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.