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

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