Little Nemo by Winsor McCay
'Little Nemo in Slumberland' (28 April 1907).

Winsor McCay is one of the founding fathers of newspaper comics and animated cartoons. An extraordinary virtuose artist, his vivid and technically complex drawings are still impressive today. He lifted both media out of their children's shoes and elevated them into genuine art forms. As a comic artist McCay made several series featuring characters having dreams or nightmares. He devoted large colourful drawings to these fantasy sequences, printed out over entire newspaper pages. Out of all his comics  'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' (1904-1911, 1913) and 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' (1905-1914) are his masterpieces. His inventive use of framing and lay-out was decades ahead of its time. As an animator he adapted his own comics into short films, with equal sophisticated brilliance. His other animated cartoons, 'Gertie the Dinosaur' (1914) and 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' (1917), are cinematic landmarks. He not only pioneered the "inbetweening" technique, but was also the first to achieve realistic movement in animation. Overall, McCay showed the creative possibilities of both comics and animation. Countless visual artists have been influenced by his work, yet rarely equalled his originality and draftmanship. Together with Wilhelm Busch, Lyonel Feininger and George Herriman he is one of the earliest comic pioneers whose work is considered high art.

Political cartoon by Winsor McCay
'His Best Customer' (editorial cartoon, 21 February 1917).

Early life and comics career
Zenas Winsor McCay was born in Spring Lake, Michigan, on 26 September 1869. His father was a retail grocer, notary public and real estate owner. Winsor McCay never completed grade school, but received some early art instruction from one of his teachers. From an early age he enjoyed drawing and impressed spectators with his eye for detail and talent for creating images from memory. He was also an avid reader, particularly enjoying the Bible, William Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats and Percy Shelley. At age 17 he went to Chicago for more art lessons and started designing posters and advertisements for the Kohl & Middleton Dime Museum and Ph. Morton's printing and lithography company. By 1891 McCay moved to Cincinnati, where he became a cartoonist for the Cincinnati Times-Star in 1897, followed by the the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, eventually ending up at the Cincinnati Enquirer. It was there, at the latter paper, that McCay created his first Sunday colour feature,  'A Tale of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle' (1903), which ran between 11 January and 9 November 1903. It was not an original creation but based on a series of poems written by George Randolph Chester. Forty-three episodes appeared in print, but before the final two installments were published McCay had already moved to New York City. There he joined the Evening Telegram and Life Magazine, drawing several cartoons and other illustration work under the pseudonym "Silas". In 1904 he created several short-lived daily comics. 'Mr. Goodenough' lasted between 21 January and 4 March 1904, while 'Sister's Little Sister's Beau' (24 April 1904) and 'Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe's Phunny Phrolics' (28 May 1904) were pure one-shots.

The artwork of these early finger experiments is already stunning and miles ahead of his rivals. Considering the fact that all these comics were created in the winter and spring of 1904 and would be surpassed by the far superior comics, 'Little Sammy Sneeze' and 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' which would debut that very same summer, McCay's artistic progress is mind blowing. He was notorious for being a fast cartoonist who could still draw everything with amazing accuracy. Much of his visual style was inspired by the 'Images Enphantines' illustrated novels and the Art Nouveau movement. 

Little Sammy Sneeze by Winsor McCay
'Little Sammy Sneeze' (9 November 1904).

Little Sammy Sneeze
On 24 July 1904 'Little Sammy Sneeze' debuted in the New York Herald. Every episode revolves around a little boy, Sammy, who has the annoying tendency to sneeze loudly at an inappropriate moment. People in his vicinity panick, fragile objects shatter in many pieces and even the heaviest people, animals or objects suddenly disappear in the air. Sammy's sneezing power is so tremendous that windows break, buildings collapse and elephants are katapulted away. In one memorable gag Sammy even sneezes the very comic strip he appears in to pieces. Most episodes end with him being sent away, often with a kick in the backside. As destructive as Sammy's sneezing may be he sometimes manages to save people's lives or thwart a crime. 'Little Sammy Sneeze' is the first comic strip where McCay's graphic and narrative skills are perfectly in balance. In only six or eight panels per episode he establishes the situation, so the reader has a hunch what mayhem will soon erupt? The actual sneeze always takes place in the penultimate panel, but already from the start we see the boy's nose gradually twitching, while he says: "Ha... HA.... HAAA", building up to the familiar punchline. Newspaper comics running on a thin gimmick and predictable running gag were fairly common in the early days of the medium. Yet McCay's mastery of the pencil makes his comics far more enjoyable. His attention to detail and dynamic portrayal of movement make the exaggerated situations all the funnier and believable. 'Little Sammy Sneeze' was the artist's breakthrough. Not only did the series last longer than his previous efforts: it was also his first comic to be translated abroad. In France it enjoyed popularity as 'Petit Sammy Éternue'. Little Sammy sneezed for the last time on 9 December 1906. The character paved the way for similar creations, such as Walt Disney's Sneezy the dwarf.  

