Friday, December 21, 2007

Review: Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

rarebit fiend winsor mccay cover

The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-1913) by Winsor McCay
Compiled, edited, and published by Ulrich Merkl
464 pages (139 in color)

"An Epic of the Unconscious"

review by BK Munn

This beautiful book was the most overwhelming comics publication of 2007. A labour of love for editor and publisher Ulrich Merkl, The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend represents years of research and collecting and the end result is one of the best examples of archival scholarship combined with great comic art I've ever experienced --and I do mean experienced. The book kind of takes over your life once you get hold of it, sort of like a positive, highly covet-able version of that suitcase full of "dull care" that Mr. Bunion in McCay's Pilgrim's Progress strip was always trying to get rid of.

The metaphor is apt: The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is among the largest and heaviest books I own. It's suitcase-like dimensions are 17 x 12 inches and it weighs in at a whopping nine-and-a-half pounds! (That's 43 x 31 cm, and 4.3 kg, for non-U.S. readers.) It is full of thousands of illustrations and strip reprints, in colour and black-and-white, and includes several scholarly essays by the Italian comics historian Alfredo Castelli, all gorgeously printed on quality paper. The book also comes with a dvd containing all of the episodes and a catalogue raisonne of the strip.

rarebit fiend winsor mccay

But enough of the physicality. Why is this really a great book? Because McCay's Rarebit Fiend is a fantastic, amazingly inventive, and quite funny comic strip that is a joy to read and stands as a high-water mark in the history of comic art.

When Winsor McCay drew the first episode of Rarebit Fiend, he was 34 and just starting out as the editorial cartoonist for the New York Evening Telegram and the New York Herald. Although he had been a commercial artist and cartoonist for over a decade, it was in New York where he would make his fortune and introduce his most famous and lasting creations. Between 1904 and 1905, McCay created a half-dozen comic strips, including Little Sammy Sneeze, Hungry Henrietta, A Pilgrim's Progress, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Although he is probably best remembered for the elaborate Sunday pages he created for Little Nemo (reprinted last year in the magnificent Splendid Sundays), his adult work in Rarebit Fiend represents a more elaborate exploration of dream imagery and themes of anxiety, urbanism, horror, and humour.

The premise of the strip is that each night a different individual suffers nightmares after eating Welsh Rarebit, basically cheese on toast, and wakes up after barely escaping some fantastic, or phantasmagoric, calamity. The rarebit-eaters who populate the strip experience all kinds of assaults and expressions of phobias, from everyday objects and devices that come to life, to transformations of their bodies, physical violence, and travels through time and space, all drawn with a combination of a draughtsman's precision and a caricaturist's skill at exaggeration and manipulation. In McCay's strip, humans are transformed into giants, faces mutate, trains collide, cities are wrecked, and men fly to the moon. These events are presented in a believable, meticulously detailed series of panels that slowly escalate in terms of absurdity or horror, depending on the theme of the strip. McCay created hundreds of these episodes over many years, rarely repeating himself, and always seemed to capture that vague feeling of unease combined with inevitability that characterizes many dreams. And he did it without skimping on detail, imagination, or irony.

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend also represents the glory years of McCay as a comic artist. A pioneer in animation, McCay eventually relaxed his production of comic strips in favour of editorial cartoons and touring his various animated movies (Gertie the Dinosaur, et al) on the vaudeville circuit. Although he briefly relaunched his more popular creations every now and then, he never quite matched the sustained brilliance and creativity that he managed during the initial run of Rarebit. The strip as a whole reads as one long dream, experienced from a variety of viewpoints and dispositions, comprising a sort of epic of the unconscious.

