If you stopped by Google’s homepage Monday, even for a moment, you surely caught the incredible, animated doodle above, made in homage to cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay (1869-1934). The occasion was the 107th anniversary of what has proved to be McCay’s most loved and enduring comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland. Something of a godfather to the philosophical whimsy of cartoonists like Bill Watterson and Chris Ware, McCay’s comic art dominated the cartoon genre in the early 20th century with strips like Nemo, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, and Little Sammy Sneezes.
Google’s approach was to bring him into the 21st century with a doodle that adapted his style for the web. Chief doodler Jennifer Hom says, “we wanted his style definitely… and his color palettes, but we also wanted to take it from the perspective of how it would look if he designed it for the internet.” That’s all very well, but it became clear to me when perusing the online commentary that many, many people do not know McCay’s work at all, neither his style nor his color palettes. And after seeing this doodle, many people wanted to. I couldn’t recommend enough picking up an edition of McCay’s comic art. Below is a brief survey of some of McCay’s finest work as an animator.
McCay got his start working a “Dime Museum”—part amusement park, part vaudeville—in Detroit, drawing portraits of customers for 25 cents a piece. During this time, he developed his ability to draw amazingly fast, which served him well as a cartoonist but also played an important role in his work as an animator. Early-20th century animation was, of course, drawn entirely by hand; unlike large studios like Disney, McCay did almost of the drawing himself with occasional assistance. For the very popular 1914 short film, “Gertie the Dinosaur” (below), McCay created 10,000 drawings in six months. Watch McCay himself act the vaudevillian impresario as he presents the mischievous Gertie, a very early example of live-action combined with animation.
As you can see above, McCay had a knack for showmanship. He went on vaudeville tours with his short films, presenting lectures on animation. While Gertie was a creation made specifically for film, much of McCay’s other animations featured characters from his beloved comic strips. One of those comics, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend began the theme McCay would take up in Little Nemo, the strange, unsettling, unpredictable world of dreams. This strip, however, had no recurring characters. In each “episode,” different characters experienced some sort of bizarre or nightmarish fantasy after eating Welsh rarebit, a cheese-on-toast dish. The strip catered to adults, expressing grown-up anxieties and fantasies, and spawned a live-action film in 1906 by Edwin S. Porter. McCay himself animated four “Rarebit” dreams: How a Mosquito Operates in 1912 and The Pet, Bug Vaudeville, and The Flying House (below) in 1921. For contractual reasons, McCay drew the strip under the name “Silas,” hence the credit to “Silas” Winsor McCay in the film.
The short film below brings together characters from McCay’s beloved Little Nemo strip. One commenter writes, the Google doodle “brought me here, and I am so happy it did.” McCay’s work tends to have that effect; his playful style, his elastic imagination and reverence for dream-logic, are irresistible (despite some dated, stereotypical depictions). In this short film, the Nemo characters perform a number of strange feats. Missing only here is Nemo himself, the boy-dreamer. Perhaps we, the audience, are him, watching our subconscious dance on the screen.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.