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McCay, Winsor

Entry updated 6 February 2023. Tagged: Artist, Comics.

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(1867-1934) Canadian-born Comic-strip artist and creator of animated cartoons, in US from an early age; of seminal importance in both his main professions. His earliest years are obscure, but by 1889 he was employed in Chicago as an engraver in a printing firm, when he may have been exposed to the phantasmagoric École des Beaux-Arts Chicago World's Fair of 1893, then under construction. During the 1890s he worked as a freelance poster painter and as an in-house artist at Cincinnati's Vine Street Dime Museum before, in 1898, starting his newspaper career by doing editorial cartoons for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. By 1900 McCay had switched papers and was drawing his first comic strip, A Tale of the Jungle Imps, signed Felix Fiddle and based upon poems by George Randolph Chester. His new interest in strips and success as a cartoonist for Life, then edited by J A Mitchell, led to his moving in 1902 to New York, where he began to work for the two New York papers owned by James Gordon Bennett (1841-1918): the New York Herald as McCay and the New York Telegram as "Silas". A remarkable cascade of humorous allegories followed, including A Pilgrim's Progress by Mr Bunion, Hungry Henrietta, Poor Jake and Little Sammy Sneeze. 1904 saw the debut of McCay's nightmarish Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, which carried its characters into a variety of sometimes very frightening dyspepsia-generated dream experiences, an example being the 28 September 1907 strip, in which a super-tug sinks the Lusitania, crosses the Atlantic in less than half an hour, and demolishes the Statue of Liberty; it appeared in book form as Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (graph coll 1905; rev 1973), and complete, with most images taken from original newspaper sources, as The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-1913) by Winsor McCay "Silas" (graph coll 2007).

The success of this strip inspired his masterpiece, Little Nemo in Slumberland, which appeared in the New York Herald (1905-1911), then for the William Randolph Hearst papers under the title In the Land of Wonderful Dreams (1911-1914), then for the Herald-Tribune (1924-1927) under the original title. The first sequence was the most innovative and inspired; after the move to Hearst, the extraordinary expressionist graphics were reduced to a conventional grid, though compensatingly the storylines were more extended. Individual strips from 1905-1911 were soon being reprinted in poster form. Collections included Little Nemo in Slumberland (graph coll 1941) and Little Nemo in The Palace of Ice and Further Adventures By Winsor McCay, 31 Complete Strips in Full Color: Reproduced from The New York Herald, January 20, 1907 – April 28, 1907 and June 9, 1907 – September 22, 1907 (graph coll 1976).

A complete Little Nemo in Slumberland from 1905 through 1914 appeared much later in six volumes, beginning with The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland: Volume 1: 1905-1907 (graph coll 1989) edited by Richard Marschall [for details see Checklist; the final volume was edited by Bill Blackbeard]; an apparently even more complete Little Nemo in Slumberland appeared later as Little Nemo in Slumberland (coll 2007 graph 2vols), including most of the strips from 1924-1927. And the Splendid Sundays sequence, beginning with Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! (graph coll 2005), reprinted selected strips in full (broadsheet) size, revealing much previously unseeable detail.

Many of the episodes from 1905 to 1911 – all drawn in McCay's florid, hallucinatory, meticulously crafted, architectonic, poster-like Art Nouveau style – resembled almost straightforward dream enactments, though in fact, as with Rarebit Fiend, they amounted to a sustained Urban Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] vision of New York. They are, however, distinct from McCay's predecessor strip in that Nemo's more sustained sojourns in Slumberland – sometimes frustrated by his companion/antagonist Flip, who as a member of the Dawn family tries to keep him from the Princess and her dream country – emphasize the aubade structure of each episode, with Nemo increasingly unwilling to awaken, even temporarily, into the next day. Nemo's passive acquiescence to these dreams of his life did not make him a model much used by later authors, the main exception being perhaps Smoky Barnable in John Crowley's Little, Big (1981). Some sustained, increasingly cinematic sequences – like those dealing with Shantytown, with Befuddle Hall, with the cast's entrapment in a country dominated by talking apes (see Apes as Human), who imprison them in a Zoo filled with specimens from Unclesamland, and with a voyage by Airship into outer space during 1909, including a visit to a fantasticated Moon – intermittently displayed an sf-like verisimilitude; as pioneering explorations into the techniques of narrating complex visions through sequential drawings, the strip as a whole was of vital importance.