rarebit fiend winsor mccay

The book presents the strip in chronological order, one episode or dream per page, with each strip annotated with dates, historical and biographical details about the artist, and notes about the strips real-world inspirations and references. These notes are very tastefully presented in the margins and sometimes contain great photos and bits and scraps of comic art. In addition, the book has several long text pieces and features, including a chronology of McCay's life and many examples of his work, as well as rare reproductions of the work of other cartoonists and artists who either influenced or were influenced by McCay. Alfredo Castelli provides two essays, one on the "Precursors and Epigones of Winsor McCay" and one on McCay's motivations. Jeremy Taylor also provides an essay on the dream imagery and symbolism in the strip. Much of this material is supplemented and elaborated on by editor Merkl's extensive notes, indexes, and lists, drawn from the strips and from McCay's contemporaries and spiritual descendants. All in all, The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is the most complete collection of a classic comic strip I've ever seen and rewards repeated readings with elaborate connections and associations that rival the gargantuan achievement of McCay's dream poems. My only quibbles are minor: the over-reliance on red as the main secondary colour for highlighting the supplementary material, some repetition in same, and, of course, the sometimes less-than-perfect reproduction of the 100-year-old newspaper materials, some of which only exist on microfilm or in damaged paper form. The vast (vast!) majority of the images are crystal clear, with sharp lines and rich blacks, but every once in a great while the dream is disturbed by a slightly-less-sharp image or letter, making me wish for a time machine to view the originals. Lacking a time-machine, this massive, highly recommended book is the best device for communing with the work of one of the towering geniuses of comics.


The book is available direct from the publisher at
Ordering info is here.
Discounts are available on bulk purchases, so buy one for a friend.
It would make a perfect Holiday gift!

In Canada, the book is available through The Beguiling. I have also heard that is available through the D+Q store but haven't confirmed this. See here for other stores.


revolutionary content rating: 7/proletcult surrealism

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Robin Hood in Canada

Canadian Classics

Ted McCall was a writer notable for creating two early adventure comic strips that ran in Canadian newspapers. In 1933, he created Men of the Mounted, an RCMP strip illustrated by cartoonist Harry Hall. The strip ran in the Toronto Telegram and was eventually immortalized as a Big Little Book.

McCall's second creation was a comic strip version of Robin Hood, chiefly illustrated by Toronto Telegram staffer Charles Snelgrove. Essentially an also-ran in the Prince Valiant-style medieval serial sweeps, this strip had a fairly long life. McCall took the strip to comic book form in the 1940s, during the boom in Canadian comics publishing. Robin Hood and Company ran for 30-odd issues in various formats, from 1941-46.

The incredibly boring episode featured here was printed in the Niagara Falls Evening Review, December 21, 1937. (click on the strip to enlarge the image)

See more at John Adcock's blog!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Snow in the Comics, Part 3: Only 15 More Days Until Beethoven's Birthday!

Snow in Charles Schulz's Peanuts
Part 3 of 3

by BK Munn

I'm sure that Robert Short tackled this in his Gospel According to Peanuts --before the recent Michaelis bio, the most extensive critical treatment of Schulz's work in print-- but I have to wonder if the use of Beethoven's birthday in the strip, coming so close to Christmas, is another aspect of the religiosity of Peanuts, some sort of parable about empty ceremony or advertising. It's funny, I've never really thought about it before. For some, Beethoven is on a Christ-level of greatness (plus, he actually existed), and therefore an apt metaphor for Baby Jesus and his season. I always thought this sign business was hilarious but I also always suspected I was missing something: a function of what Jonathan Franzen called "the koanlike inscrutability" of Schulz's humour.

Anyway, with all this snow, I'm put in mind of how Peanuts seems to contain the most extensive treatment of snow and winter of any comic, with the possible exception of some theoretical Scandinavian or Inuit strip I have yet to encounter. Of course, you could pick almost any subject and Peanuts will have treated it exhaustively, from football to philosophy, from World War I to worms --it was a smart strip that ran for 50 years. (And with the handy index in Fantagraphics' new Complete Peanuts, you can actually look these things up.) Winter holds a central place in the iconography of the strip, not just as a marker for the passage of time and the basis for seasonal gags, but as a metaphor for psychological states and the various major themes of the strip.

snoopy dance winter

I'm sure Schulz liked winter --he certainly liked to play hockey. Sometimes, though, it does seem like he's stretching it a bit, playing on what he thinks other people feel about the season, and poking at those feelings as bit.

snoopy is cold peanuts

Like everything in the strip, snow has its bad side, something capable of instilling terminal ennui and a soul-blackening, body melting, shivering dread.