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend
The idea for McCay's longest-running comics series, 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' (1904-1911, 1913), came about when McCay drew a comic strip about a cigarette addict who finds himself stuck on the North Pole, only to discover it was just a nightmare. McCay's publisher liked the idea of a comic strip featuring dream sequences. An important predecessor was Charles Reese's 'Drowsy Dick's Dime Novel Dream' (1902), though a more major inspiration was Harle Oren Cummins' novel 'Welsh Rarebit Tales' (1902). In Cummins' stories the characters all suffer from bad dreams after having eaten the dish Welsh rarebit. People who consume a heavy meal like this before sleeping usually have a restless sleep. The first installment of 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' was published on 10 September 1904 in the Evening Telegram. Every episode follows the same pattern: somebody has a weird dream, which eventually turns into a nightmare. Afterwards they are are brutally awakened. The variation comes from the fact that each time we see a different character suffering from a different kind of nightmare. Some are asleep at night, others daydream behind their desk or doze off in public. Some dreams are played for laughs. In one episode a man discovers he and everybody else suddenly have antlers. In another gag a man dreams he is a Mormon in Utah. At first he enjoys having multiple wives... until they all start nagging about money.

Other dreams are more disturbing. In one episode a man dreams he's being buried alive, made all the more frightening by the fact that everything is shown from the perspective of people standing over his grave. In another episode the Earth starts shrinking, leaving the final man on the planet hanging underneath it by a thread. In a very famous gag a man dreams he is sucked dry by a colossal mosquito. Thanks to McCay's artistic skills even the most fantastic and logic-defying scenes look very convincing. 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' lasted until 25 June 1911. Between 19 January and 3 August 1913 it was revived in the New York Herald and again in 1923-1925 under the new title 'Rarebit Reveries'. In 1906 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' was adapted into a live-action film by Edwin S. Porter, director of 'The Great Train Robbery' (1903). McCay himself later adapted four of his episodes into animated shorts. Thomas W. Thurban also wrote a musical piece, 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' (1907). 

Little Nemo by Winsor McCay
'Little Nemo in Slumberland' (26 November 1905).

Little Nemo in Slumberland
On 10 December 1904, 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' featured a little boy, Nemo, who, nearly a year later on 15 October 1905, received his own spin-off series, 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' (1905-1914) in The New York Herald. The character was inspired by McCay's own son, Bob McCay. Just like 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' the comic strip stars a protagonist falling asleep and awakening from a nightmare. Yet 'Little Nemo' was more intended as a children's series and follows a continuous narrative. The early episodes have a stop-and-start format. As Nemo dreams, he wanders through Slumberland until he finds himself in a nightmare situation from which he brutally wakes up. Yet the storyline continues in the next episode, always interrupted by him falling out of bed in fear - which has become one of the most iconic scenes in comic history. In an equally famous moment Nemo's bed sprouts legs and walks outside into the starry night. He meets a green, cigar-smoking dwarf in a big hat named Flip. At first he is untrustworthy and often gets Nemo into trouble. Yet later he becomes a good friend. Another recurring character is Imp, a black African in a grass skirt with cannibalistic tendencies. Imp was in many ways a hangover from McCay's previous comics series, 'A Tale of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle' (1903). Nemo eventually visits Slumberland, where King Morpheus has summoned him to become a playmate for his princess daughter. There he gets caught up in all kinds of epic adventures, the stuff that dreams are made of...

McCay took full advantage of his Sunday pages. He experimented with colour, perspective and even the lay-out of the pages. The panels often change size or shape to compliment what happens in the story. A Thanksgiving episode, for instance, has a gigantic turkey devouring Nemo's house. The bird itself is shown as a central image inside a circle to show its monstrosity. Around the circle we see Nemo falling down. All stories rank among the most imaginative and memorable of all early 20th century comic strips. 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' is also the earliest example of a comic strip receiving serious attention from critics and being perceived as actual art. In 1905 and 1907-1910 it was adapted into a theatrical play. McCay himself adapted 'Little Nemo' into a 1911 animated short. Two attempts have been made to adapt 'Little Nemo' into an feature film, which both failed. Arnaud Sélignac's 'Nemo' (1984) starred Harvey Keitel as Flip and changed a a lot about the original narrative. Masami Hata and William Hurtz made a 1989 animated feature film, 'Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland' (1989), which ended up as a chaotic mess, despite contributions by such legends as Moebius and Hayao Miyazaki. The comic furthermore inspired children's storybooks, video games and a 2012 opera. In 1995 it was honoured with a postage stamp.

