Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
McCay, Winsor

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Working name of US Comics artist and creator of Animated Movies, whose full name is sometimes given as Winsor Zenic (or Zenic Winsor) McCay (1867-1934). He is of seminal importance in both fields. His earliest years were obscure (it is not known where he was born; his year of birth has also been given as 1869 or 1871), but he can be traced back to 1889, when he was employed in Chicago as an engraver in a printing firm. During the 1890s he worked as a freelance poster painter and as an in-house artist at Cincinnati's Vine Street Dime Museum before, in 1898, starting his newspaper career by doing editorial cartoons for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. By 1900 WM had switched papers and was drawing his first comic strip, Tales of the Jungle Imps, signed Felix Fiddle.

From 1902 he was in New York, working as a cartoonist for Life, and beginning to work for the two New York papers owned by James Gordon Bennett (1841-1918): the New York Herald as WM and the New York Telegram as "Silas". Several humorous Allegories followed, including A Pilgrim's Progress by Mr Bunion, Hungry Henrietta, Poor Jake and Little Sammy Sneeze, selections from the last of which appeared as Little Sammy Sneeze (graph coll 1906). 1904 saw the début of WM's Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, which carried its adult characters into a variety of very frightening dyspepsia-generated nightmare experiences; it appeared in book form as Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (graph coll 1905 as by "Silas"; bowdlerized 1973 as by WM), which reprinted 61 strips; a 1913 sequence of strips was reprinted as an appendix to volume 6 of the Little Nemo collected edition (see below).

The success of this strip inspired his masterpiece, Little Nemo in Slumberland, which appeared in the New York Herald (1905-1911), then for William Randolph Hearst papers under the title In the Land of Wonderful Dreams (1911-1914), then for the Herald-Tribune (1924-1927) under the original title. The first sequence was perhaps the most innovative and inspired; selections were reprinted as Little Nemo in Slumberland (graph coll 1906) and Little Nemo in Slumberland (graph coll 1909). Later titles included an adaptation by Edna Sarah Levine, Little Nemo in Slumberland * (1941) illus WM; and the Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland set of collections: The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland #1: 1905-1907 (coll 1989) ed Richard Marschall, #2: 1907-1908 (coll 1989) ed Marschall, #3: 1908-1910 (coll 1990) ed Marschall and #4: 1910-1911 (coll 1990) ed Marschall, reprinting the original sequence in its original colours; plus #5: In the Land of Wonderful Dreams: 1911-1912 (coll 1991) ed Marschall and #6: In the Land of Wonderful Dreams: 1913-1914 (coll 1993) ed Bill Blackbeard, which reprints the second sequence in original colours, also including some Rarebit Fiend colour strips; further volumes are projected. Many of the first-sequence episodes – drawn in WM's fluent, hallucinatory, meticulously crafted, architectonic, poster-like Art Nouveau style – were straightforward dream fantasies; but later sustained sequences – like those dealing with Shantytown, with Befuddle Hall, and with a 1909 excursion by airship into outer space – were genuine Fantastic Voyages; as pioneering explorations into the techniques of narrating complex visions through sequential drawings, the strip as a whole was of vital importance.

WM was intensely prolific, and at the same time as writing and drawing Little Nemo he also continued with other graphic work, including many individual drawings, those making up the Spectrophone series of visions of the future being of particular sf interest. After he moved to Hearst, he began concentrating on political cartoons from the conservative point of view required by the proprietor; but continued to issue enormously detailed prophetic drawings involving vast airships, cityscapes and catastrophes. Some of these have been assembled as Daydreams & Nightmares: The Fantastic Visions of Winsor McCay (graph coll 1988) ed Richard Marschall.

WM also took a central role in the development of the animated cartoon – indeed, some claim that he invented the art of animation. In whatever medium he worked, he drew with incredible speed; this gave rise to the vaudeville act he presented from 1906, during which he executed a series of 40 chalk drawings, one every 30 seconds, showing a man and a woman ageing while the orchestra played a suitable melody. From here it was a logical step to animation. With astonishing industry, he hand-painted each frame of his cartoons; beginning in 1909 he produced 10 short films: Little Nemo (1911), which required about 4000 drawings; The Story of a Mosquito (1912; vt How a Mosquito Operates); Gertie, the Dinosaur (1914), which required circa 10,000 drawings; The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), the most ambitious, requiring circa 25,000 drawings done in much more detail than in the earlier films; The Centaurs, a fantasy movie, Flip's Circus and Gertie on Tour, these three being done circa 1918-21 and surviving only as fragments; and three Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend shorts, all released in 1921: The Pet, Bug Vaudeville and The Flying House. In The Pet, household animals drink an elixir and swell to huge proportions; a 10-storey cat ravages a city and, King Kong-style, is pestered by airships. Bug Vaudeville is a (pre-Disney) Silly Symphonies-style fantasy. In The Flying House a couple, escaping creditors, fit out their house with wings and a propeller and fly off into outer space.

It is not certain why WM gave up animation after these successes, but it was possibly because he thought – wrongly, as was soon proven by Felix the Cat and Walt Disney's Alice and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit – that animation, as an artform, was a cul-de-sac to whose end he had come. He continued to produce newspaper strips and illustrations until the end of his life. [JC/JG/SW]

further reading: "Winsor McCay" by John Canemaker in The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology (anth 1980) ed Danny Peary and Gerald Peary; Of Mice and Magic (1980; rev 1987) by Leonard Maltin; Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (1987) by John Canemaker; Comic Artists (1989) by Richard Marschall.

Winsor Zenic (or Zenic Winsor) McCay


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.