Speaking of which, I wonder if Canada is ever mentioned in the strip? That would be a grim series of strips. Back to the index...

Next time: the forecast calls for more snow
Part 2
Part 1

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Evel Knievel: Ghost Rider

Evel Knievel, 1938-2007

Evel Knievel, the daredevil motorcycle stuntman and marketing genius, died yesterday. Born Robert Craig Knievel in Butte, Montana, Knievel became a prominent cultural figure in the 1970s as a result of skilled showmanship and several spectacular stunts, several of which brought him grievous bodily harm along with millions of dollars.

Like many men my age, as a young boy I was a fan of Knievel and eagerly awaited his many tv appearances. Contributing to this interest was the line of Knievel toys I coveted and which were relentlessly marketed to me through a variety of media. It may seem strange that a Canadian youngster would be interested in this red-white-and-blue costumed, all-American motorcycle-man, but as a young comic book fan in the 1970s, Knievel's presence and influence were unavoidable.

To start with, Ideal Toys advertised Knievel toys on the back covers of Marvel comics for a period of what seemed like years. Knievel was a natural fit for the Marvel audience and for the Marvel decade that spawned a horde of long-haired monster, barbarian, kung-fu, and rock star comics. The "bad boy"-sounding name and often-gory results of his stunts, combined with the fearlessness and costume of a superhero, made him appear a comic book character come to life, and I could imagine him traveling across America, like Howard the Duck or Bill Bixby on the Incredible Hulk tv show, helping people with their problems and jumping over tanks of sharks.

As Scott Shaw! explains here, Knievel was also the star of his own comic book, a giveaway produced for Ideal Toys and included with the purchase of the toys. The comic tells the story of how Knievel uses several of his trade-marked vehicles to foil a mysterious villain's plot against a racetrack, Scooby-Doo style. The Canadian connection here is that the book was likely illustrated by Hamilton-born Superman artist Win Mortimer.

Coincidentally, yesterday I purchased a partial Mystery Hoard of 1970s comic books, several of which feature Evel Knievel ads. The one at the top of this article was found on the back cover of Son of Satan #8, a Marvel comic from 1976 that also features full-page ads for Hostess Cupcakes, The Six Million Dollar Man's "Mission Control Center", and Ricochet Racers. The ad prominently features Evel's son, Robbie Knievel, who grew up to be a major daredevil as well.

Here's another ad, from the back cover of Tomb of Dracula #41 (1975), pitching Knievel as an adventure hero in the mold of the G.I.Joe and Big Jim dolls:

(I can't help but wonder if my discovery of this Hoard, mostly made up of the sort of more outre and blasphemous titles that alternately shocked, frightened, fascinated, and imperiled my mortal soul during my Catholic boyhood, was in some manner a portent or harbinger of Knievel's death! All of these comics, from Jack Kirby's New Gods to Steve Gerber's Omega the Unknown, are obsessed with themes of death, the afterlife, capes, and pointy collars. And I discovered them only hours before I heard of Knievel's death on the radio in my car.)

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Evel Knievel, besides an industry of daredevils, racers, and monster truck rallies, can be found in the comics that he was featured in and inspired. He was the obvious inspiration for the Johnny Blaze character, a circus motorcycle rider who is transformed into the flaming-skulled, demonic Ghost Rider, later described as "Evel Knievel meets Faust". As well, he seems to have been the inspiration for the earlier Hell-Rider, featured in a series published by Skywald in 1971.

While Knievel never "landed" a full comic book series, his rival and thunder-stealer The Human Fly did successfully make the jump to four colours in 1977 and drove on for 19 issues until the Marvel decade came to an end in 1979. Based on real-life stuntman Rick Rojatt's escapades, the comic actuallly co-starred Ghost Rider in one issue. Just like Win Mortimer, the mysterious Rojatt is rumoured to be Canadian as well, and is the subject of an upcoming documentary by Tony Babinski. (By contrast, the very un-Canadian Team America was a lacklustre 1980s version of the 70s stuntman comics mini-genre.) Just like his toys and the man himself, these comics were gaudy, gory classics that promised more than they delivered.