Reception of McCay's 'dream sequence' comics
Both 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' as well as 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' always remained McCay's most succesful comics series and captured readers' imagination like no other comic strip had quite done up to that point. Audiences were swept away by the marvellous visuals. Contrary to most other comics at the time these were not crudely drawn slapstick gags, but mezmerizing, epic tales on a grandiose scale. Both comics happened to follow in the wake of Sigmund Freud's psycho-analytical books, such as 'Die Traumdeutung' ('Interpretation of Dreams', 1900), which sparked more academic and public interest in dreams and their deeper meaning. As such McCay's comics were considered very topical. Children could relate to the overpowering dream worlds in 'Little Nemo' while 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' delved into more adult fears and sexual undertones. McCay depicted many recognizable nightmares, such as walking nude in public, dying, going to Hell, falling to your doom, losing body parts, morphing into something else, being chased or eaten by animals or monsters,... Some readers of 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' even sent in examples of their own dreams, which McCay occasionally adapted into a next episode, crediting the reader in the final panel. One of them was future celebrity SF novelist Hugo Gernsback, who was still a child at the time. 

Hungry Henrietta, by Winsor McCay 1905
'Hungry Henrietta' (1905).

The Story of Hungry Henrietta
'The Story of Hungry Henrietta' (1905), which ran between 8 January and 16 July 1905, revolves around a little baby, Henrietta, whom the readers see age progressively in every episode. Comics characters who age throughout a series havz always been a rare phenomenon and in 1905 the concept was even more novel than today. The same could be said about Henrietta's gender. After Charles Keene's 'Miss Lavinia Brounjones' (1866), Gene Carr's 'Lady Bountiful' (1901) and Grace Drayton's 'Toddles' (1903-1933, later renamed 'Dolly Dimples') Henrietta was one of the first female protagonists in a comic strip.  Only a month after Henrietta's debut the most iconic female comics star of the pioneer years would first appear in print: Caumery and Émile-Joseph Pinchon's 'Bécassine' (1905). Henrietta is constantly fed by her parents and family members, until she eats practically anything in her vicinity. Yet all the little girl ever wants is actual love and care. McCay was said to have based her on his own daughter, Marion. Given that the workaholic cartoonist barely had time for his family it may have been an expression of his guilt. In 1975 'Hungry Henrietta' inspired the name of a restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium, which still sports a frame from the eponymous comic strip in their logo. 

A Pilgrim's Progress by Mister Bunion
Between 26 June 1905 and 4 May 1909 (with a four month hiatus in 1906) McCay created 'A Pilgrim's Progress by Mister Bunion' (1905-1909) for The Evening Telegram. The title pointed out that while the comic strip was inspired by John Bunyan's classic novel 'The Pilgrim's Progress' (1678), it still was a different take on the story. In Bunyan's allegory a Christian travels with a package called 'Sin' to a place of salvation. In McCay's comic strip a character named Mr. Bunion also carries a bag with a title, 'Dull Care', and seeks to find a street named 'Glad Avenue'. The running gag is that he always tries to get rid of this bag of metaphorical problems, but it always finds a way to return. What makes this comic interesting - other than McCay's top notch artwork - is the deep philosophical and humanistic edge. Compared with most other newspaper comics at the time it actually transcends typical slapstick formulas. It's also notable for featuring one of the first instances of a celebrity cameo: in one episode Bunion dreams he can help U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Poor Jake
'Poor Jake' (1909-1911) featured a laborer being exploited by an emotionless Colonel and his wife. The latter strip is often seen as a reflection of McCay's own profession in regard to all the money others made off his creations.

Buster Brown
In 1910 McCay allegedly also drew a couple of episodes of 'Buster Brown'. The character was originally created by Richard F. Outcault, who had left for the New York American in 1906. The Herald continued the series until 1911 with a host of anonymous artists, most notably Will Lawler.

Little Nemo by Winsor McCay
'Little Nemo' (1910).

