Winsor McCay signature McCay is in
issues #2 & 4 of
Black and White ImageS

Winsor McCay + Little Nemo = fame and fortune.
The End.

Not quite that easy. For starters, McCay was born in 1867 (the same year as Frank Brangwyn, Arthur Rackham and Sidney Sime) and had an eccentric and checkered career behind him when he moved to New York in 1903. It still wasn't until two years later, at the age of 38, that he started the Little Nemo Sunday comic strip in October of 1905. In his very excellent Winsor McCay - His Life and Art, John Canemaker chronicles his prolific, inventive, strange and often heart-breaking career. I summarize below.

Winsor McCay Photo - 1906
Winsor McCay c.1906
(collection of Ray Winsor Moniz)

Winsor McCay was born Zenas Winsor McKay in 1867, probably in Canada. He was named after his father's employer and he quickly dropped Zenas in favor of Winsor. He was raised in Michigan, where he commenced drawing at a prodigiously early age. And never stopped. At the age of 13 he drew a picture of shipwreck on the school blackboard and it was photographed and copies sold. His attention to (and memory of) detail was amazing. Winsor McCay, the boy, loved to draw and was very good at it.

So how come some families embrace their artistic children and others go out of their way to suppress them? McCay's father (who by now had dropped the "K" in favor of the "C") belonged to the latter group. At the age of 19, he enrolled Winsor in a business school in order to learn a real trade (just like Arthur Rackham's family tried to turn him into a clerk). Young Winsor chafed at the lessons (when he attended) but reveled in being 100 miles distant from his family and that much closer to Detroit.

One of the normal forms of entertainment of the day was the Dime Museum. These establishments were designed to separate people from their money. Part circus, part amusement park and part vaudeville, they featured both transient and permanent acts and exhibits. McCay's first job that earned him money from his art was at Wonderland in Detroit where he was hired to draw portraits of the customers for 25¢ each. His facility for observation and his amazing ability to draw quickly made him a popular 'attraction.' It also brought out his intense desire to please with his art. He really needed to draw, but even more he needed the approbation. He got some from the customers, but more importantly, he took some extracurricular drawing lessons from a local instructor who thought highly of his work. The teacher's forte was perspective and McCay had to have been the star pupil judging from the good use to which he put the lessons later in life.

Winsor McCay - Little Nemo perspective
Little Nemo June 17, 1906

But I'm getting ahead of myself. McCay left Michigan for Chicago in 1889 where he worked for a printer and roomed with Jules Guerin. In 1891 he moved to Cincinnati. There he settled into the only type of work he knew - he went to work as a staff artist for a local dime museum. He married, had two children, and took on extra work painting signs and, eventually, making drawings for a local newspaper. It was there that he first developed his skill with a pen - everything up to that point had been crafted with pencil and brush. He also supplemented his income by submitting drawings to the humor magazine, Life, beginning in 1899.

Winsor McCay - Life magazine

One of Canemaker's favorites from Life, and mine as well (and Harvey Kurtzman liked it enough to reprint it in an issue of Help!, too), is a six-panel masterpiece that anticipates cinemascope, camera tracks and pans, and even special effects. This was 1903 and McCay was obviously ready for the big time. As Canemaker points out, his accurate renditions of galloping horses indicate a familiarity with Eadweard Muybridge's photographic motion studies of 1887. Few cartoonists had mastered the cartoon pacing and motion better than McCay at this time, and his one foray into the Sunday comic strip, Tale of the Jungle Imps was equally advanced. He was just a small-town, hard-working artist from Cincinatti. What could he do in New York?

Winsor McCay - Little Sammy SneezeAn invitation to take a job at the New York Herald prompted McCay to find out. In late 1903, he relocated and began the most prolific chapter of his cartooning life. From 1904-1911, McCay produced a string of comic strips that have overridden many of his other accomplishments. While I would never minimize the value of his comic strip work, you have to understand that McCay was driven to draw. Whatever those inner demons were, he was compelled by them to draw and draw and draw. His output during these eight years surpasses the lifetime work of some equally famous cartoonists.

