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Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Waking Dream of the Rarebit Fiend
As fans of vintage newspaper comics -- and hopefully all other human beings -- are aware, Winsor McCay's "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend," published in the New York Evening Telegram and elsewhere from 1904-11, is one of the greatest achievements of the form. Each of the nearly 600 "episodes" -- as McCay's almost-animated strips are described by scholars -- of "Fiend" presents the surreal and fantastic adventures of some poor sap who foolishly ate Welsh Rarebit before going to bed. (One serving of Welsh Rarebit = approx. 1/4 pound rich cheese, thinned with ale, melted with mustard and cayenne, and served over toast.)
Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" had been published a couple of years before "Fiend" started, and the notion that dreams aren't irrational flights of fancy -- that they are, in fact, at some level always a symbolic reflection of our waking lives -- was fertile territory for an imaginative and funny artist and writer like McCay. Better still, unlike "Little Nemo," McCay's famous cartoon dream-adventures for kiddies, "Fiend" was for adults -- the dreams were nightmares, each one creepier and kookier than the next.
Remember David Lynch's "Eraserhead," in which one bizarre thing after another happens to the protagonist? Read "The Complete 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend' (1904-1913)," a colossal (oversized, hardcover, 464-page) tome written and edited by Ulrich Merkl, an independent art historian and comics scholar, and you'll soon realize that Lynch had nothing on McCay. Neither did other filmmakers, who -- Merkl demonstrates -- ripped off McCay's nightmare visions for such famous sequences as the dance of the pink elephants in "Dumbo," the giant hands grabbing a woman through a window in the 1933 "King Kong" (not to mention the climbing-to-the-top-of-a-skyscraper-to-catch-a-plane scene), and several sequences from Luis Bunuel's surrealist classic "L'Age d'Or."
Phew! This is the rare kind of book that -- if given the proper place in your home, perhaps a plinth in the living room -- will sustain you for many months. For example, there is an entire section dedicated to teasing out signs, from "Fiend" episodes, of McCay's early work as a circus poster illustrator. (The first image in this post, from a 1908 episode in which a hunter dreams about hybrid animals, is one such example.) Another section demonstrates that McCay predicted the sinking of the Lusitania (the Lusitania sinks in a 1907 episode), hair transplants, cosmetic surgery, even breakdancing!
Merkl's book is a self-published, gorgeously designed and printed labor of love; he handled the text and image research, the copyright research, the scanning and image restoration, not to mention the printing, advertising, and distribution. So... it's critical to note that "The Complete 'Dream of the Rarebit Fiend'" is not available from normal bookstores or online booksellers. Instead, visit the Rarebit Fiend Book website to get your hands on this magnificent achievement.