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Winsor McCay:

Going Insane Every Night

It’s the stuff of dreams! If there is one deluxe book of comics to give someone special for this Christmas - and perhaps treat yourself to a copy - it must be this extraordinary compilation of the entire run of the first and still the greatest dream comics ever - Winsor McCay’s Dream Of The Rarebit Fiend. You won’t find it in hardly any shops (I know Gosh! in London and The Beguiling in Toronto got a few in specially), but you can order it direct from enterprising publisher Ulrich Merkl and help support his next dream project.

Do you remember what you dreamt about last night? Perhaps you’d prefer not to? Jean Cocteau once remarked, "Dreams allow every man to go safely insane every night." We spend around a third of our lives asleep and that sleeping life might be as rich and surprising as our waking hours, if we didn’t forget so much of it. One way to remember them is to transcribe them into a dream journal, maybe using both drawing and writing. In fact, there may be no better medium to do this than comics, ideally suited to recording the often strange imagery and narratives of dreams with a ‘logic’ all their own.

One of the first and foremost cartoonists to capture dreams in their comics was Winsor McCay (circa 1867-1934). His most famous vehicle was Little Nemo In Slumberland, grand, glorious fairytale confections of a little boy’s nocturnal adventures which filled a broadsheet page in colour every Sunday and were adapted into animated cartoons, also by McCay, a stage musical and other spin-offs. But he had another outlet, in black and white, less inventively laid out, less populist and less innocent, where he could explore more disturbing realms of dreaming.

McCay may have titled this series Dream Of The Rarebit Fiend, but these were more the stuff of nightmares: wild animals crush you in your bed; birds and animals stuff straw and twigs into your mouth to turn it into a nest; clumps of earth rain down on you, blotting out your view as you look up from a coffin. Not exactly the sort of appealing fun the American public expected from their newspaper strips.

Right from the opening panel, McCay would always place us inside the dreamworld, though at first this was to all appearances quite normal. But over successive uniform panels he would escalate the nightmare scenario almost to a shocking climax, before abruptly switching in the final panel to the dreamer startled awake, traumatised and perhaps in some appropriate situation related to the dream. Unlike junior serial dreamer Nemo, here McCay’s victims were mostly adults and different every time. All of them blamed their bad night’s sleep or troubled nap on their bedtime snack of a Welsh Rarebit, traditionally grated cheese mixed with beer or some milk and butter and poured onto hot toast and grilled, and swore never to scoff them late at night again.

When the first Rarebit episode was published on September 10 1904, McCay adopted an alias, ‘Silas’ (almost an anagram of alias). He later explained, "My contract would not allow me to sign my real name. ... An old fellow who drove a garbage truck by the New York Herald offices is my namesake. A quaint character and I borrowed his name." The reason for this disguise, it seems, was that James Gordon Bennett (yes, he and his same-named father gave rise to that expression, ‘Gordon Bennett!’), who was the owner of the two papers in which McCay was drawing, insisted on this change of name to distinguish McCay’s sweeter, child-friendly Nemo weeklies which followed in 1905 from his creepier, more adult-orientated Rarebit pages on the sports page of the New York Evening Telegram.

McCay may not have been the first to deal with dreams and nightmares in comics, but no one before, or since, has devoted so many years and pages to exploring this subject. His Nemo classics have been more or less completely reprinted in recent editions from Taschen and Checker and at their best restored and at their original size in the superlative Sunday Press collection, a coffee table tome as big as a coffee table. The Rarebit Fiends have not fared nearly so well. Available again in Checker’s haphazard samplings, some three hundred of them remained unreprinted and those recovered often suffered from cramped and poor reproduction. All in all, a rather Checker-ed history.

This sorry state has finally changed in 2007 with the publication of The Complete Dream Of The Rarebit Fiend. Appropriately, this is the dream project, that of a German expert, Dr. Ulrich Merkl, and the finished book is truly a feat of research and printing, like something out of a dream. Merkl fastidiously tracked down every single known Fiend strip, 821 of them in all from 1904 to 1913, to select 369 of the best in the book at their full published scale and put the entirety on the accompanying DVD. He devoted 6,000 working hours mostly to restoring every panel, from original artwork, newspaper tearsheets and, where nothing else survives, microfilm.

