Josh O’Neill is a comics artist and editor/producer of Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream. Before he started a small press, Locust Moon was a West Philadelphia bookstore located in a decrepit little hole in the wall, tucked away in a residential neighborhood on Locust Street. He didn’t make any money, but he hosted drink & draws, arranged signings and was lucky enough to have some of the most talented and creative people in Philly and beyond call Locust Moon their comic-shop home. It was this store and the Nemo fans who gathered there that gave birth to this book of Nemo interpretations by various artists. I asked O’Neill about his and others’ love for Winsor McCay and his sleepy creation.
What prompted you to do such an ambitious project on Little Nemo?
First and foremost, of course, the love of McCay and his awesome creation. A desire to explore the incredible influence of McCay and Nemo as it’s filtered down through generation after generation of modern cartoonists. But also a love of the book as art object—the most stunning examples of which I’ve ever seen are the Sunday Press Little Nemo editions. SO MANY SPLENDID SUNDAYS is an assemblage of portals, big enough for human shoulders to squeeze through. It’s a stamped ticket to Slumberland. To me it seems as beautiful and potent as a book can be. We wanted to touch some of its magic.
Sharing the Sunday Press Nemo editions with customers and friends became a ritual. Poring over these epically huge and beautiful tomes with true inheritors of McCay’s passion and originality like Rob Woods, Farel Dalrymple, J.G. Jones and many others, talking over McCay’s inspirations and influences, we were privileged to watch genius-level comic makers inspect, admire and do the same thing we were always trying to do—crack the code, demystify the mastery, figure out how the hell McCay did what he did.
As with all the best magic tricks, there was no finding the secret. The way that McCay weaved his spell, the way he controlled your perception and infiltrated dormant places in your imagination, was unfathomable. We would analyze, and when our analysis inevitably failed, we would marvel. Those sessions of baffled worship were the birthplace of this anthology. We could see and on some level experience the humility and joy that so many artists felt when confronted with this work. We wanted to see what would happen when brilliant cartoonists tried to know the unknowable and imitate the inimitable.
There seems to be a wave of Nemo books over the past few years. What’s different about your wonderful volume?
We’re thrilled to see the resurgence of interest in Nemo and McCay over the last few years. Eric Shanower ane Gabriel Rodriguez are doing lovely work over at IDW on an ongoing Nemo series. There’s a French artist named Frank Pe who has a Little Nemo book that looks absolutely stunning—it hasn’t been published in the states yet, or translated into English, but I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy. And I think everybody who loves comics is eager to see what Alan Moore is going to do with his Big Nemo project.
Our intentions were a little bit different. We wanted to use these huge-format tributes to create a sort of map of McCay’s influence and everlasting legacy. The thrill of this project for us was to set these remarkable artists loose on the enormous canvas that McCay always used to the utmost, with the wondrous wind of Nemo at their backs. To hear all these endlessly multivarious voices raised in a love song for a hugely important figure who in the general population seems like he might be on his way to being forgotten.
On a more fundamental level, we want fans of McCay’s descendants to become fans of McCay. I discovered his work through a Bill Watterson essay that I read when I was a teenager. Before I was ever able to really study his art, I had become well aware of it through references in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, an article by Alan Moore, a dozen other places. When I finally got my hands on the broadsheet editions, I was swept away. My partner Andrew has described it as falling headlong into Slumberland. I don’t think any of us, myself or my partners or the contributors, will ever wake up. And I hope this book can bring others to the same experience I had—finding McCay through his footprints, and tracking those beautiful traces back to their true transcendent source.
Always interesting to know about the trials and tribulations of such a project. What were yours?
The usual logistical difficulty of herding 140 geniuses and getting them all to do the same thing at the same time. A lot of challenges in how to format the files so they all print well and read the way they should. My partner ended up flying to Malaysia for the press check to make sure everything was executed perfectly. There were tricky questions about layout and design. A lot of people dropping out and signing on at the last moment, deadlines getting pushed back over and over. But honestly, considering the huge scale and the beauty of this project, it went much more smoothly than we had any right or reason to expect. Which is a tribute to the talent and professionalism and enthusiasm of the contributors.
What other books have you done? And is this the opus?
