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Background about Winsor McCay

Winsor McCay was gifted with an incredible imagination and he utilized it to create landmark comic strips and animation. While McCay is probably most well-know for his comic masterpiece, Little Nemo in Slumberland(1905 - 1911) which introduced new ideas related to sequence and layout, his contribution to animaltion was equally pivotal. Among his credits were the first animated films to be made entirely of artwork (a "Little Nemo" film, 1908) and the first to feature a character developed specifically for animation, not a comic strip (Gertie the Dinosaur, 1914). The concepts that McCay explored in his comic strips, such as progressive action, proved to be useful preparation for his animation. Chuck Jones

observed "The two most important peope in animation are Winsor McCay and Walt Disney, and I'm not sure which should go first".*

McCay's creative exploration was curtailed as his career progressed. As his comic strip and animation efforts grew in popularity, his employer, William Randolph Hearst, gradually sought to have his creative efforts devoted almost exclusively to the illustration of columns in his newspapers. At the end of his career, McCay drew no comic strips and was permitted only small amounts of time to puruse animation and his other creative joy, presenting chalk-talks on the vaudeville stage.

Winsor McCay was born either in 1867 in Canada or in 1869 in the United States, in Michigan. In his late teens, he made his way to Chicago where, with only limited art training, he illustrated posters. His employer was the National Printing Company and his subjects were primarily circuses.

From Chicago, McCay moved to Cincinnati during the late 1880's. In Cincinnati, he first secured work as an illustrator, creating advertising posters for the Kohl and Middleton Dime Museum.

1891 was an important year for McCay: He began his newspaper career and he married Maude Leonore Dufour. He joined the Cincinnati Times-Star working as an editorial cartoonist and as a reporter. Between 1891 and 1903, McCay's newspaper cartoon career progressed as he moved from the Times-Star to the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune and then the to Cincinnati Enquirer. During these years, he refined his skill as a draftsman and produced his first comic strip, Tales of the Jungle Imps, which debuted in 1903.

In 1903 comic strips were gaining in popularity and newspapers sought to attract top cartoonists. This prompted the McCays to move to New York. In New York, McCay began to work for both the Evening Telegram, where his work appeared under the pseudonym Silas, and for the Telegram's sister publication, the Herald, where he produced cartoons under his own name. As Silas, in the Evening Telegram, McCay's efforts included Dull Care and Poor Jake. McCay was equally prodigious for the Herald creating"Little Sammy Sneeze, Hungry Henrietta and, Sister's Little Sister's Beau. In fact, it was in the Herald that McCay's comic strip masterpiece was first published: Little Nemo in Slumberland was introduced in October, 1905 and continued until 1911.

During this period, McCay's creative endeavors expanded. He performed in vaudeville where his act was Speed Drawing characters from his print work. Plus, sometime between 1909 and 1911, McCay began to work in animation, initially with the thought of including the animated images in his vaudeville act.

In 1911, McCay switched papers, moving to the New York American which was owned by William Randolph Hearst. "Little Nemo" was discontinued in conjunction with this change and McCay went to work creating new comic strips, including "In the Land of Wonderful Dreams" and drawing editorial cartoons but his creative focus was on his vaudeville act and on animation. Gertie the Dinosaur was released in 1914 to widespread acclaim.

Hearst was less than thrilled by the extent of McCay's vaudeville and independent animation efforts. He gradually required that McCay curtail his vaudeville work; earlier he had eliminated his daily comic strips. McCay was to focus on creating editorial cartoons which he did until his contract with Hearst concluded in 1924. However, McCay was able to devote some time to animation and he produced more than six films through 1921. Among these six was The Sinking of the Lusitania which was one of the first to use cels.

From 1924 - 1934, McCay continued to work as a cartoonist. He returned to the Herald during 1924 - 1926 where he attempted to revive "Little Nemo". He concluded his career drawing editorial cartoons.

Winsor McCay passed away on July 26, 1934 after suffering a stroke.

The Winsor McCay images included here are from the Ohio State University Treasury of Fine Art, Cartoon Research Library.

* John Canemaker, Winsor McCay, His Life and Art (New York, Abbeville Press, 1987) , 211


In the Land of Wonderful Dreams
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