In the Land of Wonderful Dreams
In 1911, McCay left The New York Herald and moved to the New York American, owned by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. He won a lawsuit that allowed him to continue using the characters from 'Little Nemo', but under a different title: 'In the Land of Wonderful Dreams'. The first episode debuted on 3 September 1911, but only lasted until 26 December 1914.  Although McCay's art grew ever more beautiful, a lot of McCay's inventiveness in this reboot of 'Little Nemo' seems to have vanished. Luckily, McCay's contract with Hearst expired in 1924, so McCay quickly went back to the Herald to have one last crack at 'Little Nemo'. Unfortunately, McCay never finished this series, and it was cancelled on 26 December 1926. He then did press illustrations for the Hearst papers until his death in 1934. In the late 1930s and 1940s, McCay's son Robert tried to revive 'Little Nemo' through the Chesler shop and comic books, but with little success.

Little Nemo by Winsor McCay
'Little Nemo in Slumberland' (13 September 1908).

Animation career
McCay was also a pioneer of animated cartoons. In 1906 he performed as a vaudeville entertainer, drawing sequential sketches on a chalkboard in front of a live audience. In 1911 he started making animated shorts, such as 'Little Nemo' (1911), 'How a Mosquito Operates' (1912), 'Bug Vaudeville' (1921), 'The Pet' (1921) and 'The Flying House' (1921). All five were adaptations of episodes of 'Little Nemo' and 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend'. According to an urban legend, his career in animation was the result of a bet with cartoonist George McManus, who claimed he couldn't produce enough line drawings to sustain a four- or five minute theatrical short. While Winsor McCay was not the first professional animator in history (that title should go to John Stuart Blackton and Émile Cohl), his work was just as groundbreaking for the medium as his contributions for the comics genre. His animation was more technically skilled than his predecessors, with eye for anatomy, perspective and continuity. Instead of stiff stick figures he used fully rendered characters who move smoothly and realistically. At the time, some people in the audience couldn't even believe it was all hand drawn and thought he had used trick photography with real-life actors.

Little Nemo by Winsor McCay
'Little Nemo in Slumberland' (3 December 1905).

Gertie the Dinosaur 
To demolish such unbelief and accusations, McCay made 'Gertie the Dinosaur' (1914), in which he used a character that couldn't be faked in real life: a brontosaurus. A landmark in animation, it was the first cartoon with detailed backgrounds and built around the personality of a character. Gertie is invited by her keeper to do all kinds of tricks, but she is very unpredictable. Sometimes she is distracted by a passing mammoth, other times she disobeys her master and at one point she starts crying. The movie pioneered innovations that are still used in animation today, such as "inbetweening" (drawing images between a pose). Historically 'Gertie the Dinosaur' is also significant as the first convincing dinosaur movie and the first animated cartoon to star a female character. 

The Sinking of the Lusitania
Another impressive work by McCay was 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' (1917), based on the German bombing of an American ship, which motivated the USA to get involved into the First World War. The animated short was notable for not being based on a humorous fantasy. It featured the bombing and sinking of the ship, depicted in real time. A technical "tour de force", the film was the first attempt to mimick real-life movement and can be seen as the earliest example of animation specifically aimed at an adult audience. It also pioneered cel animation. Even in terms of live-action film making it was a landmark, filming from angles that regular movie cameras couldn't imitate at the time. 

What makes McCay's efforts particularly astounding is the fact that he drew most of the images in these cartoons himself, by hand. Only for 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' he received assistance from cartoonists John Fitzsimmons and William Apthorp "Ap" Adams. They were so sophisticated for their time that it would take almost 25 years before they were equalled and surpassed. Even today, they still amaze audiences. Three of his animated films were added to the United States National Film Registry for their "cultural, historical and aesthetical significance", namely 'Gertie the Dinosaur' in 1991, 'Little Nemo' in 2009 and 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' in 2017. 

Gertie the dinosaur
Cell from 'Gertie the Dinosaur' (1914).

Personal life
In his private life McCay was less happy. He was married to a very dominant wife and was such a workaholic that he barely had time for his family. His brother Arthur ended up in a mental asylum, while McCay's son Robert served during the First World War and suffered shell shock as a result. Winsor McCay often felt underpaid and belittled by William Randolph Hearst, who forced him to quit doing vaudeville and animation in order to focus on creating newspaper comics. In 1927 McCay obtained the rights to 'Little Nemo', but The Herald Tribune only paid him one symbolic dollar for it. The same year he was honoured at a dinner in New York to celebrate his pioneering role in animation, but the drunk veteran started insulting the audience by claiming they had turned the artform into a trade. 

