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

Winsor McCay was one of the founding fathers of the US newspaper comic. His 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' Sunday page, with its world of magic, fantasy and dreams, visual virtuosity and inventive use of frames and page lay-out has not been equalled. But McCay's other comics, like 'Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend', also still stand out for their originality and artistic quality. In addition, McCay was a pioneer in animation art as well, and his 1914 film 'Gertie the Dinosaur' stands as the first commercial successful animated cartoon. Notable about most of McCay's strips is that the main characters have no leading role in it, the events are merely happening around them.

Political cartoon by Winsor McCay
Political cartoon

Zenas Winsor McCay was born in Spring Lake, Michigan, on 26 September 1869. He 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 accuracy for detail and talent for creating images from memory. After going to Chicago at age seventeen (to draw posters and take more art lessons), and then to Cincinnati in 1891, McCay started his long newspaper career in 1897, first with the Cincinnati Times-Star. Then, he worked with the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, and finally with the Cincinnati Enquirer, where he created his first Sunday color feature, 'A Tale of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle' (1903), a series of illustrations to poetry by George Randolph Chester. 43 episodes were published, but before the publication of the final two installments he moved to New York City. Under the pseudonym "Silas", he created several cartoons, illustrations and comics for the Evening Telegram and freelance work for Life Magazine.

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

1904 saw the creation of several short-lived daily comic strips: 'Mr. Goodenough', 'Sister's Little Sister's Beau' and 'Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe's Phunny Phrolics'. The most succesful of these were 'Little Sammy Sneeze' (1904-1906) and 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' (1904-1925). Both featured a simple premise. Little Sammy would sneeze and cause disaster to his environment. In 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' people who ate too much Welsh rarebit suffered from frightening nightmares until they woke up in the final panel. Despite their formulaic nature, the comics gave McCay the opportunity to express his graphic and narrative skills. He expressed movement in a more dynamic way, making his characters seem more alive than those in comics by other artists from that same time period.

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' in particular offered abilities to visualize dreams and nightmares with amazing creativity. While most episodes were thought up by McCay himself, he sometimes used ideas sent in by readers and thanked them next to his own signature. One of the most famous was sci-fi author Hugo Gernsback (after whom the Hugo Awards are named). The artist also toyed with the still young comics medium. In a 1905 gag of 'Little Sammy Sneeze' the boy sneezes the panels of his own comic strip to pieces, causing him to give a befuddled look at the reader in the final panel. 'Little Sammy Sneeze' was one of the first U.S. comics to be published in Europe, more specifically in France as 'Petit Sammy Éternue'. 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' was adapted into a live-action film by Edwin S. Porter in 1906.

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

On 10 December 1904, 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' featured a character who'd soon receive his own spin-off: Little Nemo. On 15 October 1905, 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' made its debut in The New York Herald. Just like 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend', every episode featured the title character having a surreal dream or nightmare, before waking up in the final panel. Compared to its predecessor, 'Little Nemo' had more of an actual storyline and aimed for a children's audience. Despite these restrictions, the strip is well regarded as McCay's masterpiece. He experimented with colour, perspective and even the lay-out of the pages. The panels often changed size or shape to compliment what happened 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. The 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.

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

None of McCay's other comics ever had the same mainstream success. 'The Story of Hungry Henrietta' (1905) featured a young girl who enjoys stuffing herself with food. 'A Pilgrim's Progress by Mister Bunion' (1905-1910) was built around the premise of a man, Mr. Bunion, trying to get rid of his suitcase, labeled "Dull Care". '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.

Little Nemo by Winsor McCay
Little Nemo (1910)

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'. But in the new version, although McCay's art grew ever more beautiful, a lot of McCay's inventiveness seems to have gone. 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 in 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)

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 technically more skilled than his predecessors, with eye for anatomy, perspective and continuity. Instead of stiff stick figures he used fully rendered characters who moved 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)

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. It pioneered innovations that are still used in animation today, such as "inbetweening". Another impressive work 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.

Gertie the dinosaur
From: Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

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.

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

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. He inspired people like Peter Newell, Frank King, Clare Briggs, George McManus, Hergé, Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Walter Lantz, Chuck Jones, Otto Soglow, Victor BergdahlCarl 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...

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 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 and the NEMO Award. His spiritual successor might be Bill Plympton, who also gained notability for making animated cartoons with little to no assistance.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay

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