Visit the World of Little Nemo Artist Winsor McCay: Three Classic Animations and a Google Doodle

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.

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