Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 8 | Winsor McCay

Little Nemo in Slumberland, February 2nd 1908.  By Winsor McCay.

Comics and animation have an interesting relationship.  Both can be broadly designated “pictures that move”, both have the same typical end goal of visual storytelling, and both rely on frame after frame of closely considered progression to push themselves forward.  Someone smart (I can’t remember who right now, apologies) once said that animation is comics at 24 frames a second, which is basically true, especially when the physical medium — film strips — that animation resides on is considered.  A stretch of animation celluloid is a comic, maybe a weird, incredibly slow-moving one, but a comic nonetheless.  A litany of great comics artists, from Alex Toth and Jack Kirby to Matt Groening and Ben Jones, have done serious time in animation.  The skill set isn’t the exact same thing by any means, but there’s plenty that translates.

Probably the artist whose works blur the boundary between comics and animation most severely is Winsor McCay.  An early virtuoso in both media, McCay came closest to a fusion of the two with the page above, which finds its animated parallel in this video.  The strange, funhouse-mirror distortions of anatomy are the same on the screen and on the page; by 1908 McCay possessed such an intimate knowledge of the character-forms he’d been drawing for years on end that he could stretch them out and squash them down perfectly, elongating and impacting their lines and contours without ever betraying the fundamental shapes behind them.  It’s interesting to note the difference between the printed and projected versions of this scene.  On screen, the focus is on the continuous transmutation from form to form to form, the flowing and ebbing of lines that never disappear, the characters’ interaction with the fixed borders of the frame.  On the page, it’s all about the remarkable difference between fixed forms, the way the lines change disappear and reappear in immensely different form between panels without changing what they depict in the slightest.

Those differences must have seemed pretty arbitrary to McCay as he drew the two works, though.  After all, to animate the scene he drew he had to see the motion happening between the frames, to understand the exactitudes of space and shape and change going on from one picture to the next in order to make the printed version, and see the broader, more general progressions of movement involved to create the animation.  1908 was early indeed in the history of both mediums; looking at this Little Nemo page and then watching the short feels like experiencing something that could have been but never was: animation considered as another, slightly different kind of comics or vice versa, the membranes separating the media so thin that they could reach out and almost touch each other.  Of course, as time went on the two forms developed vastly different languages.  But for that one brief moment!

Still, we have what we have, and given that comics and animation as they are and have been for quite some time now operate in vastly different ways, seeing what’s basically the same piece in both media allows an excellent opportunity to consider the formal differences that separate the two.  You’ll notice I haven’t used the word “sequence” to refer to McCay’s animation (had to stop myself a couple times but whatever).  That’s because it isn’t a sequence, at least not in the comics-centric way we’ve been defining the word in this column.  Though animation as seen in its raw, film-stripped form is plainly comics, it’s tough to make the same claim for it in its intended state, moving images on a screen.  Comics are still, static images that progress from one to the next to create the illusion of motion, continuity, time passing.  That sequencing of multiple images is what makes comics comics.  In animation, however, the motion is actual, perceptible within a single frame, more “real” than anything comics can achieve.  And that’s where the big difference comes from: because it can actually move, animation is pinned to one space, a constant progression inside the single box shape of the screen.  Whereas comics move from panel to panel, box to box, which means that the action can happen within any shape of any size.

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The traditional mode of “animation” in comics since McCay (from Jim Steranko on down) has been frustratingly tied to the look of the medium on the screen, moving figures around in a string of same-sized boxes that seem designed only as containers, not shapes in their own right.  McCay, however, seems to have an instinctive understanding of comics’ potential for feats of animation, and as Little Nemo and friends change size and shape, so too do the panels they inhabit, stretching like taffy to maintain a consistent framing of the figures’ wild changes in height.  Look at the layout, panel contents aside: it’s animation just as much as the actual pictures are, the panel shapes and sizes artranged into a precise tracking of movement.  This is what comics can achieve that film can’t, a wildly variable space for presentation used to maximum effect.  It’s striking, shocking, the medium itself flowing and dislocating along with the characters.  McCay created comics so much like animation and animation so much like comics that it may be tough at first glance to tell the difference, but he was keenly aware of the unique potentials each carried.  Perhaps it was inevitable that they’d become such vastly different things, perhaps not; but looking at the prehistoric branch of lineage where one splits from another is a vital lesson in how both can be best used.



Why do the reprints of his work have to be out of print and sold at astronomical prices? DX

taschen’s book is pretty available/cheap

Fantastic piece of McCay there. Possibly the greatest comic strip artist ever?

Maxie: I’d put George Herriman and Frank King above McCay, just a little bit. But I think McCay is the most influential comics page artist ever, as I’ve happily detailed here.

I’m not even getting in this ring! McCay, Herriman, King… I’d rather read any of them than pretty much anyone else, leave it at that.

Just looked at your top 10… Your number One is a stretch! Some good choices, but, really, Bill Seinkowitz? Neal Adams? Where’s Moebius? Frank Miller?

Hi Maxie,

As with any list, there are bound to be omissions. I don’t want to hijack this post, though – it’s about Winsor McCay, and it’ll stay about Winsor McCay. If you want to take it to my site, I’d be happy to have a conversation there.


Matt, thanks for linking to that Little Nemo animation. I had never seen it before, and it was truly breathtaking.

Slightly off-topic but, regarding the immutability shape of the “box” in a/v media: It’s far from the norm. but some filmmakers, like Peter Greebaway, for example, do experiment with the shape and size of their frame, or even use multiple frames in the screen at the same time:

Do you think these kind of formal solutions bring both media at least a little closer?

oh yeah, I forgot to mention split-screens! The answer is yeah, that does bring them closer… but they’re so non-normative in film that they feel kind of weird and artificial to me (like the POW, BAM sound effects in the ’60s Batman TV show, for example). But yes, good point.

I’d like to add that that video can be seen on Winsor McCay’s DVD. It’s the first cartoon he ever did, all by hand.

Briany Najar

May 6, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Harvey Kurtzman did a lot of that “traditional mode of animation” in his war comics, the technique with the static viewpoint, that is.
I reckon you’re probably familiar enough with Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat to have noticed that, but it sort of looks like you’re crediting it to Steranko, so I thought I might as well mention it.

This is a brilliant series of posts, by the way.
Well done for doing the necessary and taking it beyond isolated panels, and with tempo.

I have a collection of comic books I saw a news coverage about comic books feb 22 2012 on channel 8 please send info on who to get in touch with name number etc. my phone 214-434-4680 clement williams is my name

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