R.I.P. Evel Kneivel, stuntriding superhero. The legend rides on in the lost comics of the 1970s.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Canadians weigh in on Thor vs The Thing

Mystery Hoard is more of a winter blog, really.

To kick things off again, a simple link to Kevin Church's blog and a new entry in the Canadian Comic Fan Project: a letter from an old Thor comic written by Mark Lund of Keremeos, British Columbia (BC) back in 1965.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Wright Awards are Tomorrow!

The Doug Wright Awards are coming and ther's gonna be a shootout!

The 2007 Wright Awards take place in Toronto on Friday, August 17 at Innis College Town Hall (2 Sussex, @ St. George), 6:30pm-8:30pm. $5.00. Tickets available at the door.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Wright Awards Are Hard to Ignore

The Doug Wright Awards for Canadian cartooning are just 3 days away --this Friday at 6:30 pm in Toronto!

Aren't you just so excited about the Wright Awards that you can't sleep? Don't you feel like you could lose control and wet the bed or something? Do you feel the need to drink some water? The Wright Awards features only the hardest to ignore comics in Canada! And all this week Mystery Hoard is featuring classic comics by Doug Wright to celebrate --just click on the strip at left to see a Doug Wright strip starring the hard to ignore Nipper from a 1959 Weekend Magazine!

The nominees for Best Emerging Talent:

Gray Horses, Hope Larson (ONI Press)

House of Sugar, Rebecca Kraatz (Tulip Tree Press)

Was She Pretty?, Leanne Shapton (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)

Bacter-area, Keith Jones (Drawn and Quarterly)

Mendacity, Tamara Faith Berger & Sophie Cossette (Kiss Machine Presents...)

The 2007 Wright Awards take place in Toronto on Friday, August 17 at Innis College Town Hall (2 Sussex, @ St. George), 6:30pm-8:30pm. $5.00. Tickets available at the door.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Wright Awards: Celebrating the Best Smelling Comic Books in Canada!

doug wright cow brand baking soda comic strip cartoonist ad 1959

The Doug Wright Awards for Canadian cartooning are just 4 days away --this Friday at 6:30 pm in Toronto!

Are you tired of comics that stink? The Wright Awards features only the best smelling comics in Canada! And all this week Mystery Hoard features classic comics by Doug Wright to celebrate --just click on the strip at left to see an ad for Cow Brand Baking Soda from a 1959 Weekend Magazine!

I might even be there, and I have to drive 100 km to do it!

The nominees for Best Smelling Book:

Shenzen: A Travelogue From China, Guy Delisle (Drawn and Quarterly)

This Will All End in Tears, Joe Ollman (Insomniac Press)

Scott Pilgrim and The Infinite Sadness, Bryan Lee O'Malley (ONI Press)

Gilded Lilies, Jillian Tamaki (Conundrum Press)

Nog-a-dod, Marc Bell ed. (Conundrum Press)

The 2007 Wright Awards take place in Toronto on Friday, August 17 at Innis College Town Hall (2 Sussex, @ St. George), 6:30pm-8:30pm. $5.00. Tickets available at the door.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Countdown to The Wright Awards!

The Doug Wright Awards are just 5 days away!

Where will all the cool kids be this Friday night? At the Wright Awards, celebrating the best in graphic novels by both the seasoned pros and the sexy young newcomers of the elite and glamourous world of cartooning in Canada. The 2007 Wright Awards take place in Toronto on Friday, August 17 at Innis College Town Hall (2 Sussex, @ St. George), 6:30pm-8:30pm. $5.00. Tickets available at the door. If you're reading this, you're invited!

Get ready for the fireworks!

Juniper Junction comic strip by Doug Wright 1958

(Juniper Junction strip by Doug Wright, 1958)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

New Old Superman News

Some links about old Superman comic books:

1. A collector is offering for sale the correspondence between Jerry Siegel and National from the period of the first lawsuit over the ownership of Superman.

