Oct. 20, 1907: Winsor McCay, ‘Little Nemo’ and The Imp


Note: This is an encore post from 2006.

Oct. 20, 1907
Los Angeles

Winsor McCay and his cartoons never completely go out of fashion and are periodically rediscovered—as in the current Taschen anthology. He was a fabulous artist and his Sunday panels remain a marvel of fantasy and rebellion against the tyranny of pigeonhole boxes. Living as we do in the era of legacy comics (Charles Schulz has been dead since 2000); bland, humorless writing; weak drawing; and panels shrunk to the size of postage stamps, it’s easy to think that comics aficionados 100 years ago were fortunate to get strips that ran a full page.

Correction: This post (and the original version from 2006) misspelled the artist’s first name, Winsor, as Windsor. We were so worried about spelling his last name, McCay,  properly that we overlooked his first name.

And then there’s Imp.

Imp is a caricature; McCay’s notion of an African cannibal who speaks in nonsense words that the other characters interpret, and he runs through much of “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” Whenever McCay’s strips are discussed, there’s usually some sort of passing reference to “unfortunate racial stereotypes” and something about “not uncommon for the period.” Those statements, although true (and the pages of The Times in this era are full of ethnic caricatures), gloss over material like Imp and turn it into nothing more than a slightly guilty pleasure.

So what to do? Frankly, no matter how much I know about the period and the cultural values of the era, Imp always makes me quite uncomfortable, especially in light of a post earlier this year about Elijah Washington being killed because he fought back after being called one of the most problematic slang terms in the English language. But one thing history is not about is sanitizing the past or ignoring uncomfortable issues. So here is Imp in all his finely drawn glory. And check out those lions.


About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1907, Books and Authors, Comics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Oct. 20, 1907: Winsor McCay, ‘Little Nemo’ and The Imp

  1. Winsor (not Windsor), fyi. His earlier strip, “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” has at least one example that is even worse–BE WARNED BEFORE CLICKING: http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/display/940

    But that strip also has plenty of glorious, if weird, ones, like this: http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/display/978
    anticipating both F. Scott Fitzgerald and “The Twilight Zone”: http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/display/935
    Okay, this is back to “Nemo,” but jeez Louise, look at this drawing: http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/display/609

    It’s tough. I write a little bit about comic-strip history, and I’ve puzzled over this issue. Even people like Frank King, who seems to have wanted to make his African-American characters regular humans, judging by the dialogue, still apparently felt compelled to draw them in a caricatured style. My unproven theory is that it all has to do with the intense social pressure to keep black people down, to the point where it became subconscious.


    • lmharnisch says:

      Hi … thanks for catching the error! And for sharing your thoughts. The racial stereotypes of the era are stunning. And the grotesque portrayals weren’t limited to comics; you can find them in the newspapers, books (ever read the first Tom Swift series? Yow!), recordings of vaudeville acts, and on and on.


      • Yes, it’s as if there was a vast conspiracy to keep the white “supremacy” going, and it had to affect every little thing, constantly, or the façade couldn’t be kept up. (Just more proof that whites aren’t superior–why would so much work and coordination be required, otherwise?)

        Of the white cartoonists, I suspect that people who were already “outsiders,” like Nell Brinkley and Tarpé Mills (1940s), were less likely to draw racially stereotyped characters or, in Brinkley’s case, at least to humanize them a bit more. I haven’t been able to fully test this theory, though; I would need to collect a lot more examples.


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