I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Wonderful Dreams of Winsor McCay

by Cory Gross
April 3, 2018

Though never overwhelming popular during his lifetime and sadly a virtual unknown today, Winsor McCay occupies a sainted position as one of the best illustrators of the early 20th century. Even the most cursory viewing of his comic strips Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland reveal a draftsman with an enviable talent for clean, expressive figures and beautiful fantasy settings. A viewing of his early animated films also reveal a keen and technologically progressive mind.

His accomplishments are even more remarkable considering that the only formal art education he received as a side-project with John Goodison of Michigan State Normal College while McCay was studying business. He had wanted to study art more fully at the Art Institute of Chicago but was confounded by money, or more accurately the lack thereof. His ends were met by illustrating circus posters until he moved to Cincinnati, got married, and started up his first newspaper comic strips. He also ran the Vaudeville circuits doing live illustration shows called "chalk talks." His most famous was The Seven Ages of Man, in which he would progressively age two drawn faces. With this combination of experiences he started his two most famous strips: Rarebit Fiend in 1904 and its spin-off Little Nemo in 1905.

Not willing to give up Vaudeville entirely, Little Nemo was the subject of McCay's first foray into film animation. Contrary to the old magician's rule that you never reveal how a trick is done, almost the entirety of this 1911 short 10 minutes is spent documenting the tedious process of pre-cell animation. 4000 illustrations traced and tweaked on rice paper comprise the scant two minutes of flawless animation. Little Nemo and his compatriots still look better than most of what appears on Saturday mornings today. Reflective of the short's documentarian purpose, its formal title was actually Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and his Moving Comics.

Drawing each image fresh, one at a time to the tune of 4000 illustrations, most likely accounts for the nearly unwatchable 1912 film How a Mosquito Operates. Whereas Little Nemo is still a stunning, high-quality piece of work, How a Mosquito Operates is just a piece of work that overuses repeating frames to the point of nausea. This can be excused if we consider what else he was up to in 1912.

Combining his chalk talk programs with his animation work, McCay created the interactive short Gertie the Dinosaur. A member of the audience in New York would have seen McCay walk on stage and explain the genesis of the spectacle they were about to see: a time-twisting vignette of McCay's art come to life, an enfleshed brontosaurus heeding orers as the artist's well-trained pet. The screen would flicker and McCay would command his companion to come out and make a pretty bow. She would, to your astonishment. Every time he barked an order she would reply in due course, whether to raise a foot or wave to the audience. She would even eat a pumpkin that McCay threw behind the screen, only to appear on-screen as if by magic.

Gertie was also a saucy little thing. Voracious, neither a tree nor a lake were safe from her all-consuming appetite. Now and then she would snap at McCay or disobey an order. The climax of the film featured a brief spat with a tiny woolly mammoth, after which McCay himself stepped behind and onto the screen, to be carried off into the proverbial sunset on Gertie's back. The routine was so popular that McCay made a longer roadshow version in 1914 that told a live-action framing story comparable to that in Little Nemo. He also animated a 1921 sequel, Gertie on Tour, where she steps into - and all over - the modern day. She, or her cousins, also made appearances in the Little Nemo strip and another original newspaper comic that went unfinished at the time of his death in 1934. Posterity recognizes Gertie the Dinosaur as the first true animated character invented for the screen, precursor to Felix the Cat, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse. Recognizing this debt, Walt Disney staged a reenactment of the Vaudeville act for his Disneyland TV series episode "The Story of the Animated Drawing", starring animator Richard Huemer as McCay.

Contemporaneous with Gertie's world tour was The Centaurs, of which only a fragment remains today. Focusing on a family of mythical creatures in eerily lifelike activities, no screenplay is known to exist. Though devoid of story, it is still an astonishing example of one of the 20th century's great illustrators. Though his Little Nemo comic strip and some of his animation underwent a brief resurgence in the late Twenties, his heyday was over and he passed away in 1934 at the age of 69.  

For Cory Gross, the past is a lifestyle choice. Native to the ranchlands of Western Canada, he works as a museums and heritage professional in Calgary, Alberta, teaching science, nature, history and art. He also volunteers with a number of science and history organizations in the city, holds a graduate degree in theology, and enjoys travelling at home and abroad. His love of Victorian science fiction and antiquated adventure stories is on display at his blog Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age