Winsor McCay is a giant among early comic strip artists, famous for the epic scenery of Little Nemo in Slumberland, and famous as an early animator on Gertie the Dinosaur and The Sinking of the Lusitania.
A kind of a trial run for Nemo was McCay’s 1904-1911 strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, which he wrote under the pen name “Silas.” The basic premise is similar to Nemo. A character awakens from a fantastic scenario, only to find that he has been dreaming. Rarebit Fiend is more adult in content than Nemo, often venturing into sexual innuendo, middle-aged angst, politics, violence, and even a subtle hint of its era’s latent racism now and then. There is a totally modern surrealism about the whole affair, a template of underground comics for generations to come. McCay conveys an inimitable sense of building to a climax, with events careening out of control, until. . . the dreaming character wakes up and vows never to eat so many rarebits again. By the way, the Welsh rarebit is a melted cheese on toast treat, sometimes made with a bit of ale. McCay’s dreamers have usually over-indulged, and either the dyspepsia or the alcohol has given way to the nightmares.
The Dalenberg Library edition is a 1973 Dover Publications reprint of a very rare 1905 Frederick A. Stokes compilation of early Rarebit Fiend newspaper strips. The Dover books stay perpetually in print, so this was a new copy, purchased this year. The Library actually has a Frederick A. Stokes edition or two, but many of them (like this one) are nearly impossible to find. Most newspaper comic strips of that era can only be read in old yellowing, decomposing papers, or maybe on microfilm.
The Edison Film The Dream of Rarebit Fiend (my 1906 entry in “100 Years, 100 Films”) was based on the strip featured on page 13 wherein the dreaming fiend is aloft on a flying bed and tumbles off, becoming draped over a weathervane. That particular strip is a rather innocuous example, however.
Many of the strips are quite macabre. In one episode, the dreaming character has most of his extremities amputated and ends up carrying them about. In another, a woman’s purse turns into an alligator and tries to eat her. A giant walks on the heads of a New York crowd, topples skyscrapers, and pulls a subway train up from out of the ground.
McCay’s humor is at its best when he amplifies some little anxiety into a complete exaggeration. In one strip, a character starts sweating on the subway, and then the sweat starts pouring off, and then a flood ensues. In another strip, a woman accidentally takes a plumping pill instead of a reducing pill, and then she gets fatter and fatter until she fills the next-to-last frame of the comic. In the last frame, of course, the dreamer wakes.