Winsor McCay

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Full Name:

Winsor Zenas McCay

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Ontario, Canada


Winsor McCay was born in Ontario, and is considered one of the pioneers of film animation, having produced, directed (with the help of J.S. Blackton) and animated the world’s first fully animated cartoons. McCay was best known for his Sunday comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, and for his animated film Gertie, as well as for his comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which explored the world of the unconscious through fantastical dreams. 

Family and early life

McCay was raised in Michigan, becoming a proficient illustrator at a young age, and making a name for himself very early on. McCay grew up in a Scottish family that had immigrated to Upper Canada in the mid 1830’s. His father was a member of the freemasons, and his parents moved across the border to Michigan to settle at Spring Lake. Records of McCay’s birth do not exist, and he himself had stated that he didn’t know his exact age   

As a child, McCay developed a skill for memory drawing, recalling scenes and being able to sketch them in detail. He thrived from the attention he received from his drawing abilities, though his father didn’t think much of it and sent him to business school instead. At age 13, he drew a shipwreck on a classroom blackboard which was photographed and bought.

Career outline

In 1891, he moved to Cincinnati to work at Cincinnati Times-Star, where he perfected his talent as an artist and illustrator. Shortly after, he joined Commercial Tribune, another paper run in Cincinnati, and worked on illustrations for the news, sports and advertising departments, as well as political cartoons.

At the same time, he freelanced his services and sold drawings to the humor magazine Life, and the Enquirer, where he published his first comic strip titled Tales of the Jungle Imps.

After grabbing the attention of editors at the New York HearldMcCay was offered a job there and relocated to New York, where he became a well-known comic strip artist, creating cartoons that would make him famous. There, he worked on comic strips such as Little Sammy Sneeze, and his most successful strip, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which remained in print until 1911. Comic strips he created after include Story of Hungry Henrietta, A Pilgram’s Progress, and the masterpiece of comic art, Little Nemo in Slumberland. This strip ran at the New York Hearld until July 1911, when it subsequently renamed In the Land of Wonderful Dreams and brought to New York American, which was owned by Hearst. This comic strip spawned an animated series later on, as well remakes including a feature film in the 1980’s.

Little Nemo explored the world of dreams, and was often surreal, and sometimes even violent, drawn with highly saturated colors and showcased McCay’s extremely detailed visual style.

In 1909, McCay decided to put his act on the road, doing fast drawings of his characters, as well as caricatures of well-known figures of the day in front of a live audience. His stage act was extremely successful, and he began producing and directing his own animated cartoons using his comic strip creations.

McCay first got the idea to do this after his son brought home from school some “flipbooks”, and McCay became so fascinated with this idea and began incorporating it into his animations.

Supposedly, the first animated film McCay created was from the result of a bet made between cartoonists Geroge MCManus, Tad Dorgan and Tom Powers. The cartoonists bet that McCay could not make enough drawings to create a 4 to 5 minute cartoon, a bet of course, that McCay ended up winning.

In 1911, he produced the first silent cartoon, Little Nemo, which was released in theatres, as well as in his vaudeville act, becoming a huge sensation. The Little Nemo was composed of over 4000 drawings all done by McCay, and in the next year, he produced his second animated cartoon.

In January 1912, McCay produced 6000 drawings to create How a Mosquito Operates, based on his more adult oriented comic strip, The Dreams of Rarebit Fiend. These films grew more popular as they were distributed all over the country, making McCay a well-known sensation at the time.

After having his request for time off at Hearld denied, McCay quit and decided to work for William Randolph Hearst, creating more of his signature comic strips. It would be two more years until McCay unveiled his grand animated creation, Gertie the Dinosaur, a landmark in animation history that is generally regarded as the first cartoon star ever. Gertie debuted on September 15th, 1914, receiving worldwide attention, and was composed of more than 10, 000 drawings, personally done by McCay. These drawings were made with ink on rice paper, and made McCay a wild success all over the world.

As Hearst wanted McCay to continue creating comics, he would not be able to produce another animated film for another four years.

In 1918, The Sinking of the Lusitania was released, one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by McCay, it was one of the first films produced with cel animation. Drawn on celluloid, clear sheets rather than paper, this film required more than 25, 000 frames of animation. McCay toured around the country with his films, and demonstrated his act as well, and went on to produce fragments of animated films.

In the early 20’s, with the assistance of his son Robert, McCay produced and animated his comic stripeDreams of the Rarebit Fiend for Rialto Productions. These films included The Pet (1921), The Flying House (1921), Bug Vaudeville (1921) and his last animated film, The Midsummer’s Nightmare (1922). After abandoning animated films, McCay returned working for the New York Tribune, reviving his popular comic strip Little Nemo, where he worked the last years of his life.

Despite being in seemingly good health, on July 26th, 1934, McCay complained of a head pain and discovered to his horror that his right arm was paralyzed. He lost consciousness and was pronounced dead later that afternoon, with his family by his side. McCay died of a cerebral embolism and was buried in a family plot in Brooklyn.   



  • Lenburg, Jeff. Who’s Who in Animated Cartoons . New York : Applause Theatre & Cinema Books , 2006 . Print.

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