IDW Publishing takes readers to the world of one of the most beloved comic strips of all time in “Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland,” from “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” writer Eric Shanower and “Locke and Key” artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Based on Winsor McCay’s beautifully illustrated “Little Nemo” strip appeared in newspapers from 1905 to 1926, this is just the latest in a long line of projects based on the seminal work, which has been adapted into a number of different mediums, including the 1989 animated film “Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland” and the 1990 videogame “Little Nemo: The Dream Master.”
Shanower spoke with CBR News about picking up where Winsor McCay left off, revealing what Slumberland’s latest tourist will discover, what it’s like to work with Rodriquez, his lifelong fascination with fairy tales and more.
CBR News: Eric, what’s “Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland” about?
Eric Shanower: In “Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland,” a modern American boy travels to a fantastic fantasy world full of bizarre characters and spectacular palaces.
The first “Nemo” arc, four issues, is about the arrival of the new main character in Slumberland as a playmate for the Princess of Slumberland. Only this new character is a little boy who’s not much interested in playing with a little girl when the first thing she wants to do is walk in the garden and the second thing she has planned for them is a tea party. When Flip Flap, the nephew of the Dawn Guard, offers to show the new character a more interesting time, he’s all for it. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with the Princess, so there’s a bit of a conflict going on among all these characters’ desires and intentions.
Slumberland sounds like a rather fantastical place — can you tell us more about what it looks like in “Return?”
Slumberland is a beautiful fantasyland full of fantastic architecture and strange plants and bizarre characters. Lots of pointed spires and pillars and gorgeous scenery. Most of the characters are dressed opulently, even the Slumberland servants. Then there are the areas that the main character travels through to reach Slumberland, such as the country of the cloud creatures, who Gabe [Rodriguez] has given a look that for me was completely unexpected.
Gabe’s done a double-page spread showing the main palace of Slumberland and a lot of the building and gardens surrounding it for the first issue. I felt kind of bad asking him to draw that, but it’s the only panorama of Slumberland he’ll have to draw for “Return to Slumberland,” so I figured asking him once would be okay. He responded with a really detailed, fantastic view, taking far fewer short cuts than I would have if I were drawing it. Gabe’s really knocking himself out for this story, so I can’t wait for readers to see it. He’s doing a wonderful job. I hope that everyone will be blown away by his artwork for this project. He’s not imitating McCay, but there’s a definite undercurrent of the original “Little Nemo in Slumberland” to Gabe’s art for this project.
Are you trying to match the tone and style of Winsor McCay’s original stories in your writing?
I’m definitely not — I’ve tried to make the new main character modern and more decisive than Nemo ever was. Slumberland is still the same Slumberland, though, so the friction between the modern kid and the old-fashioned fantasy world is where the main interest of the story lies. I knew when I began this project that we weren’t going to be able to recreate Winsor McCay’s genius, so I didn’t try. I just tried to write an interesting new story with some of the pieces McCay left. And McCay, for all his cleverness with form and ideas, was never known for his strong sense of story. My intent was always to write a solid story; I believe I’ve done that. I have to say, though, as the writing progressed, I was surprised at how many aspects of the original strip kept creeping in, even though my conscious intent was not to ape McCay.
How long do you plan on writing “Little Nemo” stories?
“Return to Slumberland” is the first four-issue series. We have plans to go on to the next “Little Nemo” series, which will have a different title. If they’re successful enough for IDW, I’m sure we’ll do more. These things depend on sales. At this point, I’m up for as long as we can go.
When did you first discover the original “Little Nemo?”
I think I first heard of “Little Nemo” when I was in elementary school — there was a book reprinting some original comic strips by Winsor McCay that I was aware of, but never saw. Later, when I was about thirteen years old, I found some examples of the original strip reprinted in compendiums of newspaper comics. I loved Winsor McCay’s drawing and imagination.
How did this latest revival come about?
Scott Dunbier, editor at IDW, phoned me just over a year ago and asked whether I’d like to write a “Little Nemo in Slumberland” comic. I said yes, but what was the approach they wanted? Scott didn’t have any particular approach in mind, he just thought doing something with “Little Nemo” would be cool. So we talked over a few ideas and eventually arrived at “Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland.”
Beyond the protagonist, are you debuting any new characters into Nemo’s world?
Yes. I decided not to use Impy from the original strip, since he’s an embarrassing caricature, so I came up with a new character called the Frunkus, who shares a few characteristics with Impy and functions in place of Impy, but is a completely different type of character.
The Frunkus is a sort of animal companion for the main character. Mostly, the Frunkus just provides some gentle comedy. I can’t really tell you what the Frunkus looks like, because, although I gave Gabe some notes and sketches for the character, he hasn’t done a final design as far as I know.
What is it that attracts you to modern fairy tales like “Little Nemo” and “Oz?”
For some reason, I love children’s fantasy, particularly the type in which a child from our world goes to another. I love the adventure, the humor, the wonder. Certainly, for both “Little Nemo” and “Oz,” I love the artwork, too.
What other projects are you involved in at the moment?
I just finished the paintings for ten tarot cards for “The Shadow of Oz” tarot card set to be published in July by Illogical Associates. I drew a three-page story for “Fables” #142, to be published by DC/Vertigo. I wrote and drew a 20-page comics story for an anthology of mostly prose short stories called “Taking Aim: Twelve Stories about Guns and Gun Culture,” edited by Michael Cart from HarperCollins in fall 2015. Marvel Comics has compiled all the “Oz” comics that Skottie Young and I did the past several years into one big volume, “The Oz Omnibus,” to be published in September. I wrote a new introduction for that. I’m painting variant covers for “Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland.”
My time is currently consumed with producing a vintage 1913 stage musical titled “The Tik-Tok Man of Oz,” with script and lyrics by “Oz”-creator L. Frank Baum. As soon as that play is over in August I’ll be getting back to “Age of Bronze” from Image Comics.
That last project sounds particularly interesting. Can you tell us more about it?
The “Tik-Tok Man of Oz” is a musical with script and lyrics by L. Frank Baum, author of the “Oz” books. It was produced in Los Angeles in 1913, then toured the USA and Canada. 2014 is the centennial of the Oz book, “Tik-Tok of Oz,” that Baum wrote based on the show. So for this year’s Winkie Con, I’m producing a fully-staged performance of it. All the cast and most of the production team is based in San Diego, where the convention will be August 8-10. All the surviving music, 20 pieces, will be performed. I had to prepare the script from several surviving versions because the performance script from 1913 is fragmentary. As the producer I had to raise the money to put this show on, so I did a Kickstarter campaign that was pretty successful, thank goodness, because every time I turn around there’s an unanticipated expense. Rehearsals have been going for about a month now and every time I stop in to watch a bit, it’s looking great. I’m also co-designing the costumes and sets.
“Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland” is out this August from IDW Publishing.