If Nemo were his only creation, McCay would still go down in history. However, Zenas Winsor McCay was also the artist behind 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur, considered the first example of true character animation. The WikiWackyWoo also tells us:
Although Gertie is popularly thought to be the earliest animated film, McCay had earlier made Little Nemo (1911) and How a Mosquito Operates (1912). The American J. Stuart Blackton and the French Émile Cohl had experimented with animation even earlier; Gertie being a character with an appealing personality distinguished McCay’s film from these earlier “trick films”. Gertie was the first film to use animation techniques such as keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, the Mutoscope action viewer, and animation loops. It influenced the next generation of animators such as the Fleischer brothers, Otto Messmer, Paul Terry, and Walt Disney. John Randolph Bray unsuccessfully tried to patent many of McCay’s animation techniques and is said to have been behind a plagiarized version of Gertie that appeared a year or two after the original. Gertie is the best preserved of McCay’s films—some of which have been lost or survive only in fragments—and has been preserved in the US National Film Registry.
Little Nemo began his life as a comic strip, running in the New York Herald from 1905 to 1911. Hired away by William Randolph Hearst — in an early dispute about Intellectual Property — the Herald won the rights to the Little Nemo name, but McCay was able to move the characters he created to the New York American, where they reappeared under the name “In the Land of Wonderful Dreams.”
McCay led a fascinating life. During his time with the Hearst papers, he also debuted a vaudeville act, where he would produce drawings at a rapid pace. He would also appear with his animated creation Gertie in an interactive show. A live McCay would command the animated figure, who would comply.
It was a box office hit in much simpler times.
Eventually, Gertie toured the country in the form seen above, without the live segments, using intertitles instead.
Hearst, who seemed to think he owned McCay, objected to his vaudeville career because he thought the strip suffered. When he couldn’t reach McCay because he was on stage, Hearst ordered his papers not to run advertising for the stage show. Eventually the artist was forced to limit his stage appearances and, in the end, Hearst got McCay off the stage almost completely. However, he also agreed to pay McCay more to make up for the loss of the box office income.
In the ’70s I became interested in comic strips that came before my time. Starting with what’s considered the Golden Age of Superheroes, I worked backwards.
I fell in love with Little Nemo the second I found him. He’s been my favourite comic strip character ever since. I’ve bought large coffee table books filled with Slumberland comics and return to them often.
Little Nemo is simply gorgeous to look at. Each viewing brings out details not noticed before. While McCay created much of the later vocabulary of the graphic artist, no other comic strip before, or since, looks this way. Cartoonists ever since have tried to imitate him, but nobody has ever come close.
However, it’s appeal to me is based on more than that. Little Nemo has always appealed to both the child and the cynic in me: Dreaming big but waking up in the same mundane world day after day no matter how exciting a night I may have had.
Apparently there was a crappy animated movie made in 1989 called Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. From all reports I’m glad I missed it.
The images for this post came from (were swiped at) The Comic Strip Library, a wonderful source. Here are a couple more full size: