The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit

The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit

by Scott Bukatman

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Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In The Poetics of Slumberland, Scott Bukatman celebrates play, plasmatic possibility, and the life of images in cartoons, comics, and cinema. Bukatman begins with Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland to explore how and why the emerging media of comics and cartoons brilliantly captured a playful, rebellious energy characterized by hyperbolic emotion, physicality, and imagination. The book broadens to consider similar “animated” behaviors in seemingly disparate media—films about Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh; the musical My Fair Lady and the story of Frankenstein; the slapstick comedies of Jerry Lewis; and contemporary comic superheroes—drawing them all together as the purveyors of embodied utopias of disorder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520265721
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/26/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 286
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Scott Bukatman is Professor of Film and Media Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of many books, including Terminal Identity and, most recently, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the Twentieth Century.

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The Poetics of Slumberland

Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit

By Scott Bukatman


Copyright © 2012 Scott Bukatman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95150-1



"Ain't I a stinker?"



The saga of Little Nemo in Slumberland began, very auspiciously, on October 15, 1905, in the pages of the Sunday comics supplement of the New York Herald. A lovely prose text, all the more impressive for being squeezed in beneath Winsor McCay's superb illustrations, guides the reader through that first adventure (Plate 6). In this earliest incarnation speech balloons are used minimally ("I wonder what the Oomp will say, Oh!"); the narrative is conveyed by the running (helpfully numbered) captions and the art. The page is masterfully constructed: six tiers, each with a pair of equally sized panels except for the first, in which the immense king of Slumberland overlooks all that follows, and the four-panel sequence at the bottom, as Nemo tumbles through space and, in the final image, out of his bed.

Several important and characteristic elements are at work in this, Nemo's debut. First, one might note that the dream (and the saga) begins not with Nemo but with Slumberland's king, who charges Oomp with summoning Nemo. The dream begins, then, outside Nemo's consciousness. The wide top panel provides a glimpse of Slumberland behind the king—we can make out a broad plaza, pillars, arches, arcades, and a row of columns surmounting all. The foreground space is dominated by the king's massive, bearded presence and, flanking his head, the comic strip's logo. A brick-red framing overlay divides this single broad image into three sections, producing a visual rhyme with the columns but without depth (unlike the ivy-encircled column to the le); in the center is the king. The ambiguity over whether this frame is a design or an architectural element is sustained by the position of the king, who leans casually on, and spills slightly over, the bottom frame border. Thus, through both his posture and his presence in what is really the title panel, the king is as separate from the diegetic space as he is from Nemo's dream. This is one of the two panels that do not represent Nemo in the land of wonderful dreams—the other is, of course, the final panel, in which he lies tangled in his blankets, rudely awakened. In future strips, as McCay begins to open the page to more elaborate configurations of panels, that final panel will increasingly figure as an inset—the one immutable element in the strip—an intrusion into (or carved from) the space of the dream.

McCay has infused the page with his characteristic design work. The second tier presents Nemo in bed, facing right; in the first panel the Oomp introduces himself, and in the next he presents Nemo with Somnus. In the two panels below, Nemo remains on the le side of the panel but now astride his magical mount: the Oomp promises some additional excitement ("Slumberland is the most wonderful place in the sky. You mustn't miss a single thing. See it all!"), and in the next panel Nemo and Somnus gallop through space, encountering the Oomp in the form of a huge white bird ("Gracious! What is that?"). The next four panels, across two tiers, drop Nemo into a sudden race, replete with bunnies riding pigs and monkeys atop green kangaroos, all jumping the hurdles of bursting stars that surround them. Nemo loses his mount in the last panel of this self-contained race sequence, diving headfirst through the reins, leading to his final tumble through space in the final four panels, which are arranged in a regular series of squares along the bottom tier.

Even this description misses much of McCay's brilliant detail. There is the substitution (or is it a metamorphosis?) of bed for horse. There is the increasingly extravagant coloring that accompanies the progress of the race, the muted color of Nemo's bedroom wall yielding first to a richer orange, then olive greens, sky blues, and a deep saturated red. There is the final image of a sprawled Nemo, thrown from his horse, thrown from the journey to Slumberland, and, most immediately, thrown from his bed.

And there is, perhaps most spectacularly, the evocation of movement, which pervades this single page. One image in particular leaps out: after we see Somnus pawing the ground, clearly eager to be off, she is depicted in full gallop, bearing Nemo toward the wonders of Slumberland. McCay has depicted the horse in what can only be described as the Muybridge position, with all four legs lied from the ground. Nor is this the only image that recalls the pioneering work in motion capture performed by both Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey. Indeed, the evenly sized panels, arrayed in a graphlike configuration, presenting the successive stages of a horse's gait, could hardly be more clear. The stages of the animal's motion will provide visual continuity, dynamic flow, and, importantly, credible naturalistic detail across the six central panels. In two of the panels the beasts leaping the hurdles produce elegant arcs of motion that can be read from le to right as stages in a single movement, as in a chronophotograph. And Nemo's final tumble is a backward somersault, divided into four images (with the last, back in the waking world, representing a kind of somersaultus interruptus) with all the precision (and perhaps more) of one of Muybridge's photographic sequences.