2. The website devoted to all things classic Superman, Superman Through the Ages, has a new home,

3. Joe Shuster once drew Batman.

4. You can watch the guy who wrote The Science of Superheroes talk about "Superman's boners" on youtube:

5. Clark Kent, DJ

Monday, July 30, 2007

Wiki Weirdness

Writing about the possible infiltration of Wikipedia by state-sponsored "disinfo" agents for Montreal's Centre for Research on Globalization, Dr. Ludwig De Braeckeleer rehearses the history of secret agents messing with the media:

Conducting false flag operations and planting disinformation in the mainstream media have long belonged to the craft of the spies. In the months preceding the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies used both techniques abundantly.

A copy of the CIA's secret history of the coup surfaced in 2000. Written in 1954 by the Princeton professor who oversaw the operation, the story reveals that agents from the CIA and SIS (the American and British intelligence services) "directed a campaign of bombings by Iranians posing as members of the Communist Party, and planted articles and editorial cartoons in newspapers."

Interesting stuff. I wonder if any historians of editorial cartooning have tried to get to the bottom of that one? Anyway, the article goes on to trace the efforts of Wikipedia watchers to track down the identity of a Wiki-editor who was voted "the most abusive administrator of Wikipedia" and who now apparently lives in Alberta and who may or may not have been a secret agent.


other wiki stuff:


interview about the wikipedia war on comics

there is a MAD wiki

Supermanica, dedicated to Superman's world, pre-1986, is a wonderful place to visit

(the cartoon up top is by Bill Avidor)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Mini-Comic Review: The Experiment

The Experiment
by Nick Maandag
20 pages

review by BK Munn

Nick Maandag is a Toronto cartoonist who has produced some interesting work over the last couple of years. His latest is an oversized photocopied mini --almost magazine size-- that contains a complete story told mostly using a 4 x 3 panel grid. The Experiment is a humourously Kafka-esque tale about a hapless homeowner named Sammy whose house is gradually invaded by a horde of identical mad scientists (they all resemble Dr. Bunsen Honeydew from the old Muppet Show, if that character had a nose like a Proboscis monkey) in the name of a vaguely-defined scientific experiment that seems solely designed to drive Sammy crazy and destroy his family. Maandag's story is quite funny and the narrative mixes just enough creepiness with mystery to keep it interesting. The drawings, while slightly clunky, are also funny: the characters, especially Sammy, who looks like a cross between Gumby and one of those Sea Monkeys from the old comic book ads, are very expressive, and Maandag uses lots of hatching and stippling to give his black-and-white pages some texture and volume. I quite enjoyed The Experiment and look forward to Maandag's next project.

(I found my copy for sale at Pages bookstore, but I'm sure you can get one direct from the creator: 626 Manning Ave, Toronto, ON, M6G 2V9. email: nickmaandag at hotmail. Maandag will be appearing at next month's Toronto Comic Arts Festival)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mystery Hoard: Guelph Yearbook Cartoons

From an interesting Mystery Hoard unearthed earlier this week: cartoons from Guelph high school yearbooks.

Taking a break from comic books, I dug up a pair of yearbooks (I guess some people would call it a facebook) while thrifting this week. They are both from Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute (GCVI or just "GC" to us locals). The books (titled "Acta Nostra") are from 1954 and 1955 and are full of great photos of earnest, clean-cut, and lily-white young mid-century moderns. The books are also full of cartoons by the local geniuses, class clowns and "artists" of the day, some of whom helped to assemble the books. I have been imagining Terry Iles and Marcia Rosenberg, seen above pasting up the comics, falling in love and getting married after graduation. A great mix of Mad Magazine, Sad Sack, and untutored outsider art styles. See for yourself by clicking on the cartoons below, from 1954:

Friday, July 06, 2007

Magic Shadows Intro

Magic Shadows was a show on TV Ontario, the provincial public boradcaster, that ran during the 1970s and was hosted by Elwy Yost. Yost was a great fan of old Hollywood and Magic Shadows serialized classic movies every weekday. Yost was also the longtime host of Saturday Night at the Movies, a weekly double bill of uncut film that competed with Hockey Night in Canada.

