Winsor McCay: Ahead of his time

a panel from Litte Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay

Have you ever looked at the art of someone like Hieronymus Bosch and wondered “What century did this guy come from?” He lived in the 15th and 16th centuries, but his art is so modern and fanciful that it almost seems out of place. Did Bosch hitch a ride in a flying saucer and visit 1940? If he did, he probably shared the ride with a man named Winsor McCay, who was visiting from 1909.

Winsor McCay is a comic artist’s comic artist. He’s the guy that all the greats look up to, one that had many revolutionary ideas. He was thinking about animation before it really existed, and his sense of perspective and Surrealism were far ahead of his time.

I’d heard about McCay from friends, but it wasn’t until I saw Art Spiegelman give a talk about the history of comics that I was truly introduced to Winsor McCay. Spiegelman showed a page from “Little Nemo in Slumberland”–of Little Nemo atop his bed which had grown crazy long legs and was walking among buildings. He pointed out how McCay was using the space, how the panels were stretched and warped to match the mood and the motion of the piece. I was hooked immediately.

For induction into the world of Winsor McCay, start with the DVD Winsor McCay: the Master Edition; it’s a great collection of McCay’s pioneering animation efforts. His use of depth, perspective and motion are stunning — hard to believe this was before Disney! Included on the DVD is a color version of “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and two short animations of Gertie the Dinosaur, a playful character that McCay used to take on the vaudville circuit with his chalk talks. Also on the DVD is a poignant and politically charged short called “The Sinking of the Lusitania,” a blow by blow account of the destruction of the SMS Lusitania in 1915.

Both McCay’s successes and failures were tied to newspapers, and more specifically, the Hearst Corporation. Rumor has it that William Randolph Hearst squelched McCay’s dreams of exploring animation and instead forced McCay to create souless, if beautiful, cartoons for newspaper editorials. To learn more about McCay’s life, read John Canemaker’s biography, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art.

Unfortunately, many of his collections are now out of print. The Library has reference copies of McCay works that you can view in the library, but we also have a few McCay books you can check out: The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay and Winsor McCay: Early Works. If you like early comics, here are some options for further exploration: Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969 and The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911) by Nicholson Baker.

And if you simply CANNOT WAIT to view some McCay, you can view Winsor McCay: Early Works online using Google Books – I recommend you read it in the “2 page” view to get the full effect!

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