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Celebrating Little Nemo by Winsor McCay; his 'demons' made him do it

October 15, 2012|By Amy Hubbard
  • A portrait of cartoonist Winsor McCay, who had a prolific career.
A portrait of cartoonist Winsor McCay, who had a prolific career. (John Canemaker & Milestone…)

The 107th anniversary of "Little Nemo" by Winsor McCay is celebrated with a Google Doodle today. It was a masterpiece of cartooning from a man who created his art like a man possessed.

McCay, born in Canada in 1867, is best known for "Little Nemo," the fantastical and magical Sunday comic strip that began in October 1905. Nemo was created during an eight-year period when, propelled by "inner demons," McCay "was compelled ... to draw and draw and draw."

JVJ Publishing, citing "Winsor McCay -- His Life and Art," by John Canemaker, describes this time in the artist's inventive and often odd career. McCay, working at the New York Herald beginning in 1903, had tried and flopped with three newspaper strips, whose titles included the "Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe Phunny Phrolics."

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He found a winner with "Little Sammy Sneeze," but kept adding to his output -- there was "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend" (which told of the nasty dreams caused by overindulging in cheese pie before bed) as well as the "Story of Hungry Henrietta" and "A Pilgrim's Progress."

These strips overlapped during a feverishly prolific time in McCay's career, from 1904 to 1911. It was in 1905 that "Little Nemo in Slumberland" appeared -- a brilliant jewel of cartooning.

This was quite a step up for a man who made his living at one time at a dime museum -- establishments popular in the 1800s that might combine freak show with pseudo-scientific exhibits nominally meant to educate.

His parents had sent him to business school in Detroit at age 19, but he wasn't interested. Without their knowing, McCay began working at Wonderland of Detroit.  Before an odd and often lurid backdrop, he set up as a portrait artist. And thanks to his speedy and deft hand, he became popular, churning out portraits at 25 cents a pop.

McCay left school and got work illustrating circus and advertising posters. He also worked as a billboard painter. The artist had the unique ability to draw the outline of a figure in one continuous line, a feat that began to draw crowds wherever he painted. 

"Little Nemo" is considered by many the pinnacle of McCay's career. It was made into a Broadway musical and led to his performing a "speed drawing" act on the vaudeville circuit.

But McCay didn't stop there.

He was a pioneer in the field of animation -- a passion reportedly spurred when his son introduced him to a flipbook. A light bulb went on for McCay, who saw the possibilities in motion through sequential drawings.

McCay created the "Little Nemo" film in 1911, followed by "The Story of a Mosquito" -- a comic tale of a mosquito's encounter with a drunk.  According to Van Eaton Galleries, motion pictures at the time were so new that moviegoers thought McCay was "performing some sort of trick with wires" to make his pictures come to life.

His work in animated films continued with the 1918 release of the much more downbeat "The Sinking of the Lusitania," said to be one of the first films to use cels

But McCay's love of drawing never ceased. He continued to draw throughout his life, creating editorial cartoons up until his death, due to a stroke, on July 26, 1934.

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