Windsor McCay, Monarch of Slumber
A Look at the Unsettling Anarchy of Dreams

The history of the syndicated comic strip began on February 16, 1896 with an unpleasant urchin called The Yellow Kid, created by Richard Outcault. One hundred and three years of multiple gag and adventure sequences have gone by since then and the decades have produced many great strips, from the early days to the present. The roster of fine creators includes Caniff and Capp, Crane and Gould, Watterson and Breathed. A list of all the syndicated cartoonists that are worthwhile and noteworthy could easily fill this page.

One of the greatest of them all was Windsor McCay, creator of Little Nemo In Slumberland, only a "mere" comic strip that stands up with fine art masters of graphic fantasy. Of all his contemporaries, only George Herriman and his Krazy Kat came close to achieving the impact and importance that McCay did.

McCay first began his professional career as a cartoonist/reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. In 1897 photography had yet to dominate newspapers and there were opportunities for a young artist to pick up work experience by sketching accident scenes and caricatures of local notables. McCay developed a reputation for accurately drawing detailed scenes entirely by memory.

By 1903 McCay had moved to a rival paper, The Enquirer, where he began his first Sunday color strip, Tales of the Jungle Imp by "Felix Fiddle," an experimental effort based on poems by George Chestor. The strip must have been noticeable; McCay was soon lured to New York by publisher James Gordon Bennett to work on The Evening Telegram and the New York Herald. He began an eight run turning out strips like It's Nice To Be Married, Poor Jake, Mister Bosh, and The Man From Montclair.

Two of his strips in 1904 stands out as a signpost to the territory McCay would claim as his own, the unsettling anarchy of the impossible. The first was Little Sammy Sneeze, a strip where one little boy, Sammy, could successfully demolish an entire circus procession of elephants (a favorite McCay scene) with one improbable nose-burst. In that same year McCay moved closer to Little Nemo with Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. This strip depicted the surrealistic dreams of various individuals addicted to eating a particular type of cheese. People are attacked by giant chickens and mosquitoes, meet their clones, and have miniature ballerinas dance on their foreheads. The backgrounds and perspective were fairly pedestrian compared to the spectacular scenery the artist would later tackle, but the draftsmanship was still impressive.

It should be mentioned that McCay was producing more than full-page comic strips during a typical workday. In addition to working on strips that ran anywhere from six to twelve panels, the artist turned out superbly detailed political cartoons, a number of layout spreads for other features, and a detailed drawing for the Sunday page. It was a workload that would stagger most cartoonists, and his Herculean labors would increase when the artist began to experiment with animation. "Simply, I could not keep from drawing," he explained to a fellow cartoonist.

The Rarebit Fiend proved to be popular, so much so that there was talk about adapting it as a staged musical comedy. In 1906 Edwin S. Porter, a pioneer filmmaker and employee of the Edison Company, produced a seven minute live-action version of the McCay strip, with scenes of a hapless Rarebit Fiend being tormented by flying beds and tiny demons. In the same year the Edison Company released a phonograph cylinder with a song, "Dream Of The Rarebit Fiend."

It might seem that Rarebit Fiend was just an early version of Little Nemo, but there was a crucial difference. Although both strips display the same fantasies and fears that both children and adults share, the earlier strip dealt with grimmer, more threatening anxieties. Nemo would never dream about euthanasia, for example, nor would fear being buried alive or dismembered in any of his slumbers.

Little Nemo In Slumberland was an immediate success when it premiered in 1905. The delightful fantasies and decorative, imaginative drawings attracted a large audience at home and abroad. Nemo, a young boy whose appearance was based on McCay's son Robert, is nightly transported to Slumberland to share in a number of adventures with its Princess, King Morpheus, Dr. Pill, and a mischievous, often destructive, sidekick, Flip.

His astonishing travels included a trip to Mars, the Moon, and Jack Frost's Ice Palace, as well as a tour of another palace (magnificently rendered in perfect perspective) that has been tipped on its side, and an aerial tour (in 1906) of the major cities of the United States. Other sequences had Nemo riding fireworks, being transformed into a giant, and having his home swallowed by a turkey.

In 1908, Little Nemo opened as a musical comedy in Broadway. Meanwhile McCay, still continuing on with the strip in hotel rooms, began performing on Vaudeville with a "speed drawing" act, touring major cities east of the Mississippi. By 1909 he was working on animation, producing a Little Nemo cartoon and Gertie the Dinosaur. McCay toured the country with Gertie, adding live commentary and interaction with his animated creation. Between 1910 and 1920 he would produce and tour with several more films, including the longest cartoon of its time, The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918).

McCay was working for the Hearst papers at that point and eventually Hearst decided that McCay's other activities were taking him away from his newspaper duties. McCay continued the Nemo strip for a few more years and then concentrated exclusively on editorial cartoons. There was a brief four-year revival of the strip in the mid-nineteen twenties until Little Nemo In Slumberland was finally retired. McCay continued on drawing editorial cartoons until his death in 1934.

There have been a number of collections of Windsor McCay's work printed in the last twenty years (Dover, Nostalgia Press, Hyperion Library), and some of them can still be found. A video, Animation Legend-Windsor McCay, is available through Van Eaton Galleries. There have also been Nemo exhibitions of McCay's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and a show at the Louvre. Maurice Sendak's 1970 classic children's book, In The Night Kitchen was done in Slumberland style as a superb tribute to McCay.

Unfortunately, the most recent attempt at working with McCay's creation wasn't as successful. The 1992 Japanese animated film, Little Nemo, directed by Masami Hata and William Hurtzs, had its moments on the visual level (Moebius provided some design work), but it was merely an interesting film that had its moments. Worth seeing, but when dealing with the legacy of Windsor McCay such faint praise is damning.

--Steve Stiles