Winsor McCay (1871-1934) has been called the "Father of the Animated Cartoon." He didn't invent the medium but is responsible for advances in the field and creating the basic way cartoons are still made today. He also produced Little Nemo in Slumberland, one of the most fantastic and beautiful newspaper comics in the history of the medium.
The place and year of Zenas Winsor McKay's birth is murky. He claimed he was born on September 26, 1871 in Spring Lake, Michigan. His parents, Robert and Janet, lived there, and he spent his youth there. According to his biographer, John Canemaker, it is most likely that McCay was born while his mother was visiting her family near Woodstock, Ontario in the fall of 1867. He was named after Robert McKay's boss, American entrepreneur Zenas G. Winsor.
McCay drew incessantly throughout his childhood. His drawings impressed everyone with their high levels of detail-from bolt heads on machines to feathers on chickens-resulted from close observation and a cognitive process he later called "memory sketching."
In 1885, the McKays moved to Stanton, Michigan. Around this time, Robert McKay changed the spelling of the family name from McKay to McCay, and Winsor McCay stopped using Zenas.
His father insisted that McCay have a business education. In 1886, at the age of 19, he enrolled at Cleary Business College in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Once there he skipped classes (he never graduated) and made money by drawing portraits of patrons at a dime museum-a sort of permanent indoor circus sideshow-in nearby Detroit. This work sharpened his abilities as a commercial artist, as he learned to create drawings that looked like the subject, but were always flattering. It also fulfilled a growing need to perform publicly, as a crowd often gathered to watch him work.
McCay became known as an artist in Ypsilanti, and caught the attention of John Goodison, a professor of drawing at Michigan State Normal School. Goodison provided private lessons-the only formal lessons McCay ever had-and drilled the young artist in perspective, an understanding of solid geometry, and a sense of substance that would be evident in all of McCay's subsequent work.
Goodison urged McCay to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. McCay went to Chicago, but instead of enrolling in the Art Institute, took a job as an apprentice at a printing company. After two years in the print shop while again moonlighting in a dime museum, McCay's fortunes took him to Cincinnati, Ohio. There he made promotional posters and art for another dime museum. He also worked as a billboard painter. His habit of drawing the outline of a figure in one continuous line without referring to a sketch attracted the crowds for which he loved to perform.
Soon after he arrived in Cincinnati in 1891, he met Maude Leonore Dufour, and they eloped. Five years later, they had a son, Robert Winsor, in June 1896, followed by their only other child, Marion Elizabeth, in August 1897. To better provide for his family, McCay took a job as reporter-artist for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune.
At the end of the nineteenth century, newspapers did not have the technology to reproduce photographs. A reporter who could produce quick, accurate line drawings of people and events, that could easily be turned into an attractive engraving for reproduction, was a great commodity. McCay, with his strong background in forms and perspective as well as his talent for drawing from memory, was better equipped than most. His detailed full-page of places and events became an important part of the Tribune.
McCay had a lighthearted humorous side, too. It occasionally appeared in the Tribune, illustrating a poem or story. However, it found greater release in one of the premier humor magazines of the day, Life. Not to be confused with Henry Luce's photo magazine that began in the 1930s, Life was a collection of cartoons and short humor pieces. Not only did McCay contribute single panel editorial cartoons to the magazine, but Life artists, like A.B. Frost, inspired him. Frost often drew his cartoons in sequence, much like today's newspaper comic strips, where a series of panels, each with a caption, would tell a story. This was a technique that McCay would later employ.
The Cincinnati Enquirer offered McCay an increase in salary. In 1900 he became head of its art department. McCay experimented with gag cartoons and with sequential strips in Life. He then created The Tales of the Jungle Imps, a series of 43 illustrations accompanying poems by the Sunday editor. The series was the first extended work featuring the comic style for which he would become famous.
During this time, McCay came to the attention of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.'s New York Herald. . Before the end of 1903, McCay was in New York, drawing editorial cartoons and illustrating news stories for the Herald and Bennett's other New York paper, the Evening Telegram.
While at the Herald, McCay began using the comic strip form. Newspaper comic strips were still new at the time, and extremely popular. The comics sold papers, and an artist with a popular strip that could be syndicated-sold to other papers across the country-could become rich and famous, a situation that appealed to McCay.
After a number of false starts, McCay found popularity with his first sustained strip, Little Sammy Sneeze, which debuted in the Herald on July 24, 1904. It featured the adventures of a small boy whose powerful sneezes would always occur at the most inopportune times. It was soon joined by what would become his longest running strip, the more adult-oriented Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, beginning in the September 10, 1904 edition of the Evening Telegram. This strip had no recurring character, but showed the hallucinatory dreams of a different person in each episode. Each panel would show the person in an often-inexplicable dangerous or embarrassing situation. The situation would grow worse through the next-to-last panel, when death, destruction, deformity or madness seemed inevitable. The last panel showed the person, usually in bed, waking fitfully, and decrying the Welsh rarebit-a dish made with melted cheese and ale served on toast-they had eaten for dinner.
McCay soon created two more strips. The Story of Hungry Henrietta ran for six months in 1905. McCay had experimented with continuity and constant motion in his previous strips, foreshadowing his future career as an animator, but Henrietta showed even more promise. Not only does each panel of each episode build on the one previous, but the main character, a child, was obviously older each week. Another adult-oriented strip, A Pilgrim's Progress by Mister Bunion, began in June 1905 and ran through 1910.