We’ve been publishing comics for a little over two years now. Our first book was a 2012 anthology of sci-fi fairy tales called ONCE UPON A TIME MACHINE, which we packaged for Dark Horse. Last year we launched a periodical comics magazine called QUARTER MOON, which will see the release of its fifth issue at the end of the year. We also published a collection by a visionary underground cartoonist named Rob Woods called 36 LESSONS IN SELF-DESTRUCTION. We’re awfully proud of that one, and think that Rob has the sort of voice that needs to be heard from in the comics industry. We’re still a very new publisher, and this is most certainly our opus. I hope that one day we can even equal the insane ambition and glory of this once-in-a-lifetime project.
If I may, how did you finance this and how is it doing?
We had a shoestring budget to work with in terms of putting together the artwork—we were incredibly lucky that so many brilliant cartoonists and illustrators were willing to work for free or very cheap in an effort to honor someone whose work meant something to them. The chance to work in this gloriously huge format, in tribute to one of the true forefathers of the medium was an irresistible (and intimidating) challenge for a lot of people. We have a profit-share deal with the contributors, so if all goes according to plan their good faith and passion will be rewarded in the end.
We paid for printing and production with a Kickstarter campaign over the summer, and we were stunned by the level of support we received. We raised over $150,000 in less than a month. Our minds were blown. We were seeing the same thing we had seen among cartoonists in the process of putting the project together—there was a huge desire among the people who love this work to see it explored and honored in this way. The people who cared about it were deeply passionate about it, and spread the word as eagerly as we did. It felt like we were forming a brother-and-sisterhood of McCay fans. It still does. It takes a village to make a comic like this.
What makes Nemo so timeless or classic?
For everything that’s quaint and old-fashioned and charming about these strips, for all that they evoke the antiquity and naivety of the dawning 20th century, the era of World’s Fairs and Zeppelins and vaudeville, for all their creaky populist politics and cornball jokes and beautiful, forgotten 19th-century illustration techniques, they feel anything but dated. And I think the reason for that is that their ambition has never been surpassed. McCay was standing at the dawn of the comic strip, declaring that anything was possible on the page. In many ways, the medium he helped found is still trying to catch up to his savage ambition and boldness.
I think there’s a huge variety of reasons for Little Nemo’s continuous cult of fans and admirers. The founding of Slumberland was an act of sorcery—McCay’s world is so alive on the page, so detailed and lush and enchanted, that you can’t help but want to return again and again. Little Nemo’s pleasures are not the pleasures of story or characterization—they’re the pleasures of discovery, exploration, majesty, enthrallment. These strips are paper universes. And I think that’s part of the reason that this tribute project compelled so many contributors—to love Little Nemo is an active love, not a passive one. You want to engage with it. You want to be a part of it and climb inside.
I think a huge part of the artistic impulse is the urge to talk back to the work that moves you. And our collection gave its participants a chance to have a conversation across a century with a man who inspired them. For me personally, the most special thing about Little Nemo is the pure joy it engenders. I’ve never felt anything like it, before or since. McCay loved every line, every word, every panel. He loved you, his reader. If he didn’t he wouldn’t make such beautiful comics.
More books! We’re working on a second, Greek mythology-themed volume of ONCE UPON A TIME MACHINE for Dark Horse. New issues of QUARTER MOON (our upcoming cat-themed issue features work from Bill Sienkiewicz, Paul Pope, Dean Haspiel, David Mack, Farel Dalrymple and many more). Some archival projects that I can’t officially announce yet involving Denis Kitchen and Will Eisner. We’re also partnering with Francoise Mouly’s TOON BOOKS on a smaller format, young adult edition of the Nemo book which will feature a smaller sampling of the strips. And beyond that we have a number of projects that we’re still seeking funding or partnerships to publish—DREAM COMPASS, a collection of short stories written by my partner Chris Stevens and illustrated by artists including James Jean, Arthur Adams, Nate Powell, Farel Dalrymple and more. Another graphic novel called THE EARFARMER that we’re packaging for Dark Horse. We’re just so excited to be ushering such great comics into the world.
Panel by Panel is a special download from Print Magazine all about comics and their creators. This compilation features a five-part interview with Art Spiegelman, the work of R. Crumb, the lost comics of Jacob Landau, “The Voyeurs: Diary of a Charming Neurotic” by Douglas Wolk, and “The Blab of Comics” by Steven Heller. Check it out here.