Arts, Culture & Media

If you loved animated movies, thank a relatively unknown cartoonist named Winsor McCay

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Credit: Library of Congress

A cel from Winsor McCay's 1914 animated film Gertie the Dinosaur.

In 1914, the year World War I began, literature, drama and music were being transformed by new ideas and new technologies. Winsor McCay, a cartoonist for the Hearst newspapers, was among those probing the outer edges of his art form.

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He achieved a singular reputation among his peers as the creator of Little Nemo, a scamp who climbed high-rise buildings in his dreams. He was particularly interested in the new skyscrapers and the people in them, and what it meant to be a modern office drone.

“He approached the comics very personally,” says Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers. “You can see the [connection] between his daily life and the comics that he was making.”

Speigelman points to an early McCay strip called A Pilgrim's Progress, about a top-hatted man carrying a suitcase called Dull Care. “The man tries to get rid of the Dull Care and leave it somewhere and just runs away,” explains Spiegelman. “By the end of the strip it's delivered back to him. There's no escaping his yoke of the day job.”

McCay became restless and started playing around with something new: animation. He created some of the first cartoon movies ever.

At first he adapted characters from his comic strips, like Little Nemo. But in 1914, he became more ambitious. McCay created an original character called Gertie the Dinosaur and started his own act: He would show a Gertie film in a theater and appear live on stage with it, interacting with his cartoon on the screen.

In one scene, McCay coaxed a shy Gertie out of a cave and asked her to bow to the audience. There was also a moment when McCay tossed a real pumpkin, which would then would appear on the screen as a tiny, pea-sized item that Gertie would gulp down.

“It's definitely performative,” Spiegelman says. “Originally there were no real movie theaters, so it was part of vaudeville.”

McCay was already a successful vaudeville star, Speigelman explains. He was known as the Lightning Sketch Artist. As part of the act, a spotlight would appear on a volunteer from the audience. Then the lights would go out and, in the dark, McCay would draw the person's portrait. Then he added Gertie to his act.

McCay invented some of the methods adopted by Walt Disney seven years later, when he began making his animated shorts. “They owed a lot to him,” Spieglman says, “but he wasn't the very first. He worked for a couple of people who were also among the pioneers, but he upped the ante greatly.”

McCay perfected techniques like ‘pegging’ drawings, so each one would be in exactly the same spot on the piece of paper when he was shooting it. He also invented key frames, Spiegelman says.

But McCay didn't want to patent his inventions. He believed his new techniques were a gift to this new art form and to the world. In fact, McCay was so committed to animation as an art form that he became angry when Max Fleischer created the Betty Boop cartoons and animation became commercialized.

Fleischer once introduced McCay at an event honoring his contribution to animation. “For whatever reason, [McCay] started in on a rant about, ‘This has just been turned into a business, and it was always meant to be an art.’” Spiegelman says. “And he was rather excoriating of the people who let that happen.”

Will people still be talking about Winsor McCay in another 100 years? Does he have a permanent legacy?

Spiegelman answers this question by quoting Saul Steinberg, the artist famous for his New Yorker cover, View of the World from 9th Avenue, among many other things. Steinberg said his goal was to make something that “once you've seen it, you cannot ever have not seen it — that it informs your way of seeing after that.”

“That seems like as good a goal as any for an artist to work from,” says Spiegelman, “and I believe that McCay accomplished that quite a few times over.”

This story is based on an interview by PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, where you'll find other coverage of popular culture, design and the arts.

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