leaves him open to a nation of projected identities (Howe 158). His small, disinterested face houses a hundred bright smiles, a thousand pairs of dark eyes, now wide, now narrowed as the lion approaches. How does Nemo feel about the lion? How do I? Nemo was everyone; Nemo was all children. Slumberland, in its infinite imagery, was nothing compared to its dozing prince.
In the end, Batman and Robin were too present, so enmeshed in their world that there was no getting in without leaving yourself behind. Little Nemo was little more than a loveable placeholder. He was the faceless, unsubstantiated figure from the very best sort of daydream, where the figure is you, but more, because they have the bike you’ve asked after for months, and their mother never says no to chocolate milk with breakfast. Nemo was me, only more. He was Claire, and my next door neighbor, and my third grade teacher, too. If Robin ever slept, he also dreamed of Slumberland’s strange, unsettled landscapes, of an infinity of harmless scrapes to muddle through. If only we’d realized! Claire and I might have stowed away on Nemo’s coach and ridden his coattails all the way to Slumberland. We might have patted the sun-soaked boards beside us and invited him to sleep close for a while, the dear, dreamless slumber of the weary who, having given all of themselves to the day, choose to leave the day behind. Today, I can add his lesson to my grocery list: move to the ocean; build my own tea room. Keep sand out, but let the sandman in.
“Hero.” The American Heritage College Dictionary. 4th ed. 2007.
Howe, Sean. Give our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: writers on comics. United States: Pantheon Books, 2004.
Marschall, Richard. “Perchance to Dream.” New York, New York: U.S. Media Holdings, Inc., 1997.
McCay, Winsor (w). Little Nemo in Slumberland. Eds. Richard Marschall. Hong Kong: 1997.
Smoodin, Eric. “Cartoon and Comic Classicism: High-Art Histories of Lowbrow Culture.” American Literary History. 1992: Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 129-140. Oxford University Press. MLA Bibliography. JSTOR. 27 Sept. 2009. .