Today is the birthday of artist, animator and vaudevillian Winsor McCay, who, were he still alive, would be 139 — or 144 years old… more on that later. Like many animation pioneers, McCay’s work has been largely overshadowed by his better known successors, Walt Disney and the Fleischer Brothers. But if it weren’t for McCay, who knows what they’d have done with their lives.
Zenas Winsor McKay was born 26 September — either in 1871 in Spring Lake, Michigan (according to McCay), or in 1869 in Canada (according to his tombstone), or 1867 in Canada (according to the census). What is not disputed is that he was the son of Robert McKay (later changed to McCay) and Janet Murray McKay. Robert worked variously as a teamster, grocer and real estate agent. They sent him to Cleary’s Business College in Ypsilanti, Michigan. At Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University), John Goodison (a former glass stainer) taught him the fundamentals of art. McCay moved to Chicago in 1889 with the intention of attending the Art Institute of Chicago. However, unable to afford tuition, he found a job at the National Printing and Engraving Company where he made circus and theatrical posters. In 1901, he moved to Cincinnati, where he worked as an artist for Kohl and Middleton’s Vine Street Dime Museum and married Maude Leonore Dufour.
McCay’s first major comic strip series was Tales of the jungle imps by Felix Fiddle, published in 1903 in the Cincinnati Enquirer. From 1904 to 1906, Little Sammy Sneeze managed to focus on a little boy with a bow around his neck who always sneezed for two years by exploring the possibilities of the comic medium. Neither were very popular but each featured a progressive series of panels that suggested animation much in the way Eadweard J. Muybridge‘s photographs did with film. He also began Dream of the rarebit fiend, published in the New York Evening Telegram from 1904 until 1915, about the phantasmagoric dreams of someone who really fancies eating rarebit. The representations of dreams set the strip apart from other comics.
In 1905, he published The story of Hungry Henrietta and A pilgrim’s progress (which ran until 1905) but his most enduring work was another centered around dreams, Little Nemo in Slumberland (which ran in the New York Herald until 1914). The following year, Dreams of the rarebit fiend was adapted into a live action film of the same name, directed by Wallace McCutcheon and Edwin S. Porter. Also in 1906, McCay began doing vaudeville chalk-talks.
Chalk-talks were one of those great forms of entertainment that no one enjoys anymore. In this case, chalk-talk artists made quick sketches on blackboards whilst delivering a monologue. As early as 1897 (or 1900, according to other sources), Sheffield native J. Stuart Blackton had been making chalk-talk films, debuting with The Enchanted Drawing. McCay’s chalk-talk was called The Seven Ages of Man and featured him drawing faces and then aging them.
Meanwhile, McCay continued to focus on comic strips, creating Poor Jake in 1909, which ran till 1911. In 1908, Émile Cohl had created the first fully-animated film, Fantasmagorie.
In 1911, McCay debuted in Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, which was directed by Blackton. By comparison, The Fleischer Brothers wouldn’t found Inkwell Studios in New York City until 1921 and Walt Disney wouldn’t found Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City, Missouri until 1922.
McCay returned with the animated How a Mosquito Operates (1912).
In 1914, he ended his run of Little Nemo in Slumberland and created Gertie the dinosaur.
His 1918 The Sinking of the Lusitania was the longest work of animation at the time of its release (unless one counts Argentine animator Quirino Cristiani‘s 1917 film, El Apóstol, a cutout animation film with a 70 minute running time).
In 1921, he created several animated films, Flip’s Circus, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend – The Flying House, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend – Bug Vaudeville, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend – The Pet, Gertie on Tour and The Centaurs.
After The Midsummer’s Nightmare (1922) he retired from animation. His last film role was acting as himself in the live action film The Great White Way in 1924. That year he revived Little Nemo in Slumberland, which he continued drawing until 1927. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 26th, 1934, in Brooklyn, New York.
Most of his strips, despite their brilliance, weren’t among the most popular of their day, but their status has grown in the decades following his death. His influence is apparent in the work of Maurice Sendak, Bill Watterson and Will Eisner. In 1989, Tokyo Movie Shinsha produced an anime version of Little Nemo in Slumberland. And today McCay’s birthday was observed by Silver Lake Croquet‘s Winsor McCay B-Day Croquet – McQuet event.