When you hear the name Nemo what comes to mind? The answer to that question may just reveal your age. Nemo could refer to Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or perhaps a curious clownfish from the animated classic Finding Nemo. While both answers are equally acceptable, the Nemo referred to here is a young boy with a flair for fantasy. Little Nemo in Slumberland is considered the masterpiece of cartoonist Winsor McCay’s career. But just who was this Platinum Age creator and what other credits does he have to his name?
From an early age, Zenas Winsor McCay had a passion for drawing anything and everything. It became an obsession for him, and through what he called “memory sketching” he was able to draw accurately from memory things he had never before drawn. Although his father sent him to Cleary Busines College in Michigan, McCay would often ditch and sell portraits at the Wonderland and Eden Musee dime museum for 25¢ apiece. As his talents drew more attention, drawing professor John Goodison reached out to McCay and offered to teach him privately. He learned quickly and gained a deeper appreciation for master artists of the past.
Later on, McCay spent nine years making posters and other advertisements for various dime museums and family theaters. He later began working full-time for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune along with freelancing for the humor magazine Life. Adapted from poems by George Randolph Chester, McCay drew an ongoing proto-comic called A Tale of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle for The Cincinnati Enquirer. McCay then moved to New York City to work alongside comic pioneer Richard F. Outcault (Buster Brown) at the New York Herald.
In 1904, McCay debuted his first continuing comic strip, Mr. Goodenough, in the Evening Telegram. He followed this with his first color strip, Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe’s Phunny Phrolics. Additional comic strips created during this time included the popular Little Sammy Sneeze and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. This latter strip was adapted to film by Edwin S. Porter. The following year, McCay premiered his masterpiece, Little Nemo in Slumberland. The strip centered around the fabulous dreams of Little Nemo, which were interrupted each week with his awakening in the final panel.
Little Nemo was later adapted into a stage play starring Gabriel Weigel as Nemo, alongside Joseph Cawthorn and Billy B. Van. McCay brought Little Nemo to life once more using 4,000 drawings on rice paper to create his first animated short based on the comic strip. Continuing to pursue work in animation, McCay produced the animated film, How a Mosquito Operates, based on a Rarebit Fiend episode. Venturing into vaudeville acts, McCay introduced Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914. Working in sync along with the animated film, McCay made it appear that Gertie was obeying him and reacting to the audience. In one moment, McCay would appear to throw Gertie an apple – in reality pocketing the prop apple as a cartoon one simultaneously appeared onscreen.
Throughout his career, McCay was praised for his use of color, timing, pacing, and use of linear perspective. He was also admired for pioneering inbetweening, the use of registration marks and cycling, and various other animation techniques. Walt Disney even paid tribute to McCay in 1955 on an episode of Disneyland entitled, “The Story of Animated Drawing.” Animation scholar Paul Wells even noted, “McCay’s influence on the history of animation cannot be understated.”
In a roundabout way, it seems McCay’s Little Nemo helped pave the way for Disney-Pixar’s Nemo to find his way later on. Without McCay’s pioneering efforts and the powerful influence he had on future animators and filmmakers, the world of animation as we know it might have turned out completely differently. And to think, it all started with a dream.