Analyzing the Instant

Muybridge and Marey both used photography to capture and display the stages that constitute the continuum of movement. Marey, a physician and amateur naturalist, attempted, through a series of mechanisms, to record and recreate the movements of bird and insect wings, as well as the running gaits of horses and men. He recognized the value of phenakistoscopes and other similar amusements: "is instrument, usually constructed for the amusement of children, generally represents grotesque or fantastic figures moving in a ridiculous manner." But, with images "constructed with care" that "represented faithfully the successive attitudes of the body," a more accurate understanding of physiological movements might be possible.

As the story goes, and stop me if you've heard this one, the governor of California, Leland Stanford, aware of the experiments with which Marey was occupied, employed the very established panoramic and stereoscopic photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1872 to settle a wager about whether all the legs of a running horse ever le the ground at once. Muybridge continued to experiment with sequential photography for the rest of his career, whether producing book-length studies of human and animal movements or demonstrating his "Zoöpraxiscope," which projected, and effectively reanimated, his photographic sequences.

Marey began using his "chronophotographic gun" in 1882 to take photographic sequences of birds in flight, fencing lunges, and the like. While Muybridge's technique produced individual images on a series of photographic plates, Marey's technique used an automatically advancing disk to capture the multiple vectors of motion, up and down, forward and back, in a series of exposures captured on a single plate. The chronophotograph combined the empirical weight and mimetic precision of the photograph with the plotted precision of the graph. Marey's single exposures yielded evenly spaced intervals in an unambiguous sequence extracted from continuous motion.

Braun emphasizes the difference between Marey's scientism and Muybridge's formalism. Muybridge's use of multiple, spatially organized cameras, as well as his characteristic array of discretely bounded, pleasingly composed images, privileged a sense of time as divisible and discrete. Contained parcels of space become analogous to contained parcels of time. Marey's single plates, by contrast, emphasized a temporal continuum, with the chronophotograph capturing instants along the axis of time's arrow. Against Marey's scientific interest in graphing movement, Muybridge was, through his discrete images, each carefully lit and composed according to acceptable aesthetic conventions, "telling stories in space."

Tom Gunning does not reject the distinction that Braun carefully draws, but he argues that she may be drawing the wrong conclusion. He and others suggest that the codes of an earlier pictorialism that find their way into Muybridge's aesthetic could not dispel, and possibly even emphasized, the fascinating disruption produced by the clearly delineated sequence of movement that demonstrated the camera's astonishing ability to register what the human eye could not. These are not the pictures of a neoclassical age, despite the semiotic cues that invite such comparison; people had never seen such pictures before. Marey's chronophotographs have an amorphous, ghostly quality that clearly separates them from the realm of natural perception, whereas Muybridge's images combine the solidity of familiar figures and pictorial conventions with the new—radically new—experience of perceived time.

Jonathan Crary also emphasizes the decisive rupture produced by Muybridge's first motion studies. He writes that "Muybridge's work obviously opened up possibilities for the rationalization and quantification of movement and time, for the mechanization of the body," but its radically "mutable temporality" suggested an escape from that very rationalism by offering "plural scatterings of attention and the possibility of unforeseen perceptual syntheses outside of any disciplinary imperatives." Crary does not mention Marey, but the temporality of Marey's chronophotographs is clearly not mutable, governed as they are by the rigidity of even intervals and clearly mapped vectors of motion, and suggestive of an impossibly sustained single moment, stretched in time as it stretches across the field of the image. With Muybridge, though, the act of segmentation and the spatial display of stages of movement on a grid might generate new conceptions of the relation between image and world. The organization and display of recorded moments projected the sense of temporal continuity and its relentless rationality, but it also incontrovertibly showed that time could be fractured, our awareness of it newly dispersed along a series or array of demonstrably incomplete images.

Comics became prominent as a popular medium around the same period that these motion studies were taking place, and in emphasizing the radicalism of Muybridge's work, I would argue that Crary is unknowingly also outlining the necessary conditions for the emergence of modern comics. Crary's comments about the temporal rupture offered by the image sequence echo Scott McCloud's discussion of the organized array of panels that characterize comics, which (in McCloud's words) "fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments." Comics uniquely present a combination of static images, often infiltrated by visual cues of captured or continuing movement, arranged in temporal sequence.

In his pioneering discussion of the relation of comics and film, John Fell wrote, "By posing the dimension of time on a visible linear continuum, comics offer something different from cinema. Even after the reader has proceeded from picture to picture, the panels continue to relate to one another on the page." Comics more clearly resemble what Muybridge produced than what the Edison company and the Lumières followed with. To return briefly to the issue of Muybridge's aesthetics, Phillip Prodger has pointed to some of the means by which Muybridge's sequences rupture and mend the usual relationship between photographic image and temporality: Walking Elephant is a photographic array that may be read as either a chronophotographic study of a single elephant or as a chain of multiple elephants marching in parade.

