Winsor McCay, Cartoonist and Leader in Early Animation

March 31, 2006

    Animation may seem like a modern innovation, with the computer artists and programmers rendering spectacular cartoon art with texture, movement and fine colouring. It seemed that the traditional methods of animation had gone the way of the Dodo bird, rarely to be seen again, the hand of the illustrator painstakingly drawing the characters and the backgrounds. Earlier this year, Disney Studios announced a reversed in that trend with the decision to create several upcoming animation movies in the tried and true methods of pen to cel. But, long before any of these developments could have been imagined, one of the most ingenious cartoonists brought his own comic strip characters to life on film, entertaining packed audiences of his Vaudeville touring show in 1911. Winsor McCay, creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland, is now seen as a visionary, a man ahead of his time in the field of animation.

   Winsor Zenic McCay was born on September 26, 1871 in Spring Lake, Michigan. Since records were not clear in the 1800s and McCay apparently wasn't either, it is also possible that he was born on September 26, 1867 in Ontario, Canada.

What is clear is that he was an artistic force from a young age. His schooling in art included only a short time at Ypsilanti Normal College, Michigan, in 1888. *(1) He was unable to afford further study and so struck out on his own.

McCay worked for a Cincinnati carnival as a painter and publicist in 1889. When the carnival moved on, he stayed in Cincinnati to become the freak-show poster painter and employee of the Vine Street Dime Museum. In 1898 he was hired as a staff artist illustrating newspaper pages for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. (Newspapers used much more detailed and decorative illustration than today's papers.)

    The Cincinnati Enquirer made use of McCay's distinctive talents to create "A Tale of the Jungle Imps" for their colour Sunday pages, then the New York Herald snapped him up in 1903 to produce two strips aimed at children, "Little Sammy Sneeze" and "Hungry Henrietta". The cartoons he created were in the style of the times, intricately detailed with a depth and design no longer seen. They were a wonder to the readers' eye. Under the alias of "Silas", McCay drew "Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend", a comic strip about dreams and nightmares with an adult theme that included violence, cannibalism and death. During this period, the skilled cartoonist also drew magazine cartoons for Life, did editorial cartoons for other publications, plus devised a huge number of comic strips. "Poor Jake", "Pilgrims Progress", "Midsummer Day Dreams", "Autumn Day Dreams", to name just a few of McCay's creations.

     Little Nemo in Slumberland blinked to life as a much gentler version of "Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend" aimed at "the little folk".  The strips were beautiful pieces of artwork. The comic strip about the vivid, colourful fantasies of a young boy was overflowing with meticulous artistry, surrealism, unusual artistic perspectives and visions of the future. The boy's dreams usually ended by his falling out of bed and blamed on indigestion. Based on McCay's young son, Little Nemo in Slumberland debuted on October 15, 1905 in the New York Herald. The comic strip entertained readers for nine years. It ran briefly again from 1924 to 1926 and once more in reprints in 1947 under the guidance of McCay's son, Robert.

   Undertaking the task of creating of 4,000 hand-drawn and and-coloured 35mm frames from 1908 to 1911, the first film of Little Nemo was a success on the Vaudeville tour. Captivating his audiences, McCay would give talks and demonstrations on paper and chalkboards along with the showing of the cartoon. He went on to draw the thousands of frames needed to make "The Story of a Mosquito" and then in 1914, drew the approximately 10,000 frames needed to create his most successful and endearing 10-minute film "Gertie", a dinosaur story. McCay's most ambitious film was "The Sinking of the Lusitania" requiring the outrageous number of 25,000 hand-drawn frames.

McCay Nemo in slumberland

McCay Gertie

   While he was not the first animator, it is generally noted that McCay opened the door of animation to anthropomorphizing characters and giving personality to animals. Disney and other studios have made part of their fame on giving human traits to animals and inanimate objects. Who hasn't been charmed by Bambi, by singing mice and candlesticks in Cinderella or by brooms, multiplying and marching to chase Mickey Mouse? McCay's work, said R.C. Harvey in his book, "The Art of the Funnies", was seen as "so far ahead of his time that many of the innovations were beyond the abilities of his contemporaries" and that what he had achieved "had to be rediscovered decades later by the next generation of cartoonists." *(2)

   Unhappy with the commercialism of animation and the requirements of deadlines instead of the creation of art, McCay gave up cartoon for films in 1921. He continued to produce editorial cartoons for publication.

   McCay eloped with the young Maude Dufour in 1891, when she was 13 years old. (He was anywhere from 20 to 24 years old and it was a different era.)*(2) They had a son, Robert, who was the inspiration for Little Nemo, and a daughter, Marion. The eminent cartoonist died on July 26, 1934.

   Winsor McCay's mastery of the pen, his deep sense of humour and huge professional talent is not often topped in today's cartooning world. While styles have changed, the work of Winsor McCay still stands as a testament to the fine art of cartooning and animation.


*(1) The Encyclopedia of American Comics: From 1897 to the Present, edited by Ron Goulart, published by Facts on File, 1991, pgs 235-236 and 242-243.


Enjoy the wonderful and amazing artwork of Winsor McCay at this French site and click on Entrer to enter:

Read a fascinating lesson by Winsor McCay in 1919 on creating animation, including photos and diagrams from Animation WorldMagazine:

More biographical information on Winsor McCay:

© Susanna McLeod 2006