Sammy lets fly with a typical one. Artist: Winsor McCay.


Original medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: The New York Herald
First Appeared: 1904
Creator: Winsor McCay
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When he first went to work at The New York Herald, in 1903, Winsor McCay was like most other newspaper cartoonists of the time. He'd work on one minor feature after another before hitting on the one …

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… he's most famous for, as Frederick Burr Opper created Monopoly Lodge Entertainment, Hans from Hamburg and many others before Happy Hooligan edged out his other series; and George Herriman did Professor Otto & His Auto, Major Ozone's Fresh Air Crusade and more before Krazy Kat came along. Among the features McCay created before Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905) were Hungry Henrietta, Poor Jake and Midsummer Day Dreams. Little Sammy Sneeze is probably his most famous work from this period, as well as his first since Jungle Imps, which he'd done back in Chicago, to be sustained over an appreciable length of time.

Sammy first appeared in the Herald on Sunday, July 24, 1904. His entire comedic potential was summed up in his name — in fact, the surname alone said it all. He sneezed. "He just simply couldn't stop it," as a blurb accompanying his logo put it. What's more, according to his other regular blurb, "He never knew when it was coming." And his were the most violent, destructive sneezes imaginable, short of turning himself inside-out.

A typical episode consisted of six panels. For the first four, he'd build up to the sneeze while those around him, busy with completely unrelated activities, didn't notice the impending disaster. In the fifth, the sneeze itself would suddenly turn those activities into chaos. Panel six was the reaction, which often consisted of Sammy being lifted physically into the air by someone's boot. Once, he was kicked out of a door at the top of a flight of stairs, no mean feat no matter what the provocation (and not the sort of thing most cartoonists would even attempt).

That McCay was able to wrest laughter from this rigid formula, week after week, is a testament to his tremendous ability. Sammy would send horses, cows, camels, even elephants, flying. No, not running away — actually flying. Once, he chased an escaped tiger back into its cage. Balancing acts, chess games, reconstructed dinosaur skeletons that took 15 years to assemble … anything that could cause consternation by unexpectedly being thrown into disarray was grist for Sammy's mill. He was popular enough for a 72-page collection of his strips to have been published by the Herald in 1905.

But even the greatest genius couldn't sustain so limited a schtick forever. Sammy stopped appearing during December of 1906, while McCay continued with A Pilgrim's Progress, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and, of course, Nemo. The sneezing routine was lifted years later by various cartoon characters, including Sneezly Seal and Little Sneezer, but was never again the sole focus of a weekly series for a period of two and a half years.


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Text ©2005-09 Donald D. Markstein. Art ©: Little Sammy Sneeze is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.