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Winsor McCay

 (1869/71 - 1934)
Winsor Zenic McCay was active/lived in New York, Ohio, Michigan.  Winsor McCay is known for comic strip, animated cartoon.

Winsor McCay

Biography from the Archives of askART

Winsor McCay is regarded by many as the first great master of both the comic strip and the animated cartoon.  He is best known for his strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, whose visual elegance and thematic originality set a high watermark never surpassed in the medium.

Born Winsor Zenic McCay in Spring Lake, Michigan, in either 1869 or 1871, he studied art briefly in 1888 at Ypsilanti Normal College.  Unable to afford further art instruction, McCay found work painting signs and illustrating for theatrical productions and traveling circuses, an exposure to fantasy illustration that was to prepare him for his later career in the comics.  In 1889, he went to Cincinnati and created posters for a carnival.  He became a full-time employee of the Vine Street Dime Museum, drawing freaks so dramatically that the editor of the Cincinnati Times Star hired him as a staff artist in 1897.

His duties at the Times included illustrating the news, sports events, criminal trials, occasional advertisements and fiction, and drawing political cartoons.  The next year, he was transferred to the Commercial Gazette; in 1893, he moved to the Enquirer.

In January 1903, McCay created his first Sunday color page, a 43-panel sequence illustrating a verse text by Enquirer Sunday editor George Randolph Chester.  It was called A Tale of the Jungle Imps. Patterned after Kiplings Just So Stories, which had appeared the year before, each Sunday installment recounted how some animal got its most striking feature, as observed by mischievous little black natives.  The feature ran through November of that year.

During this period, McCay was also selling work to several national magazines such as Life.  In 1903, publisher James Gordon Bennett invited McCay to come to New York and work for him.  He became an illustrator, at a much-increased salary, on Bennetts New York Evening Telegram, and that led to his doing comic strips for his morning Herald.  McCay worked for Bennett's papers for the next eight years, during which time he created an astonishing flood of strips.  Among them were Pilgrims Progress (by "Mr. Bunion"), Poor Jake, Day Dreams, and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend. All were signed "Silas" because McCays contract with Bennett did not permit him to use his real name until 1905.

Later using his own signature, he drew Dreams of a Lobster Fiend, It Was Only a Dream, Midsummer Day Dreams, Autumn Day Dreams, Oh! My Poor Nerves, and Mr. Bosh, The Faithful Employee, Little Sammy Sneeze, Hungry Henrietta, and many others.  Most were fantastic rather than satiric.  Sammy Sneeze (1904) destroyed buildings with his volcanic sneezes, Hungry Henrietta (1905) was a bulimic infant who could consume anything, and the strips about dreams were the themes that became McCay's trademark.  They depicted weird and often disquieting sleep visions.

Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend dealt with dreams in a particularly frightening way, including such macabre elements as deformity, cannibalism, dismemberment, and death.  It was, nonetheless, popular enough to prompt Frederick A. Stokes to publish a collection in 1905 (the same year Stokes brought out a volume of Little Sammy Sneeze); Edwin S. Porter produced a live film of it in 1906.

The Rarebit Fiend was an adult feature, but it inspired McCay to attempt the same idea "to please the little folk," and in 1905, he created his masterpiece, Little Nemo in Slumberland.  Modeled after his son Robert, Nemo had a weekly adventure in the land of dreams, a gorgeous setting quite unlike the grim contemporary world of the Rarebit Fiend's nightmares.  At the end of many episodes, Nemo falls out of bed and one of his parents diagnoses his trouble as resulting from overindulgence in rich (and often improbable) food, ranging from peanuts to raw onions with ice cream.

Little Nemo made a spectacular entrance.  The plot of the series was simple, a young boy of five cavalcading through stars and fantastic animals, each morning being brought back down to earth by the rude shock of awakening.  The cast of characters included Flip, a green-faced dwarf, and Impy, a grass-skirted cannibal.  The Princess of Slumberland presented an image of feminine poise and grace, midst the weird surroundings of her kingdom.  McCay's imagery was also greatly enhanced by his use of color.

McCay is credited with the single-handed invention of film animation, and did more than anyone to popularize the medium and widen its range of possibilities.  From 1908 to 1911, he created 4,000 drawings, each hand colored on its 35 mm frame.  He toured on the vaudeville circuit with his animated version of Little Nemo in 1911.  It met with such great success that in 1912 he created another, The Story of a Mosquito. Unlike Nemo, this film had a plot a mosquito overeats (again the perils of gluttony) and explodes.  In 1914, McCay released his third and most successful animated film, Gertie, the Trained Dinosaur.  He produced at least seven more films. The most notable was The Sinking of the Lusitania, with 25,000 frames -- the first of such length; in 1917, he toured with them all, giving lectures and demonstrations as part of his act.

In 1911 McCay left Bennett's Herald Company, enticed by the siren song and higher salary of William Randolph Hearst and his New York American.  Before leaving the Herald though, McCay made a grand tour of all the North American cities where Little Nemo was published.

He continued Little Nemo in the Hearst papers until 1914.  The Nemo series was then known as In the Land of Wonderful Dreams.  McCay's inventiveness seemed to wane though, despite his awesome mastery of line and color.  His work became more a disconnected gallery of beautiful pictures with no narrative peg on which to hang them.  Hearst kept him busy doing editorial cartoons, but his career as a comic strip artist soon drew to a close.

In 1924, after his ten-year contract with Hearst ended, he went back to the Herald (by then the Herald-Tribune) and revived Nemo for three years.  The born-again page had lost its dazzle though, and ended in 1926.  He returned to Hearst to draw more editorial cartoons for Arthur Brisbane's conservative editorials.  Along with these political statements, he drew large, meticulously executed, Sunday illustrations of moral ideas.  However, the subject matter of education, the danger of drugs and alcohol, and the values of hard work lacked imagination.

The graphic sophistication of McCay's best work, influenced by book illustrations and the then current Art Nouveau style, is unparalleled in American comics.  An innovator from the beginning, he opened up new horizons to the strip-artist, exploring different formats and compositions for the first time.

Winsor McCay died in 1934.  In 1947, his son Robert tried to revive his fathers strip for syndication, but this last effort met with almost no success.

Written and copyrighted by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr.

Work by Winsor McCay is part of the exhibition Masters of American Comics sponsored jointly in Los Angeles by the Hammer Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art from November 20, 2005 to March 12, 2006.

Biography from Museum of Modern Art, New York
November 17, 2005: Museum of Modern Art, New York City

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Little Nemo—the boy dreamer in Winsor McCay's groundbreaking 1905 comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland and his 1911 film adaptation—the Department of Film and Media presents a special evening about McCay by acclaimed animation filmmaker and historian John Canemaker.

The lecture is illustrated with stunning images from Canemaker's newly expanded biography of the pioneering animator (Harry N. Abrams, 2005), followed by a screening of four of McCay's greatest films: Little Nemo (1911), How a Mosquito Operates (1912), Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918).

Canemaker observes, "Little Nemo in Slumberland was unlike any comic strip seen before or since and, for Winsor McCay it represented a major creative leap, one far grander in scope, imagination, color, design, and motion experimentation than any previous McCay comic strip (or those of his peers)." Following the presentation, Canemaker signs copies of Winsor McCay—His Life and Art.

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Assistant Curator, Department of Film and Media. Special thanks to the Cinémathèque Québécoise for the loan of restored prints.

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About  Winsor McCay

Born:  1869/71 - Spring Lake, Michigan
Died:   1934
Known for:  comic strip, animated cartoon

Essays referring to
Winsor McCay

Cartoon Drawing