It's notable that many of McCay's comics have a rather melancholic undertone. Many children in his series are sad loners who lack love from adults. 'Hungry Henrietta' stuffs herself with food to compensate. Little Sammy Sneeze is kicked for merely sneezing, while Nemo can never fall out of his bed at night without his parents screaming at him or being concerned whether it's healthy for a kid like him to be doing that every night. 'Dream of a Rarebit Fiend' occasionally provides bitter social commentary on class, marriage or work. In one episode McCay depicts himself with a head swelling up by constant nagging from other people, until it explodes.

In 1934 McCay died of a cerebral embolism. A large chunk of his original drawings were destroyed in a fire in the late 1930s. Much of his original film prints deteriorated as they were photographed on 35mm nitrate film. Luckily copies are still available.

Little Nemo in Slumberland (29 October 1905)
'Little Nemo in Slumberland' (29 October 1905).

Legacy and influence
Winsor McCay was an enormous influence on many artists, to the point that his work can't be overlooked in the history of graphic arts. Already in the 1900s and 1910s there were cartoonists imitating his style and familiar "waking up from an imaginative dream" concept, like Gene Carr and later William Steinigans' 'Bad Dream That Made Bill A Better Boy' (1905-1911), Marion T. Ross's 'Mamma's Angel Child', David Bueno de Mesquita's 'De Geschiedenis van Gulzigen Tobias' (1910), Bit's 'The French Nanny's Dream' (1911), Frank King's 'Bobby Make-Believe' (1915-1919) and, decades later, Max Trell and Neil O'Keeffe's 'Dick’s Adventures in Dreamland' (1947-1956). Winsor McCay's comics and animated cartoons still baffle audiences and professional graphic artists alike, particularly because of their high-quality level. Particularly in the case of his newspaper comics it's remarkable that he managed to maintain his own high standards despite high productivity. He inspired people like Peter Newell, Frank King, Clare Briggs, George McManus, Hergé, Walt Disney, Paul TerryMax Fleischer, Walter Lantz, Chuck Jones, Otto Soglow, Victor BergdahlErich F.T. SchenkCarl Barks, Tex Avery, Federico Fellini, Maurice Sendak, William Joyce, Moebius, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Rick Veitch, Alan Moore, Berke Breathed, Bill Watterson, Olivier Schrauwen, François Schuiten, Chris Ware, Peter van Straaten, Rick Tulka. WascoBen GijsemansPeter & Maria Hoey..

Self-portrait of a young Winsor McCay.

Direct homages can be found in 'Nic' (1980-1984) by Hermann and Morphée, as well as Makyo's 'Le Roi Rodonnal' (1982), both published in the Belgian magazine Spirou. In 2014 and 2016 the Belgian artist Frank Pé and Éditions Toth released two luxury books with 'Little Nemo' homages in a style closely approaching McCay's original. A single volume collection was published by Dupuis in 2020. In 1994 an unofficial "sequel" to 'Little Nemo' was published by Casterman. The artwork was provided by Bruno Marchand and the story by Moebius. Three more books followed in 1995, 2000 and 2002, with the latter two written by Marchand alone. Another attempt at a sequel was Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez' 'Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland' (2014). Richard Thompson's 'Cul de Sac' (2004-2012) featured the parody 'Little Neuro', about a boy too lazy to leave his bed. Kim Deitch and Simon Deitch's 'The Boulevard of Broken Dreams' (2002) also pays debt to McCay's innovations. Also notable are the erotic parodies 'Little Nympho in Slumberland' (1971) by Brian Bolland and 'Little Ego' (1983-1989) by Vittorio GiardinoJean-Philippe Bramanti and Thierry Smolderen created the ultimate tribute when they made a biopic about McCay's life in comic strip form: 'Mac Cay' (2000-2006). In 2014 R.C. Harvey wrote the monograph 'The Genius of Winsor McCay' (1998).

McCay lives on in the annual Winsor McCay Award (of which he became a posthumous winner in 1974) and the NEMO Award. In 2002 an asteroid was named after him. McCay's spiritual successor might be Bill Plympton, who also gained notability for making animated cartoons with little to no assistance. Winsor McCay's son, Bob McCay, was also active as a cartoonist. 

Books about Winsor McCay
For those interested in Winsor McCay's life and career Katherine Roeder's 'Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay' (University Press of Mississippi, 2013) and John Canemaker's 'Winsor McCay: His Life and Art' (Abrams Books, 1987, 2005, 2018, third revised edition) are highly recommended.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay

Series and books by Winsor McCay in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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