Winsor McCay drew beautiful and inventive comics for Hearst papers around the turn of the 20th century — strips like “Little Nemo” and “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” that still seem fresh today. But McCay grew restless and wanted to bust out of his paneled existence. So he dove into a medium that was only just being invented: animated cartoons.
McCay started by animating characters from his strips like Little Nemo, but in 1914 he introduced something new: an original cartoon character — a shy brontosaurus named Gertie. McCay would stand next to the screen and interact with his cartoon, coaxing her to come out of her cave and do tricks. “There were no real movie theaters, so it was part of vaudeville,” explains Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist and McCay fan. Gertie was rendered as a simple line drawing, but expressive and sophisticated, and was an influence on Walt Disney when he took up animation a few years later.
For Winsor McCay, comics and cartoons weren’t cheap entertainment: they were new art forms. He became disillusioned with the commercialization of cartoons that came after Gertie. Late in his career, at a dinner to honor him, he gave the younger generation of animators a piece of his mind. “He went off on a rant,” Spiegelman says. “‘This has just been turned into a business, and it was always meant to be an art.’ He was rather excoriating of the people who had let that happen.”
Video: "Gertie the Dinosaur"
This version of the film played at nickelodeons, without Winsor McCay's participation (as in the vaudeville version).
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