Early twentieth century illustrator
best known for his comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland
and his pioneer animation, Gertie the Dinosaur
Along with other pioneers like George Herriman and Lionel Feininger,
McCay pushed the envelope exploring the medium of the comic strip and the Sunday
comic pages with his fantastic visions, hallucinatory images often related to dreams, backed up with a
technical brilliance in rendering perspective, human figures, animals, and architecture.
Winsor Zenie McCay was born in Spring Lake, Michigan, September 26, 1871.
After studying with an art teacher in Ypsilanti, at the age of 17 he left town
with a traveling circus, painting posters and signs for them in Chicago.
His work would thereafter include a passion for drawing animals. At 19, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio,
marrying a debutante in 1891. He designed posters for the sideshow attractions in
Philip Morton's Dime Museum. Morton also had him create street arches and re-create the battle
of Santiago harbor on the Ohio River for an 1898 celebration of American victories in
McCay started working for newspapers in Cincinnati, illustrating news stories for the
Times-Star and drawing pro-Republican editorial cartoons for the Commercial Gazette,
until the rival Cincincinati Enquirer hired him away to do pro-Democrat cartoons.
There he became art director and in 1903 created his first comic
strip with Sunday editor George Randolph Chester, Tales of the Jungle Imps.
His humorous illustrations in national magazines caught the eye of New York publisher
James Gordon Bennett. At the end of 1903, he moved east, to draw for Bennett. He worked
as a staff illustrator for the Evening Telegram and soon moved to comic strips for
the morning Herald. For Bennet he ended up drawing several strips:
Little Sammy Sneeze, Poor Jake, Dull Care, The Man from Montclair, The
Faithful Employee, Mr. Bosh, A Pilgrim's Progress, Midsummer Day Dreams, It's Nice
to Be Married, and Hungry Henrietta. He's mostly remembered for his 1905 creations: Little Nemo for the New York Herald
and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend for the Telegram.
He continued to do various editorial cartoons and illustrations: the equivalent of 365 Sunday page size
drawings a year.
By 1907, his reputation as a cartoonist got him onto the vaudeville circuit
doing chalk talks and lightning quick sketches. In New York he was on the bill with W.C. Fields
and Harry Houdini. It was in vaudeville that he found an outlet for the idea of
transferring the animation he'd seen in flip books to photographic film. In 1909 he adapted
Nemo to the screen, and audiences couldn't believe he had drawn each frame-- they
were convinced he had filmed real children.
McCay went to work for the Hearst papers in 1911, mostly doing
editorial cartoons, creating allegorical drawings to accompany Arthur Brisbane's
moralistic essays. On his own, he continued to work on animation projects, such as his smash hit
Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914, and The Sinking
of the Lusitania (1918), which required 25,000 drawings by hand.
In 1924 he resurrected Little Nemo at the Herald Tribune for a few years.
He worked steadily until his death July 26, 1934.
Start drawing and do not stop--draw everything you see, no matter how badly; don't let
some one making fun of you stop you and do not let praise of your drawing influence you--99,999
times out of 100,000 the poeple who praise you do not know what they are talking about.
I would rather have some one say my drawing was bad than have him say it was good. Every drawing
you make is better than the one you made before. Don't take yourself seriously--nor your
drawing. The drawing you think is good today may turn out tomorrow to be so badly done you will b
be ashamed of yourself for showing it yesterday. You should never be satisfied. Always
try to do better. Aunt Emma says it's the best she ever saw; Uncle John agrees with Mom and
Pop that you are wonderful. Smile and thank them--that's all, but don't believe them.
There is a cruel editor to come later and slam you, but continue on, if it is in you--if it is not,
quit and get a real job. Work! WORK! That's all there is to cartooning.
Sources: The Fantastic Visions of Winsor McCay, Edited by Richard Marshall. Fantagraphics Books, 1988.
--letter from Winsor McCay to Clare Briggs, 1926
Publisher's Note from Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, Winsor McCay, Dover Publications, 1973. ISBN: 0-486-21347-1.