The Life & Times of Winsor McCay

The Childhood

Born somewhere within 1869 to 1871 to the name Zenas Winsor McKay (later changed to McCay), it was clear even from an early age that he would become something of an inspirational and skilled artist, though animation would be something that would come much later in life. As young as the age of 13 his artwork in school was captivating and great enough for there to be an audience, so much as a drawing he did of a shipwreck done on a blackboard was being photographed and then copies of that photo sold; his attention to detail and own perspective to help bring his worlds alive attracting the audience. His skill was further honed as he grew up, both from practice but also from those around him, more specifically by a painter by the name of Jules Guerin, who Winsor lived with in a shared studio around the year of 1889.

Though there was a clear talent there, not everyone in Winsors’ life had the same optimism for Winsors’ future, more specifically his father, who in 1891 (Winsor being 19 at the time) pushed him to enrol into business school in order to go into what his father considered would be a more prosperous career for the future, much to the dismay of Winsor. McCays retaliation to this push for something he despised was simple; he just didn’t attend the lecture, instead hopping onto the bus and going to the city of Detroit which was in close proximity to his school.

The First Steps into the Wide World

Winsor didn’t skip lectures to just spend his days around Detroit, it was here that he first got a job in the local Dime Museum creating portraits of customers for 25 Cents apiece—his quick speed at drawing and his keen eye for observation and detail being what attracted his customers and made him one of the go-to popular attractions around. Though not yet animating, it was this kind of push to continue drawing and honing his expertise that made him become even better at his passion, with him starting to push into the fringes of a role as a commercial artist as crowds often gathered and paid to watch him work.

Word was beginning to spread amongst people, and soon it reached an important and life changing figure in Winsors life; a professor of drawing at Michigan State Normal School by the name of John Goodison, who went on to provide him the first ever formal lessons Winsors had ever had with private lessons focused mainly around the use of perspective, an understanding of geometry and a sense of substance that would influence the rest of Winsors subsequent work.

The First Steps

Though Goodison urged Winsor to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, Winsor instead declined, taking the job of an apprentice for a local printing company, spending the next two years moonlighting in another dime museum until his move to Cincinnati, Ohio where he would go onto work as a billboard painter. It was here he yet again attracted the attention of crowds, with his unique way in drawing, something he continued to enjoy with his love for performing.

As life went on Winsor would go on to get married with two children, this obvious change in life sought Winsor seek extra work amongst the jobs he already had in order to help provide support for his family, painting signs and not long after starting a job in the local newspaper, the Commercial Tribune drawing artwork. While working for the Tribune, Winsors skill for producing quick and accurate drawings of events and people, most of which would be just from just memory, put him ahead of his competition in a time when newspapers did not have the technology to reproduce photographs.

Winsor got to express his sense of humour a few years down the line whilst working for the at the time premier humour magazine, Life; which was a collection of cartoons and short pieces, with Winsor contributing single panel cartoons to the magazine. All the while taking influence and inspiration from fellow Life artists, one such artists being A.B. Frost, whose sequence cartoons (a series of panels captioned with text that would tell a story) would later be employed as a technique by Winsor.

The Cartoonist

At the turn of the century in 1900 Winsor was employed as the head of the Cincinnati’s’ Enquirer art department, his work begun to flourish as his role allowed the experimentation of new ideas; gag cartoons in the Enquirer and sequential strips in Life, by the year 1903 creating works like The Tales of the Jungle Imps; a series of 43 hand-coloured illustrations based on poems about pixies and the imaginary animals they encounter throughout the story which would be written by the Sunday editor George Randolph Chester.

In 1904, Winsors was employed personally by the owner of the New York papers, the Herald, and the Evening Telegram, James Gordon Bennett to work drawing editorial cartoons and illustrations for new stories for both of his papers. With the Herald, Winsor began to further invest in his art, employing for the first time the comic strip form, something that was still new but extremely popular at the time to audiences.

The Hits & Misses

Winsors first three attempts at getting into the new comic strip game; the Mr. Goodenough, the Sister’s Little Sister’s Beau and The Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe Phunny Phrolics failed to gain the attention Winsor was expecting, and it wasn’t until his fourth, the Little Sammy Sneeze that something became a successful comic strip, rejuvenated by the success and wanting to always improve on his last work, he followed later in the year with the fifth strip; Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.

