Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Katie Moody on Winsor McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend”

Note: This is the first in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.

These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!

Unless otherwise noted, any image captions or comments in brackets [like this] were added by the Survey I instructor, Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes. All illustrations in this particular post were added by the instructor.

[Winsor McCay, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: This March 8, 1905 installment of Rarebit Fiend inspired McCay’s 1921 animated film The Pet, the first-ever ‘giant monster attacking a city’ motion picture ever made. Thus, McCay and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was arguably the wellspring for immortals like King Kong and Godzilla!]

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Strip Analysis: Winsor McCay’s Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend
by Katie Moody
(CCS, Class of 2012)

The first sixty strips of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, as collected by Frederick A. Stokes in 1905 and recollected by Dover Publications in 1973 [cover pictured at left], are a hallucinatory window into the 1905 adult’s subconscious. As a pioneer of the nascent storytelling medium that modern readers would recognize as comics, Winsor McCay in particular represents a bridge between static, classic illustration and the more flexible, faster-paced nature of comics storytelling, a change itself enabled by advances in printing technology. His sophisticated themes, visual tropes, and other stylistic bids for sequential art’s legitimacy—all readily apparent in this mere seven percent of the strip’s run—remain relevant to comics enthusiasts today.

Following at least ten earlier newspaper strips from McCay—with his more lighthearted Little Sammy Sneeze and Hungry Henrietta among them—Dream of the Rarebit Fiend stands out as a series of grand experiments. Its target audience is adult readers; the laws of reality and reason apply only to the final panel, the themes are more mature, the protagonist (almost always an adult) changes with each installment, and the entire blossoming field of psychoanalysis (Freud’s seminal* Interpretation of Dreams was published only five years prior) is McCay’s playground. Deep-rooted desires, primal fears, and social anxieties—the latter represented by dreamt inept encounters with peers who deliver, with straight matter-of-factness, what readers would immediately recognize as gleeful absurdities—frequently imperil the rarebit-fueled sleeper, and these fever-dream themes are so universal and relatable that many of the scenarios, metaphors, and visuals are still compelling over a century later.

McCay’s accomplished Dream illustrations—with his characteristic strict perspective, lush detail, and trendy Art Nouveau influences in line weights—are obvious attempts to appeal to turn-of-the-century sensibilities. McCay was a woodcut illustrator first, and so upon switching professional gears to creating newspaper strips he must have been well aware of engaging in a popular art form—almost by definition ubiquitous, embraced by the public, and dismissed by critics. While he was pragmatic enough to find such profitable venues for his creative experiments as print and (especially with his animation milestone Gertie the Dinosaur) vaudeville, the work itself has a level of craft and technical integrity that is inarguable to modern eyes.

Now that McCay’s later strip Little Nemo in Slumberland is universally recognized as an early comics masterpiece, and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is an obvious precursor to Nemo in both subject and content, it is clear that McCay took the entire rarebit endeavor seriously in spite of all the wild experimentation. Even the angles and placement of the dialogue text are toyed with, as seen in strips forty-three to forty-five (on pages 45-47); A word balloon twists up along the wake of its tossed speaker [above, right], angry and indignant retorts swirl around the chaos of a physical altercation [left], and even the “OH OH OH OH” of a sideways-flattened commuter is placed on end [below]. The reading experience was McCay’s to toy with, manipulate, and consciously attempt to control; perhaps his testing and invention in the medium was further bolstered by the use of a pseudonym, “Silas” (employed for contract reasons).

So why does this strip have such longevity and an immediacy that enchants new readers to this day?

In spite of the 1905 collection’s claims to the contrary, Rarebit itself is unnecessary, as any other foodstuff could stand in for the arbitrary nightmare fuel if sufficiently spicy or exotic. In this strip, rarebit simply symbolizes excess and a source of regret; it is a seed that has a vivid and unsettling blossom of insight, though the shuddering dreamer rarely cares to give their experience further exploration. The modern equivalent of rarebit is another ubiquitous “cheese pie” that is often paired with beer—a combination still blamed for occasional agitating misadventures in dreamland.

Since it’s not the specific source of the dreaming that has endured, it must be the dreaming itself. The few topical references of McCay’s time that made it into this collection’s strips—Roosevelt, the newly constructed Flatiron Building in New York, jabs at Mormons (whose church had only officially abandoned polygamy, the strip’s topic, in 1890)—are curious artifacts of its original time-specific context, but the episodic and continuity-free nature of each exuberant installment allow the strip to remain welcoming to new readers. The entertaining exaggerations and alarming scenarios, the fast and furious rush of strange plots and characters’ resonant emotional responses, and the operatic lushness of McCay’s panels all but beg further reading. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is a page-turner if ever there was one, with more eventful developments in its eight to nine panels than in an entire issue of most modern “event” tie-in pamphlets.

Given the fast-paced and effusive assault of content that McCay packed into each episode of Dream, the alacrity of this new medium must have been intoxicating to him. Far before Hollywood became the special-effects powerhouse that we (and Michael Bay) know so well today, Winsor McCay was using pen, paper, and gray matter to convey the most fantastical stories scenarios that he could conceive. Though he would later explore the logical conclusion between comics and film with his forays into early animation, his visual storytelling needed no more than the printed page itself in order to convey a compelling experience to his audience. That McCay’s chosen medium would still be struggling for serious legitimacy a century later, in spite of the mature themes and visual metaphors employed by him and countless other creators over the intervening years, is due to no fault of his own.

Footnotes:
* (Cough.)

Source:
Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend; McCay, Winsor. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY. 1973.

[The above essay is ©2010 Katie Moody, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]

[A page of Winsor McCay Rarebit Fiend original art, from the collection of Dr. Ulrich Merkl (see below).]
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About the author/student:

  • Katie Moody comes to CCS with professional credentials in the field, which you can see here;
  • at present, she does not offer an online blog or site for her work, but once she does, we’ll add that link.

    Further reading & resources:

    * CCS faculty member Stephen Bissette interviewed German art and comics scholar/archivist Ulrich Merkl about Dr. Merkl’s definitive Dream of the Rarebit Fiend collected edition, which we have in the Schulz Library rare books collection (donated by Bissette and Dr. Merkl).

  • Read “Dream of the Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: An Interview with Ulrich Merkl (with Three Addendums),” at the original Myrant blog site (archived at this link), July 23, 2007.
  • In his 2007 Myrant overview of the year’s best books, Bissette wrote:

    “Ulrich Merkl’s ravishing, absolutely definitive Dream of the Rarebit Fiend collection is jam-packed with much, much more than “just” the most complete collection of Winsor McCay’s seminal comic strip available anywhere on Earth. It’s also a comprehensive overview of McCay’s life, career and the context of the times in which one of our greatest cartoonists created this still-amazing strip, which essentially poured the foundation for the whole of 20th Century comics (and, as Merkl demonstrates, much of its art, cinema and visionary works).”

  • Joshua Glenn of The Boston Globe has archived this lively narrated online slideshow, based on Dr. Merkl’s book, demonstrating the influence of McCay’s work on many famous films (covered in further detail in Markl’s book, of course).
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    About srbissette

    Stephen R. Bissette is a native Vermonter, a cartoonist/writer/illustrator/editor/packager/publisher, and a vet of almost four decades in the American comics industry. He has been teaching at CCS since it's founding in 2005. He remains best known for his work on DC Comics SWAMP THING in the 1980s, along with his work on TABOO, 1963, TYRANT, and many others.
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