Classic early age animators/cartoonists – Winsor McCay

McCay1Winsor McCay, born Zenus Winsor McCay (McKay- his father changed this to McCay because C’s are obvs better than k’s, duh!) in Canada. His exact birth date seems to be up for debate, with birth records seemingly destroyed in his obituary in the New York Herald Tribune stated, “not even Mr. McCay knew his exact age.” His family moved to the USA and Winsor was raised in Michigan. Winsor began drawing at a very early age and when he was 13 he drew a picture of a shipwreck on the school blackboard which was photographed and copies were actually sold. He went to business school, as his family wanted him to have a proper job, but Winsor loved to draw and found work in Dime museums where he would draw customers portraits for 25c each, among other jobs. He got a taste for performing to an audience here and it never really went away, as he went on to perform on Vaudeville, which was a sort of variety show where musicians, dancers, singers, illusionists, comedians, animal acts, impersonators, clowns, jugglers, artists, short plays/scenes from plays, celebrities talkers, minstrels and movies. It was entertainment for everyone with a little bit of everything. It was said that his amazing ability to draw quickly and with great accuracy was able to draw crowds when he painted advertisements in public. Before vaudeville though he had various jobs and after starting a family and moving to Cincinnati in 1891 Winsor took a job as a cartoonist/reporter at the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, while doing freelance comics as well. Di.MuseumIn 1900 McCay took a job at The Cincinnati Enquirer, where he went on to become the head of the art department. In 1903 Winsor moved to New York to work for the New York Herald, doing illustrations and editorial cartoons. Winsor worked for the New York American and again for the New York Herald, he stayed in his Brooklyn home in New York until his death on July 26, 1934.


Comic strips 

January 21, 1904 – Mr. Goodenough – published in the Evening Telegram it was about a sedentary millionaire who would seek ways to become more active, with embarrassing results.

April, 1904 – Sister’s Little Sister’s Beau – McCay’s first strip with a child protagonist lasted one instalment.

May 1904 – Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe’s Phunny Phrolics -appeared in the Herald ’​s Sunday supplement – his first color strip.



July 1904 – Little Sammy Sneeze – about a boy who’s sneeze built until he let it out with disastrous results, and was McCays first real success! It ran until December 1906.

September 1904 – Dream of a Rarebit Fiend – another success published in the Evening Telegram, it was aimed at an adult audience and he wrote it using an alias – Silas. The comics characters that appeared in the strip would have fantastic, sometimes terrifying dreams, only to wake up in the last panel, cursing the Welsh rarebit they had eaten the night before, which they blamed for bringing on the dream.

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January 1905 – The Story of Hungry Henrietta – the child protagonist visibly ages week by week, and eats compulsively in lieu of the love she craves from her parents.

June 1905 – A Pilgrim’s Progress by Mister Bunion – another “Silas” strip for the Evening Telegram, which ran until December 1910. Mr. Bunion spent each strip unsuccessfully scheming to rid himself of his suitcase, labelled “Dull Care”.


Oct 1905 – Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland – Nemo, a little boy (based on McCay’s son Robert) had amazing and marvellous dreams which he woke from every week in the last frame. It was basically like dream of a rarebit fiend aimed at a more broad audience.

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While Winsor may not have been the first person to create animation, he was certainly one of the first, and it can be said that Gertie the dinosaur was the first character created just for the animation, making her the very first original animated character. Winsor is credited with being the first person to use key frames, but no matter what he considered it a gift to the community and the art-world, not something to be patented or anything. When it became commercialised Winsor was not happy about that at all, the art being turned into a business was something it seemed Winsor didn’t want to happen. He created ten animated films between 1911 and 1921. mccayworld

Winsor is quoted as saying “My goal is to make something that once you’ve seen it  you cannot ever have not seen it.”



Little Nemo – 1911

McCay drew almost 4000 separate drawings on rice paper, testing and re-testing each one so that the transition from one drawing to the next-each drawing representing one frame of film-would appear smooth and seamless, without jerks or shakiness. And each drawing featured his beautifully rendered line drawings of his characters.No previous animation had featured such strong graphics or care in presentation.

While there was not much of a story, it shows off animation well by morphing the character, which was its principle job, as a further attraction to McCays vaudeville act. Originally black and white Winsor went on to hand colour each frame individually afterwards as the films popularity grew.


How a mosquito operates – 1912

Based on a rarebit fiend comic, this had more of a story to it than the last animation, about a mosquito who goes looking for his next meal, which he finds in a man who he feeds on for the length of the animation. The mosquito is quite a character with hat and case, the grinding wheel it uses to sharpen its tip and McCays attention to how the creature moves is apparent in the animation and makes the character of the mosquito really come to life on the screen.


Gertie the dinosaur – February 1914


Gertie the Dinosaur debuted as part of McCay’s vaudeville act where he introduced Gertie as ‘the only dinosaur in captivity’, and commanded the animated beast with a whip. Gertie seemed to obey McCay, bowing to the audience, and eating a tree and a boulder, though she had a will of her own and sometimes rebelled. The finale shows McCay walk off-stage then reappear in animated form in the film, and had Gertie carry him away.

Winsor McCay cartoonist

A modified version was prefaced with a live-action sequence and replaced the interactive portions with intertitles, which meant it could be played in regular movie theaters, reaching a wider audience and undoubtedly increasing its popularity.

The sinking of the Lusitania – July 1918

McCays serious cartoon, about the infamous sinking of the Lusitania ship carrying civilians from america to Britain by the German military in May 1915.

This was the first film McCay did on transparent celluloid sheets, as had been recently patented by others. Using this technique, the same background painting could be used over and over. It still took almost 25,000 separate drawings, and over eight months of McCay’s time.

Later Animations

The Pet – One of the first monster movies where the monster storms through a cityscape. In fact Winsor used dinosaurs a lot as well, in cartoons and animation. It seems that Winsor may in fact be responsible for influencing popular culture far more than we previously thought!

McCay was a visionary artist who always wanted to push the envelope and try new things. He made some of the earliest animations and left a legacy of incredible comic strips behind him. He also drew many editorial cartoons and illustrations and certainly impacted on the art world in a big way. Unfortunately for Winsor he never really reached the fame and success he deserved, his employers stopped him from travelling and performing his acts more, they stifled his creativity at times and generally made his life difficult. So he was unable to achieve everything he wanted, although he still managed to do a lot. In the end McCay enjoyed a career where he was recognised as a talented artist and illustrator, and also a competent film-maker/animator who made some lovely films. All in all he was a name to be remembered and his art should be enjoyed by more people, his place in animation history is secured and deserved.

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References [accessed on 07/01/16]

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