McCay returned to the world of dreams on October 15, 1905, when Little Nemo in Slumberland debuted in the Herald Sunday comic section. This was McCay's comic masterpiece. The comics were printed in a tabloid, and Little Nemo ran on a full page, the size of half a newspaper page. Each week would open with Nemo, the cute young boy based on McCay's son Robert, experiencing something strange or visiting Slumberland, an architecturally astounding place populated with strange people, most of whom were always glad to see Nemo. The last panel always showed Nemo awakening in his own bed. Or next to it, having fallen out.
Little Nemo in Slumberland became instantly popular. It was translated into seven languages. An operetta composed by Victor Herbert opened on Broadway in 1908. And the characters were merchandised on clothing and games. The strip ran in the Herald until 1911, when McCay started working for William Randolph Hearst. Re-titled In the Land of Wonderful Dreams, it ran in the New York American until December 1914.
While he was creating these comics, McCay also found a way to fulfill his need for public performance. Following other cartoonists, he entered vaudeville, performing in theatrical reviews as a lightning-quick sketcher, drawing his popular characters on a blackboard.
McCay found great success in vaudeville, even taking out-of-town bookings, but by 1909 he was looking for a way to refresh his act. Inspired by his son's flipbooks, and the early films of Emile Cohl, McCay made an animated film featuring characters from Little Nemo the first cartoon based on established comic strip characters. What set the short film apart from its predecessors was McCay's talent. McCay drew almost 4000 separate drawings on rice paper, testing and re-testing each one so that the transition from one drawing to the next-each drawing representing one frame of film-would appear smooth and seamless, without jerks or shakiness. And each drawing featured his beautifully rendered line drawings of his characters. No previous animation had featured such strong graphics or care in presentation, preferring to attract crowds on the novelty of animation alone.
The addition of the film to his vaudeville act in 1911 was extremely successful. The next year, he would produce his second film, The Story of a Mosquito, based on an episode of Rarebit Fiend. In this film, made up of nearly 6000 drawings, an oversized mosquito is shown as it bites a sleeping man on the face. Not content with simple animation, McCay provides the mosquito with a personality of its own as it goes through the motions of preparing to attack (by honing its proboscis with a sharpening wheel) and gorging itself on its snack. This film proved as popular as Little Nemo, but was so detailed that many felt it could not be made of drawings and was some other kind of visual trick.
In 1913, the skeptics were quieted by his next film, which starred a creature that no one could fake: Gertie the Dinosaur. This was McCay's most ambitious film to date, requiring 10,000 drawings which, for the first time in a McCay film, featured backgrounds. McCay drew each picture of Gertie using what he called the "McCay Split System." Instead of animating the dinosaur's movements from beginning to end, he broke the action into smaller parts, and determined what the poses would be at the start and finish of that action. Then he would fill in the drawings between the two poses, assured of where Gertie was going and how she should look. (The same basic procedure is still in use today, and is called "In-betweening," and the job is split up; sometimes copiers or computers are used.) This gave Gertie the smooth well-timed motions she needed. As McCay finished each drawing, his assistant, John A. Fitzsimmons, would painstakingly trace the background from a master drawing onto each sheet.
Gertie's timing was important because for the first time in his act, the live McCay would interact with the character on screen, ordering her to do tricks until the end when Gertie would bend down to the edge of the screen. At that point McCay would step behind the screen. His animated image would take over, stepping on screen and into Gertie's mouth. They would both bow and Gertie would gently carry the animated McCay off-screen.
McCay's continued success angered one man. His new boss, W.R. Hearst, felt that his employees should be on call, and McCay's vaudeville act interfered with his newspaper work. In 1913, McCay was told that he would no longer be producing comic strips, only serious editorial drawings.
McCay turned his creative side to his animation, and created his longest film ever, The Sinking of the Lusitania, about the attack on a Cunard ocean liner by a German submarine in May 1915. Working from photographs and first-hand accounts, McCay recreated the incident from the time the ship left New York harbor through the rescue of passengers and horrific deaths by drowning. This was the first film McCay did on transparent celluloid sheets, as had been recently patented by others. Using this technique, the same background painting could be used over and over. It still took almost 25,000 separate drawings, and over eight months of McCay's time. It was released in July 1918.
By this time, McCay's new contract with Hearst prohibited any vaudeville performances. He continued to create editorial cartoons, and made six more animated shorts, but none with the impact of his first efforts. He stopped for reasons that range from his age (he was 54), his work for Hearst, and a general disappointment that cartoons were quickly becoming commercial filler for movie houses and not the art that he once thought they could be.
After an uninspired and unsuccessful attempt to bring Little Nemo back to the comic pages in 1924 and 1925, he dedicated the rest of his career to editorial work for Hearst and illustration for advertising. On July 26, 1934, at his home in Brooklyn, New York, Winsor McCay died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
Canemaker, John, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, Abbeville Press, 1987.
Crafton, Donald, Before Mickey, MIT Press, 1982.
Stephenson, Ralph, The Animated Film, Tantivy Press, 1973.