In early 1904, there were three abortive attempts at newspaper strips: Mr. Goodenough, Sister's Little Sister's Beau, and The Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe Phunny Phrolics. The real explosion of effort began, appropriately enough, with Little Sammy Sneeze.

Winsor McCay - Rarebit FiendLittle Sammy sneezed every Sunday from July 24, 1904 to December 9, 1906. Since everyone knew what was going to happen in each strip, it was the build-up that mattered. Each strip was exactly six panels with the last reserved for Sammy's comeuppance, so pacing was everything. And it worked for 2½ years.

Not content to do just one strip, he began Dream of the Rarebit Fiend on September 10, 1904. His most successful strip, this ran until June 25, 1911. It was for a different paper and signed "Silas". Dream was a thoroughly adult strip devoted to adult nightmares and phobias - all caused by overindulging in Welsh rarebit (or cheese pie) just before bed. At right, it's the size of the new hat and the husband's imagined reaction that disrupts the wife's sleep.

For all the sophistication of McCay's drawings, the other aspects of his strips were never very polished. The word balloons and lettering were always merely adequate and the writing seemed to be an afterthought, hurriedly composed to carry a visual joke.

Still not drawing enough, McCay created The Story of Hungry Henrietta from January 8 through July 16, 1905. In a very modern take on child-rearing, this was the story of a young girl raised by a loud and self-absorbed family that continues to proffer food in place of love. Henrietta is happiest in the last panel when she's given a treat instead of a hug.

In search of salve for the drawing demon, McCay began A Pilgrim's Progress on June 26, 1905. It ran for more than five years, ending on December 18, 1910.

All of these strips were formula based, requiring only a new setting for Sammy to sneeze at, a new nightmare to exaggerate, another situation for the parents to ignore Henrietta's real needs, and another attempt by Mr. Bunion to rid himself of the valise of 'Dull Care'. This formulaic approach allowed McCay to invest all of his creativity in the drawing. Even the panel shapes and sizes of each strip were fairly stable (with Rarebit Fiend being the most experimental). So with three strips running each week in two different newspapers, as well as other daily cartoons and drawings for the Herald, McCay was finally ready to create his masterpiece. And on October 15, 1905, Little Nemo in Slumberland debuted.

Winsor McCay - Little Nemo

Simply put, Little Nemo revolutionized the comic strip. At 38, McCay was at the very peak of his talent and the New York Herald had the most talented and creative color printing staff in the business. Together they crafted a weekly fantasy that week by week revealed Slumberland to be more magical than even L. Frank Baum's Oz (created in 1899) and more wonderful than Lewis Carroll's Wonderland (1865). Books and websites abound praising Nemo far more than I could possibly do in this short bio. Nemo was published in the New York Herald until July 23, 1911. The strips have been reprinted many times. Find them and lose yourself in this masterpiece. It wasn't syndicated, so the fame of the strip is based on the readers of just one paper.

Well, not entirely. 1905 was the heyday of vaudeville and a frequent feature was the chalk-talk artist - an artist who could stand in front of an audience and draw on a chalk board. Nemo was an immediate hit and McCay, who liked nothing better than to draw (and never seemed to have enough money, no matter how much he made), took to the boards on June 11, 1906. He was a hit, there, too. As his bookings along the east coast increased, so did the logistical difficulties of producing three weekly comic strips and other drawings for the papers. Many strips from this period were drawn in backstage dressing rooms and in hotels as he toured with his act. When Little Nemo made it to Broadway in 1908, McCay was performing his chalk-talk across the street and had to miss a portion of opening night. The approbation of the live audience was just as crucial to him as the regard of those watching the musical based on his work.

Winsor McCay -  Gertie the DinosaurWithin five years of arriving in New York, McCay had become one of the top artists and performers in the city. Both his comic strips and his vaudeville act were based on pacing and movement. He was about to combine all of these elements into one new art - the animated cartoon.