With Little Sammy Sneeze, it was his use of finely detailed and highly accurate and persistent repetition with the positioning of Sammy (a consistent character in each of these strips) that caught the eye, as well as the use of shattering fourth walls which extended to the strips panel boarders themselves. Both the Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and the Little Sammy Sneeze contrasted greatly; the Dream being aimed at a more adult strip with themes built around adult nightmares and phobias while the Sneeze aimed to encourage a more upbeat feeling with its sense of humour.

Each of Winsors comic strips carried their own specific formulas through each strip released that separated them from each other and made them unique in their own ways- a new setting for Sammy to sneeze, a new nightmare to exaggerate in his Dreams, and so on, this use of a formula making it so Winsor was able to focus all his attention and creativity towards the art and drawing, so at the height of his career between the years 1904 to 1905 he was able to run three separate strips each week within two newspapers, as well as other cartoons and drawings daily for the Herald.

In October of 1905, Winsor being at the age of 38, he would come to create what many consider his masterpiece, the Little Nemo in Sumberland with its use of experiments with the form of the comics pages—the colours, the timing, the pacing, the shape of the panels, the perspective, and many other details; being so well received that it managed to run weekly in the Herald from October 1905 to July 1911.

The Animator

As if creating work for two newspapers (a lot of work at that) wasn’t satisfying enough for Winsor, he also began to take part in Vaudeville performances, more specifically in what is known as chalk-talk artists (where an artist would stand in front of an audience and draw onto a chalk board) Not surprisingly he became a hit with his work here too, going so far as to begin touring, balancing his work by often taking to create many of the strips in the backstage dressing rooms or hotels as he would tour.

It was during his time in New York for five years that Winsor, who at the time was one of the biggest artists and performers in the city, began to combine all his works; the comic strips, the drawings and the chalk-talk art, all of which were based around pacing and movement, into one new art – the animated cartoon, said to have been inspired by flipping through his son’s flipbooks and the early films of Emile Cohl. Though animated cartoons weren’t anything new, it was with Winsor that it became a more defined industry, and something he would continue to dominate with an understanding of the medium and pacing that was far ahead of his time. In conjunction with his newspaper comic strips and drawings, Winsor would draw each of the individual 4,000 cells for his first animated film, Little Nemo, himself, along with his second film, the even longer 6,000 strong animation called the How A Mosquito Operates to be released in theatres.

The Downfall

Things started to change for Winsor in 1911, when, after conflictions with the Herald over taking time off to perform in Europe, he finished his contract, and moved over to the Hearst paper, The American. Though even at the time it was clear to his audience and contractors that Winsor wanted to make a serious move into animation following the release of his strips like In the Land of Wonderful Dreams (the same comic strip as Little Nemo, with a title change due to Herald owning the rights to the name Nemo). This change of interested became evident when his comic strips released for the Hearst from 1911 to 1913 featured a lack of attention to detail and a blandness in colouring that was very apparent to the viewers, the more specific reason at the time being that Winsor become more devoted to focusing his energy of his next animated release Gertie the Dinosaur. In December of 1913 he was told by his employer that he was to give up on his comic strips and focus on more “serious” editorial drawings.

Gertie was his biggest work yet, featuring 10,000 drawings that not only included the character, Gertie the Dinosaur, but also for the first time, backgrounds, making use of what he called the “McCay Split System”, in which instead of the usual animating from beginning to end, he would instead create the start and the finish of the action, then fill in the movements in between, a technique used by animators to this day under the name “In-Betweening”. Meanwhile backgrounds would be handle by his assistant, John A. Fitzsimmons, he would trace the background from master drawing onto each cell. What made the film appeal most to its audiences was Winsors more extreme play on the fourth wall, by drawing the sequences to near perfection of timing in order to allow him to take part in the act himself, directing Gertie to do various actions, and eventually have him walk into the animation to say goodbye to the audience and finish the film with Gertie carrying Winsor away.

The conflict between Winsor and his boss, W.R. Hearst, would start to take an effect on Winsors career, as by 1918 Hearst had begun to prohibit him from taking part in his vaudeville performances, though he was still able to create editorial cartoons, and even went on to make six more animated short films, none of which reached the impact of his previous efforts. Winsor would go on to work until the age of 54, continuing his career with Hearst creating editorial works as well as drawing illustrations for advertising until on 1934, after a failed attempt to bring Little Nemo back to comic pages saw him more or less end his career, later dying of old age in July 26, 1934.


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