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O Pioneer! A Birthday Tribute to Winsor McCay

Zenas Winsor McCay, who perhaps shrewdly went by his middle name (and sometimes professionally by the pen name “Silas”), was born on September 26 in 1869. Or… maybe not. He might have been born as early as 1867 or as late as 1871. Through a combination of birth records possibly lost in a fire, and a likely desire by McCay himself to disguise how large the age gap was between him and his wife, we simply don’t know for sure when he was born; we’ve chosen to take his word for it that his birthday was September 26.

One thing not in doubt, however, is that the astonishing Mr. McCay was a pioneer in not one, but two fields.



After training in art and working at museums in different cities in the Midwest, where he was exposed both to wonders from around the world and the burgeoning medium of film, McCay found work at the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1900, first doing editorial drawings and then as art director. It was during this time that he developed his trademark Art Nouveau style, which employed a variety of line weights to convey depth and importance.



In 1903, McCay began producing comic strips. After a series of brief experiments and non-starters such as A Tale of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle, Mr. Goodenough, Sister’s Little Sister’s Beau, and Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe’s Phunny Phrolics, McCay had his first hit with Little Sammy Sneeze. With this strip, McCay — like his contemporary George Herriman — used a simple formula as a vessel for formal experimentation: each strip is about a little boy getting ready to sneeze and then sneezing with disastrous results, but McCay managed to create great things within this format.

Other strips of this era include his longest-running feature, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which illustrated surrealist nightmares brought on by eating too much cheese before bed, The Story of Hungry Henrietta, and perhaps his most under-appreciated work, A Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory in which a much set-upon man tries desperately to rid himself of a suitcase labeled “Dull Care.”



McCay’s most famous work — and with good reason — is Little Nemo in Slumberland, which ran from 1905 to 1911 and was revived from 1924 to 1926, with a brief tenure from 1911 to 1914 when it was known as In the Land of Wonderful Dreams when McCay moved publishers.

Nemo was a fantasy adventure strip in which a young boy found himself entering the world of dreams each time he went to sleep, only to be awoken in the last panel. The story served as a vehicle for fanciful settings and colorful characters, but is mostly renowned for its ground-breaking illustration and storytelling. In ways that few others had before him, McCay used Nemo to experiment with panel size and shape, layout, line weight, hatching, perspective, and — thanks to the superior processes used by his newspaper — color, all as tools for telling a story. There was nothing like it before him, and anything like it afterward is due to his influence.



The work McCay was most proud of, however, was his seminal accomplishment in the field of animation. He claimed to be the first person to make animated cartoons, and although he was actually preceded by a few others, his early influence and great forward strides are hard to deny.

McCay animated ten films in his lifetime, but his most famous is Gertie the Dinosaur, which he debuted in 1914 as part of a vaudeville act, in which McCay, who was actually present on stage, would interact with the animated Gertie, having her do tricks and feeding her apples. McCay’s innovations within the field of animation — inbetweening, registration marks, cycling, early work with cel animation, and other things that an animator would tell you are really important — would be unequaled until the feature films of Walt Disney, who would state that his entire career was indebted to the work of Winsor McCay.


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Since his death in 1934, McCay has gone on to become one of the most influential cartoonists of all time, with the hallmarks of his inspiration visible in the work of cartoonists such as Carl Barks and Rick Veitch, filmmakers such as Federico Fellini and Walt Disney, and illustrators such as Maurice Sendak, whose book In the Night Kitchen was a direct homage to McCay. The comics industry’s love for McCay and his work can be seen in recent collectors’ editions of Little Nemo, the recent Nemo series from IDW, and the tribute book Dream Another Dream.

So while we don’t know the exact date of his birth, this seems as good as any other to reflect on the work of a man who was one of the earliest geniuses of not just one, but two mediums.


Next: Formula & The Sublime in George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat'

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