Monday, June 17, 2013

Winsor McCay: His Life and Art


Zenas Winsor "Silas" McCay (c. 1867? – July 26, 1934) is the greatest comic strip artist of all time.* This I already knew, but I learned a whole lot more from John Canemaker's biography.

Yes, I knew McCay started at the New York Herald and later brought Little Nemo to the New York American, where he changed the name of the strip to In The Land of Wonderful Dreams. What I did not know were the circumstances or why his later dream-like comics were not as noteworthy as the work he did at the Herald.

McCay drew several comics at once for the Herald, including Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which was like Nemo in that it dealt in dream imagery, but in this version the protagonist of each strip is a different, unnamed adult each week, who have troubled dreams, some of which are grotesque or downright horrifying. One is buried alive, their sleep mistaken for death, another drained of blood by a giant, opportunistic mosquito.


All William Randolf Hearst knew was that Winsor McCay was the preeminent cartoon artist in the America (indeed McCay was -- a star, a name, someone famous in his own time) and so he wanted him for the American. What he did not want were the comic strips. Hearst wanted the greatest comic draftsman to illustrate his worldview and send it across the world. In time he insisted that McCay concentrate solely on editorial cartoons, and paid the spend-thrifty artist enough to get what he wanted.

One other fascinating and not-generally-known aspect of his life and work is what he contributed to animated cartoons. He did not, as some had said and McCay himself often repeated, "create" the animated cartoon, but he was very good at them and pioneered many techniques which brought them from simple curiosities into the realm of serious storytelling.

Whereas someone like Georges Méliès would create fantastic images of non-realistic worlds, McCay aspired to use cartoon animation to document realistic events which could otherwise not be presented to the eye.


In 1918 he released The Sinking of the Lusitania, a photo-realitsic record of what contemporary accounts reported at the time was how the great ship was destroyed and sank. Debates continue as to whether this ship, which was secretly transporting munitions to Great Britain was a legitimate military target. Regardless, this is a surprisingly affective short -- in spite of two goofy fish "seeing" the oncoming torpedo and getting away quick.

It struck me as particularly troubling that this man, who contributed so much with his pen, was overcome with horror at the moment of his death, believing he was experiencing his greatest fear. He had suffered a brain aneurysm, and first felt his right arm -- his drawing arm -- paralyzed. He shouted out to his wife Maude, "It's gone, mother! Gone, gone, gone!" With that he fell to the floor, and died.

One of the more surprising discoveries in this book is an illustration not by McCay but one of his contemporaries and good friends, Ap Adams. The author does not give the rendering a title or an indication of its context, nor does he understand or feel necessary to explain its origin.

New York American cartoon by Apthorp "Ap" Adams
April 26, 1936

Father Time stands over one man as he progresses through his life as crying child, a schoolboy, young man with a handwritten love poem, a soldier, lawyer, old man and complete senescent. These are, of course, the seven ages of man as described by Jacques in Shakespeare's As You Like It.

I will be writing a great deal more about the Seven Ages in the months to come.

*But don't tell Bill Watterson that.

Talespinner Children's Theatre presents Adventures In Slumberland by David Hansen, Nov. 30 - Dec. 22, 2013.

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