While busy with Little Nemo, McCay was also able to continue with other graphic work, including many individual drawings, those making up the Spectrophone series of visions of the future being of particular sf interest. After he moved to Hearst, he began concentrating on political cartoons from a conservative point of view; but continued to issue enormously detailed prophetic drawings involving vast Airships, cityscapes and catastrophes. Some of these have been assembled as Daydreams & Nightmares: The Fantastic Visions of Winsor McCay (graph coll 1988) edited by Richard Marschall. Later work, including "Dino", an unpublished comic about a comic Dinosaur, is reproduced and analyzed in Ulrick Merkl's Dinomania: The Lost Art of Winsor McCay, the Secret Origins of King Kong, and the Urge to Destroy New York (2015).

McCay also took a central role in the development of the animated cartoon – indeed, some claim that he invented the art of animation. In whatever medium he worked, he drew with incredible speed; this gave rise to the vaudeville act he presented from 1906, during which he executed a series of 40 chalk drawings, one every 30 seconds, showing a man and a woman ageing while the orchestra played a suitable melody. From here it was a logical step to animation. With astonishing industry, he hand-painted each frame of his cartoons; beginning in 1909 he produced ten short films: Little Nemo (1911), which required circa 4,000 drawings; The Story of a Mosquito (1912; vt How a Mosquito Operates); Gertie, the Dinosaur (1914), which required circa 10,000 drawings and for theatre release was bulked out by a live-action prologue featuring McCay and friends; The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), the most ambitious, requiring circa 25,000 drawings done in much more detail than in the earlier films; The Centaurs, a fantasy film, Flip's Circus and the unfinished Gertie on Tour, these three being done circa 1918-1921 and surviving only as fragments; and three Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend shorts, all released in 1921: The Pet, Bug Vaudeville and The Flying House. In The Pet household animals drink an elixir and swell to huge proportions; a ten-storey Cat ravages a city and, King-Kong-style, is assailed by Airships. Bug Vaudeville is a Silly Symphonies-style (but pre-Disney) fantasy. In The Flying House a couple, escaping their creditors, fit out their house with wings and a propeller and fly off into outer space where, inter alia, they meet a giant on the Moon. It is not certain why McCay gave up animation after these successes, but it was possibly because he thought – wrongly, as was soon proven by Felix the Cat (1919-1930) and Walt Disney's Alice and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1927-1938; 1943) – that animation, as an artform, was a deadend street to whose end he had come; it may also be the case that he was disaffected by the gradual (and inevitable) industrialization of animation, with no one creator responsible for generating a cartoon single-handed. He continued to produce newspaper strips and illustrations, however, until the end of his life.

In more recent years, McCay's popularity has tended to wax and wane periodically, but his influence is undoubtedly still felt, not just within the Comics and animation worlds but in the more general realm of the art of the fantastic; Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) homages Little Nemo throughout his comic but nightmarish In the Night Kitchen (graph 1970). Of notable artists working in the sf field today, Tom Kidd is probably the most obviously influenced, both thematically and visually, by McCay; he has even used the pseudonym Gnemo on some of his published art, and for years has been working on a book called Gnemo: Airships, Adventure, Exploration. Yet the US/Japanese animated movie Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1993), directed by Masami Hata and William Hurtz, developed with the help of Ray Bradbury, featuring Moebius (Jean Giraud) among the scriptwriters and employing the talents of numerous luminaries from today's animation firmament, flopped. It is unclear why this should have been so, since the movie is far from poor, but one probable reason is that it simply caught audiences at the wrong moment. [JC/JGr/SW]

Zenas Winsor McCay

born Canada [possibly West Zorra, Ontario]: 26 September 1867

died New York: 26 July 1934



Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend

The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland

Little Nemo: Splendid Sundays

Little Nemo: individual titles

individual titles

further reading


previous versions of this entry

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