The best part of Magic Shadows for a kid was the animated intro and the 1930s-50s adventure serials that were frequently featured. This is a Youtube video of the opening theme: it's bracketed by some station id's and by Elwy doing a remote intro but it is a very nostalgic piece of film for people of a certain generation. Does anyone know who was responsible for this animation?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Shazam! It's July 4!

(click on images to read full-size)

In honour of our U.S. cousins, a special find from a recent mystery hoard: Capt. Marvel's Bicentennial Bear Battle.

From Shazam! #25, 1976. For the U.S. bicentennial, writer E. Nelson Bridwell took Captain Marvel on a cross-country jaunt in pursuit of Dr. Sivana who has decided to "destory America, city by city" beginning with an attempt to sabotage Billy Batson's WHIZ-TV documentary. The adventure would continue into 1977 and involve the return of Black Adam, among others.

In this excerpt, Billy and his pal Whitey Murphy, imported into the comics from the Captain Marvel movie serial, encounter the ancient enemy of patriotic Americans, the brown bear. I love it when superheroes fight bears! (That's Sivana in a blue wig in the last panel.) Later in the issue, Capt. Marvel rescues a young actor dressed as Buffalo Bill Cody from fireworks and then is captured by Sivana aboard "a replica of the captured British ship David Glasgow Farrabut commanded when he was 12!" The American Revolution sure involved quite a bit of child labour!

The art is by the one and only Kurt Schaffenberger.

Happy 4th, Yanks! To quote John Adams: "This day will be the most memorable epic in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Strange Customs of Steve Ditko

Sometimes you just find yourself looking at pictures of homemade action figures on the internet.

From megomuseum:

By Ken Pick:

Created by a genius known only as Bottleimp

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Strand on Comics Style, circa 1909

John Adcock digs up another great old article about comics. "Style in Comic Art" was published in 1909 in the Strand Magazine. It showcases the work of McCay, Zim, and Lawson Wood. John has also dug up some great old Cruikshank illos and Harry Rountree, the original Sherlock Holmes illustrator.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Uncle Bobby, R.I.P.

uncle bobby

From this Citytv site comes the news that kids' tv host Uncle Bobby (aka Bobby Ash), who had a popular show in the 1970s has died at 82. Quite surprising, considering he appeared very old to his childish viewers. Uncle Booby was born in the UK and was one of those gleeful, earnest host that used to be very common on local tv: everyday he'd show a bunch of cartoons, interact with some puppets and stiff humans, and announce the birthdays of his viewers, to the accompaniment of a very annoying but unforgettable song (originally recorded by Jim Reeves?) called Bimbo the Birthday Clown. The show went through several name changes, and began on Hamilton's CHCH before winding up on CTV. The cause of death was heart attack.

CTV has the news video attached to its website --I would suggest those eager to preserve this kind of video info try to save the footage digitally.

I couldn't find any more footage online (mostly because CTV has removed its content from youtube) but here is some more info:

Show memories

Buffalo Tribute Site

Canadian site

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Superman Coloring Book

Sorting through some old magazines, I came across the Superman Coloring Book, published by Whitman in 1966. It has a nice Curt Swan cover with a full-colour Superman posing in front of a page of black-and-white strips, but the real treasure is inside. Normally finding an old colouring book with the pages coloured-in is a disapointing experience. Collectors want their books mint, with no markings or damage. But for me, the thing that really makes this book worth owning is the inventive colouring that adds life to the mediocre hackwork of the interior drawings, produced by something called "Jason Studios" for Whitman. The coloured-in pages are just beautiful and make the story of the book almost a surreal reading experience. You may have read the classic Superman adventure, "Superman Red, Superman Blue" --now read "Superman Orange, Brown, Pink, and Green!"

After a really slow start to the story, featuring the gang hanging around the Daily Planet office on a slow news day, the plot really begins with Superman chasing some crooks who hit him with a Red K missile which causes him to shrink. That's when our mysterious colourist really gets interested:

Our only clue to the identity of this coloring genius --a scrawled "Joann" at the top of the page!

Eventually Supes figures out some sort of solution involving a Lead Mine (!) and things get back to normal.

Lois looks kind of disappointed that Superman is no longer tiny!

The End!