Winsor Z. McCay, a comic artist, ahead of his time in technique and ability, concurrently drew some of his most well known comics: Little Nemo in Slumberland, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, A Pilgrim’s Progress by Mister Bunion and Poor Jake. His work during that first decade of the 20th century established him as a visionary in the history of comics and the father of animation. He left behind an oeuvre rich in detail but long forgotten until the later part of the century.
McCay rarely talked about his work in his lifetime, so scholars and fans have formulated his legacy based on his artistic virtuosity and what little is known of his daily existence. Given the vivacity of the times, McCay’s work could not have been created in a bubble. Most research only marginally alludes to McCay’s growing social awareness, but his work for adults is packed with insight into the societal consciousness of the era, and is a window into the personality of Winsor McCay. Little Nemo, printed in the New York Herald, was geared towards children, while the rest were all drawn specifically for adult readers of The New York Evening Telegram. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is formatted around the nightmares caused by eating Welsh Rarebit too close to bedtime. A Pilgrim’s Progress by Mister Bunion follows the monotonous tribulations of Mister Bunion and his valise of Dull Care, and in Poor Jake, the title character toils through days filled with what reads as indentured servitude. Weekly, McCay would draw Little Nemo, two Rarebit Fiends, and one Pilgrim’s Progress. So while Nemo was dreamily adventuring through Slumberland, McCays adult characters were dealing with the nightmarish themes of money, class status, and labor. As the comic of an imagined Slumberland left the drawing board, it was replaced by the comic realism of nightmares and burdens, and McCay jumped daily between fantasy and reality.
Juxtaposition was common to McCay’s personality, as noted by two prominent McCay scholars, John Canemaker and Judith O’Sullivan. Both have significantly covered Winsor McCay’s background and their conclusions agree that McCay’s life was often in apposition. In the biography Winsor McCay, His Life and Art, Canemaker calls the life of Winsor McCay paradoxically torn, listing all of the ways in which McCay’s personality often contradicted his actions, from being a shy person but performing in vaudeville, to earning a fortune but lacking the business sense to manage it during his lifetime (Canemaker 259). McCay managed his reality through the use of fantasy and, as O’Sullivan adds, because of this affinity for the fantastic, his troubled social conscience “manifested itself in the intrusion of reality into the world of the dream”(“Great American Comic Strip” 38). The conclusions of Canemaker and O’Sullivan both allude to a troubled social conscience but neither delves far into what Winsor McCay might have been trying to say through his art. A richer history is afforded McCay and his groundbreaking body of work. By looking at the content of that work in the context of society at the time, a more holistic picture emerges of who McCay was and the depth of his comics.
Social commentary was not common in the comic format at this time, so in addition to his experimentation with the physical makeup of comics, McCay was also breaking ground by using comics as commentary. Beginning in 1905 with Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Pilgrim’s Progress, then in 1909 with Poor Jake, McCay drew comics which were reflective of their times and relied consistently on themes of class, labor, and financial strain, themes which were not only important to early 20th century American culture, but were also important to McCay. In the introduction to The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, Ulrich Merkl argues that McCay drew the comic as an “encrypted diary,” and that it was the only work where McCay referenced both current events and personal experiences. But McCay continued this practice in Pilgrim’s Progress, switching the encryption from the format of a nightmare to that of allegory, and then reflecting his own personal frustrations on labor in Poor Jake. By reading his work through the lens of social commentary the connections that existed between what McCay was using to entertain and what he believed to be his own burdens and nightmares become clear. Winsor McCay was driven by a need to attain financial freedom and class status and his only means to these goals was through relentless, monotonous labor. McCay’s comics became darker as the dull care of his life, and the lives of his audience, was exorcised through his work.
About the image
McCay was known to always be impeccably dressed. Attired in custom suits, a cravat, and diamond stickpin, McCay even worked with his hat on, as is captured in the 1906 caricature by cartoonist Clifford Sterret (above). Drawn for The New York Evening Telegram, the illustration points out attributes associated with McCay and his Evening Telegram strips—the chafing dish, a reference to the Welsh Rarebit in Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and a briefcase imprinted “Dull Care,” exactly like Mr. Bunion’s in Pilgrim’s Progress. McCay was a constant smoker, and in the cloud of smoke from his cigarette appears the same satanic figure seen in the Dream of the Rarebit Fiend masthead. Specific to McCay’s person, Sterret places him at his drawing board working, in need of a shave, but still wearing his diamond stickpin and hat.