These are methods that comics quickly adopt. Winsor McCay does something like it in the first Little Nemo in Slumberland, as the various and multihued horses, kangaroos, and billy goats are arrayed along a single, elegantly undulating arc of movement that extends across each panel and from one panel to the next (this dialectic between wild kinesis and perfectly rendered stasis has its analogue in the overarching narrative of Little Nemo: the cosmic journeys across time and space counterbalanced by the insistent return to the bed from which no one has moved at all—except sometimes in that brief, rude journey from bed to floor).

The rigid distinction that Braun makes—aesthetic vs. scientific dominants, Muybridge (boo!) vs. Marey (yay!)—by passes the rich discord that arises when the mechanical marvels of instantaneous photography and chronophotography intersect with the conventions of visual and narrative representation. In the motion studies of Muybridge, Marey, and McCay the singular and the multiple compete for attention.

Comics, like cinema, depended on the work of Muybridge, Marey, Reynaud, and a host of others who experimented with recording and reproducing natural movement in the late nineteenth century. Comics and cinema offer experiences of both temporal fracturing and temporal flow, but the comics reader has more control over time than the cinematic spectator, with the freedom to look back or peek ahead. Time in comics is represented as territory in space, and the experience of the flow of time can be very carefully regulated, if not completely controlled. This dialectic between the stasis of an individual image and the spatiotemporal movement of the sequence—a dialectic that relates to the diegesis but also to the experience of the reader—is what McCloud calls "the temporal map," and it is a conceptual fundament of the medium.

Modern culture from the late nineteenth century forward oscillated between the sense of time as unbound, mutable, and multiple, and time as rigid, deterministic, and most insistently bound to linear coherence. Muybridge's first studies represent a crucial moment in the "unbinding" of time and perspective, and Crary and McCloud locate in cinema and the comics—the two media that most clearly derive from these motion-capture experiments—some of that same radicalism. Cinema reconstituted the movement that one could infer from the sequence of still images while comics retained the synchronous spatiotemporal array, or "temporal map"—but both media were fundamentally bound to the explorations of time, rhythm, and tempo so characteristic of modernity.

The pictorial narrative had existed as a printed form throughout Europe and Asia since the fieenth century, but from the middle of the nineteenth century it began to emphasize a sense of continuous movement. The closing chapter of David Kunzle's indispensable analysis of pre-twentieth-century comics emphasizes the sophistication with which comics became, in effect, motion pictures, influenced both by such optical toys as the magic lantern and the phenakistoscope, as well as the experiments associated with Marey and Muybridge. In a later essay Kunzle demonstrates how the large, complete, and "richly accoutered" compositions associated with Hogarth yielded to the line of caricature, a line that was looser, more exaggerated, and just evidently faster, in keeping with a perception that life itself was becoming faster paced, careening in potentially dangerous, albeit thrilling, directions. Rodolphe Töpffer eschewed scenic detail to emphasize dynamic figures trapped in chaotic circumstances. He also developed what Kunzle terms "a battery of montage devices" to emphasize time and motion, including narrowing the frame from panel to panel to indicate both the quickness of succession and the concomitant claustrophobia of temporal inescapability.

Increasing numbers of comic artists played with image sequences that modeled a brief, contained arc of time. An 1868 illustration by George du Maurier for Punch presented three stages in the leap of a horse and rider over a fence superimposed into a single image. Later, Punch published several parodies of Muybridge, such as an 1882 "Zoöpraxiscopic" sequence of an eminent actor's histrionics (he seems to burst into flame by the end) (Figure 4). us Winsor McCay's presentation of continuous time through the vehicle of animal locomotion had some significant and precise precedents, and it is worth reviewing some of the ways that comics in the nineteenth century evolved as a vehicle for the registration of time through the figure of (animal and child) movement.

The extremely popular children's stories and social satires by the German illustrator Wilhelm Busch often depicted brief actions across several panels from a fixed perspective that emphasized incremental change, measuring, with metronomic inevitability, the results of the calamitous pranks committed by those early masters of comic strip mayhem, Max and Moritz, who appeared in 1865. Cat and Mouse, from 1864, laid the foundation for a whole history of feline-rodent (or coyote-roadrunner) conflicts in comic strips and cartoons by reducing conflict itself to a reductio ad absurdum of cause-and-effect moves and countermoves. "Busch's genius," Kunzle argues, "lay in his ability to impose absolute linear and conceptual control over actions and situations out of control." The American illustrator A.B. Frost took up art studies with omas Eakins in 1878, when the painter had become interested in using photography and chronophotography to represent movement naturalistically. Frost's picture stories, again centered around animal behaviors, quickly begin to manifest a chronophotographic smoothness, again in works of vehement and hilarious sadism such as "Our Cat Eats Rat Poison," a six-panel sequence of an action and its morbid ramifications published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1881 (Figure 5).


Excerpted from The Poetics of Slumberland by Scott Bukatman. Copyright © 2012 Scott Bukatman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Introduction: The Lively, the Playful, and the Animated
1. Drawn and Disorderly
2. The Motionless Voyage of Little Nemo
3. Labor and Anima
4. Disobedient Machines
5. Labor and Animatedness
6. Playing Superheroes


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"Delightfully Chestertonian. . . . Bukatman shows the marvelous animated poetics of visual media. . . . Essential."—Choice

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