Jun 9, 2010

Top Ten Most Influential Comics Artists #3: Winsor McCay

Welcome to another installment of the top 10 most influential artists of all time! Click here for the archive!

Today's influential artist is Winsor McCay!

Why Is He Influential?

Winsor McCay is the father of animation, so to talk about the influence of Winsor McCay on comics is to talk about the influence of animation on comics, which is by itself considerable and self-evident. But even if Winsor McCay didn't pioneer animation, he still would make it on this list, because he was the first guy to really show on a grand scale that comics could move.

In Little Nemo in Slumberland, Winsor McCay took a little boy named Nemo into a fantastical dreamworld, and really cut loose with a whole variety of techniques, but the most important thing he ever did was truly show motion. You could read any Sunday strip, and you could feel it move.

For example, in this strip, you can practically feel the elephant coming right at you:

While here, note the distortions that McCay puts Flip, Nemo, and the Jungle Imp through. You can imagine it actually being animated (and in fact, McCay's first foray into animation was similar. I've embedded the video for your benefit!).

There's also this particular strip, for which even one panel is a work of art. But taken as a whole, you can feel the artwork moving and diverging as the characters branch off into their various reflections.

This one is perhaps the most famous of McCay's Nemo strips. Note how the panel height changes as the bed gets taller, simulating the motion and the stride of the animated inanimate object. McCay's use of a continuous background in panels 8 and 9 also emphasize this movement!


I would be doing Winsor McCay an injustice if I didn't talk about his impeccable eye for detail and his incredible mastery of perspective. As evident in the pictures above and below, McCay could draw with the best of them. His skill was grounded in a formal understanding of his craft. But he drew his main characters in a cartoony way, favoring gesture over realism. This is a precursor to what Scott McCloud would call in Understanding Comics as "the masking effect."

In essence, you can easily project yourself, your thoughts, your personality into a protagonist whose features are undefined (and seeing as how Nemo literally means no one, it works out perfectly), while the realistic surroundings ground you in the context of the narrative and the rest of the work. It's a technique that has been used time and time again over the years - in any market you can think of.

What Works of His Should I Read?

With Winsor McCay, you should really begin and end with Little Nemo in Slumberland, which has been reprinted by Sunday Press in So Many Splendid Sundays and So Many Splendid Sundays. The story of a boy adventuring through his dreams was McCay's masterpiece.

There are other Winsor McCay works out there, such as Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, a collection of stories about people who have nightmares after eating rarebit, and Little Sammy Sneeze, which was about a little boy named Sammy, who sneezed and destroyed everything in his immediate surroundings in each adventure. Both works are still very notable, but they don't compare to Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Where Can I See His Influence?

You can see Winsor McCay's influence everywhere, from the Disney cartoons to any cartoons to any comic book that ever tried replicating the illusion of motion on its pages. There literally isn't an area of comics or animation that the influence of Winsor McCay can't be felt. His works have inspired tributes from people like Rick Veitch, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore.

But if we're talking purely on a superficial level, you could see shades of McCay as early on as Herge's Tintin:

And as recently as Jeff Smith's Bone:

But like I said, there isn't a single place that you can't look in comics and not see McCay's influence.

Where Can I Officially Find Him Online?

Winsor McCay doesn't have an official site, so can I encourage you to buy the DVD of a documentary based on him and his early forays into animation? It includes the legendary Gertie the Dinosaur in full!


The Professor said...

Okay, I'm getting tired of writing it, but another excellent choice.

I can see how it would be hard to decide who should be ranked higher, Kirby or McCay, but I think you made the right decision. So much of the current mantra about how-to-read comics and comics-aren't-movies can be nicely illustrated by the stuff the Winsor McCay created 100 years ago. That speaks volumes about his impact.

Excellent examples of his art as well.

Duy Tano said...

Hmmm, now that you mention it, maybe I should have put Kirby before McCay -- considering how going into a comic shop these days, you see more "published storyboards" than "sequential storytelling." (Blech)

Most of the examples of his art came from Masters of American Comics, which was given to me by someone I think you know well.

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