Friday, June 17, 2011

Winsor McCay and Little Nemo in Slumberland

The Genius of Winsor McCay (click to enlarge)

Since we started this week with cartoons, it seems only fitting that we end it with our animated fancies, as well.

This year is the 100th anniversary of Winsor McCay’s short film Little Nemo.  It was not the first animated film, but it was the first animated film to enter the realm of art.  McCay, who worked during both the infancy of comic strips and animated films, was a draftsman of remarkable ability.  Like many great artists, drawing was a compulsion for him.  McCay started drawing in his earliest boyhood, and did not stop until the day he had the stroke which would later kill him.  In a letter to cartoonist Clare Briggs, McCay wrote: “The principal factor in my success has been an absolute desire to draw constantly. I never decided to be an artist. Simply, I could not stop myself from drawing. I drew for my own pleasure. I never wanted to know whether or not someone liked my drawings. I drew on walls, the school blackboard, old bits of paper, the walls of barns. Today I’m still as fond of drawing as when I was a kid — and that’s a long time ago…”
McCay drew several different comic strips, as well as editorial cartoons, before beginning Little Nemo in Slumberland in 1915.  These beautifully drawn strips rely heavily on a fluid (almost languid) Art Nouveau sensibility, along with a restless imagination and rich sense of whimsy.  One of the great ironies of Winsor McCay was that while he worked during the infancy of comic strips, he was also perhaps the last great master of the medium.  (It is also important to remember that most newspaper comic strips of the day were broadsheet size with lush, lavish color.  To look at them reproduced on your computer – or even in most books – is akin to understanding a symphony when someone is simply humming it.)
Little Nemo chronicled the adventures of Nemo, who entered Slumberland every night in his dreams.  There, he encountered King Morpheus, the Princess of Slumberland, Flip (a cigar-chomping huckster) and Impy, a cannibal.  Each strip ended with Nemo awaking in bed, often contorted in a manner mimicking the end of his dream.
Beginning in 1911, McCay took his artistry to the vaudeville circuit.  McCay had made flip books for his son Robert and the seeds of animation took root in his mind.  McCay made over 4,000 drawings for his Little Nemo cartoon, working in India ink on rice paper and timing the movements with a stopwatch.  An assistant worked with him to hand-tint each frame of the film to keep a consistent look with the comic strip.  The cartoon was a tremendous success, and McCay followed it years later with another, Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). 
McCay stopped making animated films in 1921, but the fruits of his genius did not wither when he retired.  He had a tremendous influence on an entire generation of artists, illustrators and animators – including a young man named Walt Disney.
McCay was not enthusiastic over the work of many who made cartoons after him.  He was the guest of honor at a dinner in 1927 thrown by fellow animators.  During he speech, McCay said, “animation should be an art, that is how I conceived it … but as I see what you fellows have done with it is making it into a trade … not an art, but a trade … bad luck.”  He then sat down.
Readers interested in McCay should read John Canemaker’s monumental Winsor McCay: His Life and Art one of the finest artist biographies your correspondent has ever read.  Many of McCay’s cartoons are online, and readily available through a You Tube search.  Prepare to be amazed.

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