[14 November 2007]
The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was a comic strip by Winsor McCay that ran in newspapers all over the United States from 1904 to 1911. It was briefly discontinued then revived under another title from 1911 to 1914. The comic strip was wildly popular in its day and enjoyed a renewed popularity in the ‘70s following the 1973 paperback release of most of the cartoons. Now The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend has returned in a beautiful hardcover edition lovingly assembled by Ulrich Merkl.
On one level the comic strip is very simple. The stories start with the beginning of a dream, which usually gets more and more bizarre until the dreamer awakes. The poor dreamer then always laments the consumption of some Welsh rarebit before going to sleep and swears to reform. Though other foods are occasionally mentioned, it’s the Welsh rarebit (aka Welsh rabbit) that almost always induces the wild dreams.
The premise of the strip may be simple, but the execution is pure genius. The dreams were a means for McCay to experiment with his drawing and experiment he did. Perspective, scale, viewpoint and all other aspects of drawing are tinkered with and stretched to the limit. McCay didn’t invent the comic strip. What he did invent was just about every way possible to draw it.
Anyone reading a comic book today is enjoying artistic effects that were invented by McCay a century ago. The joy of discovery is one of the joys that a modern reader has while reading The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. While reading the cartoons, I was constantly remembering pictures that I took pleasure in as a boy, from action comics to Tintin to Heavy Metal, all the while feeling discovery mixed with nostalgia. Yet the dreams so masterfully depicted feel brand new, as if you could dream them tonight.
Most of the dreams start plausibly with a mundane event such as stubbing a toe. In the ensuing panels the dream becomes more surreal until the limit is reached or passed and the dreamer awakes. Other dreams start out as fantastic from the onset with truly groundbreaking work in the very first panels. The dreams are never pleasant for the dreamer but are almost always humorous for the reader.
But as good as the The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is, the book The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay is difficult to read. This is partly due to its enormous size (12 x 16½ inches closed, almost three feet open) and weight. This is a bulky tome and attempting to read it can lead to situations where one wonders whether he’s dreaming and had too much rarebit before bedtime. My attempts to read this book has almost poked out one of my wife’s eyes, came perilously close to crushing my cat, and nearly caused me to be sued by an airline stewardess when she backed into it while maneuvering the drink cart, receiving a rude poke in her hindquarters.
Another reason that this book is difficult to read is that when Ulrich Merkl says that something is complete he is not kidding. This is the absolute and definitive work on The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Barring the discovery of time travel or the perfection of séances, this is it. No more can be done. Everything that can possibly apply to The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is written and illustrated in exhaustive and exhausting detail. There’s even a DVD disc included which is packed with yet more information. Plowing through 139 huge pages of introduction and explanation left me wanting to wave a white flag in surrender rather than enjoy some comics.
I feel a sense of guilt in not enthusiastically embracing this book. It’s a beautifully produced piece of art in it’s own right and the whole work is surely a labor of love. I would whole heartedly recommend The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay to any student, scholar or enthusiast of the graphic arts. This book should certainly be in every library. But as a casual and recreational enjoyer of comics, I did not enjoy this book. I felt like a rude child trying to shove past some earnest professors to get to a comic book that they were blocking. By the time I got there, I certainly needed a nap.