The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Winsor McCay, the Genius from Slumberland

It has been 150 years already since the birth of one of the most imaginative cartoonists in the history of mankind, Winsor McCay (1867-1934). A quick, prolific and dexterous artist, he served as epitome of comic strip perfection and ingenuity for generations of future cartoonists and animators, including Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb and Walt Disney. His comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-14) and its continuation, In the Land of Wonderful Dreams (1924-27), still serve as an ultimate inspiration and unattainable prototype for all cartoon lovers.

McCay was born in a family of Scottish immigrants as the third of six children in Upper Canada, who moved to Michigan soon after his birth. As a child, Winsor drew anything he saw, and the level of detail and accuracy in his drawing was noted at a very young age. He started his professional career drawing posters and portraits, and in 1898 became an illustrator in newspapers and magazines. In 1903 he joined the New York Herald, a newspaper with one of the largest circulation in the country. He created a few popular comic strips there.

In 1905 he created Little Nemo, his most memorable and long-lasting creation. The full-page weekly strip depicted a boy named Nemo having fantastic dreams that were always interrupted in the final panel where he would wake up. The cartoon is so innovative in its theme and execution, it became influential not only in art, but in other areas of creative and intellectual work. It should be noted that these fantastic, often nightmarish fantasies preceded movements such as surrealism and expressionism, and figures such as Kafka or Freud. The character of Flip, a green, cigar-chewing clownish boy who disturbs Nemo's attempts to reach King Morpheus's daughter in Slumberland, and then have adventures with her, became an iconic trickster.

McCay was a pioneer of animation as well. From 1911 to 1921, he self-financed and animated ten films. In the 1911 short silent film, he demonstrates his quickness and unparalleled gift in front of the cameras. He agrees in a meeting with his friends to make four thousand pen drawings that will move in only a month. Surrounded by stacks of drawing paper and barrels of ink, he begins work, and finally completes it in time. The cartoon drawn by the artist is shown in the last three minutes of the reel. This film represents a unique testimony to his talent, patience, and love of drawing. It can be seen here:

Self-conscious and introverted in private, McCay was also a charismatic showman and self-promoter. He got married at age 24, and had two children. He used his son, Robert, as a model for the character of Little Nemo. MacCay was a Freemason like his father. He lived lavishly and died of cerebral embolism at the age of 67.

Svetozar Postic

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