While he wasn't the first person to make an animated cartoon, he was the man who defined the industry. The quality of his cartoons would not be matched for another 25 years. His pacing and understanding of the medium was far ahead of his time. And he drew all of the 4,000 cels of his first film, Little Nemo, (natch!) himself! This while he was still drawing his three strips and performing his vaudeville act. The Little Nemo film was released to theater and used in his act, as was his second, How a Mosquito Operates - this 6,000 drawings long. When these films were released into wider distribution, McCay's fame spread, especially to the fledgling animation community.

When the Herald rejected his request to take some time off to go perform in Europe, McCay waited until his contract was up and jumped over to the Hearst paper, The American, in July of 1911. The Herald lost its star of three strips, and McCay lost his freedom.

All McCay wanted to do was draw. All Hearst wanted was someone who did as he was told. Drawing meant performing to McCay and it meant expanding his knowledge of animation. Nemo was published in the Hearst papers under the title In the Land of Wonderful Dreams, since the Herald owned the Nemo name. The coloring was less than what he was used to and he was devoting most of his energy to his next animated film, Gertie the Dinosaur. The lack of attention showed, especially in blandness of the 27 daily strips he created for Hearst from 1911 to 1913. His editorial cartoons were masterpieces of pen work, and that's where Hearst decided to relegate his talents.

On December 13, 1913, he was told by his employer that he was to give up his comic strips and do "serious" editorial work. In February of 1914, Gertie debuted to stunning reviews. McCay projected the film on his white sketch pad and in a carefully choreographed sequence interacted with the animated dinosaur and actually joins her on screen for the finale. A filmed opening was attached to the animation for theater distribution. (See above for one drawing from the thousands he made to create the film.)

Winsor McCay - pre-war editorial cartoon

McCay's east coast vaudeville bookings began to dry up as Hearst made it known to the proprietors that he would 'prefer' that they not engage McCay. In 1914, McCay signed a contract with Hearst not to appear outside of New York City. Now all McCay had to look forward to each day was a compulsory appearance at the newspaper office and making pen & ink editorial cartoons that stretched across all eight columns of the editorial page. These large drawings needed lots of visual interest since most of the editorial stances they illustrated were fairly simplistic. A world war was coming and Hearst was agin it.

Winsor McCay - 1923 editorial drawingMcCay's personal beliefs are often considered to be reflected by these editorial drawings. While I don't claim special knowledge of his mindset, I do know that his last major animated film was a recreation of the sinking of the Lusitania and amounted to a call to arms. Hearst and his editor Arthur Brisbane actually lobbied in the paper for an understanding of Germany's position on the matter. I can't imagine a more repressive occupation than being forced to put forth a public face that was the opposite of your own. The lack of humor in all of these drawings must have been depressing, too. But the drawings, themselves, were magnificent. Click the image at left for a sad sample of a great talent in the service of a small idea.

In 1924 he left Hearst and returned to the now Herald Tribune and tried to revive Little Nemo. It lasted for two years, but proved to be out of touch with the public. McCay was allowed to purchase all rights to the character for $1 - a magnanimous gesture that doubled as a sad evaluation of his efforts.

He died in 1934 after spending his last eight years back at the American drawing editorial cartoons for Arthur Brisbane. McCay was a light-hearted man who just wanted to make beautiful pictures. He wanted animation to be an art. He wanted newspaper strips to appeal to the eye and the soul. He wanted to draw. No matter how many barriers stood in his way, he managed to accomplish that. Still, he's best remembered for one strip he drew for only six years. That alone would have been a magnificent legacy. Thankfully, there is so much more.


To learn more about Winsor McCay, see:

Winsor McCay - His Life and Art John Canemaker, 1987 Abbeville
Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays Peter Maresca, 2005 Sunday Press
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2000
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of ImageS B&W 2,4 Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2004, 2008 JVJ Publishing

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This page written, designed & © 2000 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.

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