Author, Ulrich Merkl, at the printers

To show so many episodes as they were printed, the book had to take on a fantastical format of its own, so huge (464 pages), heavy (4.6 kilos) and horizontal (43 cms wide) that Merkl had to find specialist printers in Egypt who could devise extraordinary head-high equipment to bind each copy by hand. To avoid any compromises in quality and any outside interference, Merkl financed the whole shebang himself, forcing him to limit the print run to only one thousand copies. By choosing to sell them directly from his website ( he could cut out all the middle men and price them at only $114 or 89 euros each, a snip for such a lavish limited edition. No true admirer of comics or pop culture history should be without it; you’ll just need a table strong and wide enough to open it on.

So how many of these rarebit-fuelled fantasies might have been dreamt by McCay himself? Did he suffer from nightmares like these too? As far as I know, nobody has found any private dream journals among his papers, but in the book’s substantial introductory section Merkl’s close readings of the whole oeuvre suggest that, not surprisingly, Fiend did serve at times as an outlet for McCay’s personal fears and foibles.

For example, the cartoonist would warn of the dangers of automobiles, which he deeply distrusted and refused to drive, forcing him to hire a chauffeur. In one dream a car literally eats a couple out of house and home, growing fat while they waste away. Another recurring theme was diminutive men beset by large domineering women. This related to McCay being quite small and slight himself, whereas his wife Maude, though the same height, was more sturdy, grand and commanding. In some episodes, McCay also reveals his ambivalence towards matrimony, exposing the hypocrisies behind some marriages, and regret at his lost bachelor freedom. There are several mentions of lodges, as he was a member of the Elks and Masons at the time of his death. It’s also only in this series that McCay makes appearances in person, struggling to find an idea, drawn covered in inkblots, even joking about misspellings of his name.

A deeper autobiographical compulsion, however, may lie behind McCay’s formula, whereby, instead of proposing any psychological causes, he would always explain away each Fiend’s dream by blaming it on eating rich food late at night. Repeating this affirmation may have served as a mantra, his strips as art therapy, enabling him to diffuse his fear that the mental problems which had confined his younger brother Arthur to an asylum, when Winsor was 30, would not also overtake him. Could there be parallels with other great comic artists who express their fantasies and dreams? Robert Crumb had an older, disturbed brother Charles and has said creating his uninhibited comics was a way of "keeping [his] inner demons at bay." Similarly, David B., France’s modern master of dream comics, has related his older brother’s troubles and his own fears in Epileptic.

Merkl offers evidence too that certain striking Rarebit Fiend imagery anticipated and perhaps influenced others who followed, from Salvador Dalí to Carl Barks. As well as later echoes in movies such as King Kong and Dumbo, Merkl highlights L’Age d’Or, the key Surrealist film from 1930 written by Dalí and Luis Buñuel and directed by Buñuel. Iconic scenes in this of the cow found in a woman’s bed or a man stuck to the ceiling had appeared years earlier in McCay’s work.

Of course, McCay was inspired by other dreamers before him. What’s so brilliant about Merkl’s compilation is that he has numbered, annotated, compared and cross-referenced all the episodes and alongside many presents McCay’s likely sources and parallels. These vary from John Tenniel‘s illustrations for Alice In Wonderland, especially scenes of shrinking or expanding in size, to McCay’s fellow vaudeville cartoonist, quadridextrous Tom Breen, who could draw four cartoons at once using both hands and both feet.

Alice In Wonderland
by John Tenniel

In the book’s illustrated essay Dream Travelers, Alfredo Castelli surveys both McCay’s precursors and his successors in dream comics, as far back as Spain’s Ram-n Cilla in 1888 to Dick’s Adventures in Dreamland, 1947-1956, an American Sunday strip by Max Trell and Neil O’Keeffe. Later in comic books, one of the wildest was Strange World Of Your Dreams, four issues for Prize in 1952, in which Joe Simon and Jack Kirby offered to "buy your dreams" to adapt into comics and asked "What do they mean - the messages received in sleep?"

In more recent years, others have followed in McCay’s footsteps. Rick Veitch is one ‘dreamworker’ who trained himself to remember his dreams and speculate on their meanings. In 1994 he began self-publishing his dream comics in Rare Bit Fiends and invited readers and several cartoonists to send in theirs. Veitch compiled his own into two books, Rabid Eye and Pocket Universe. Among Veitch’s guests was the Serbian underground visionary Aleksandar Zograf, who learned to memorise images he would see while falling asleep or waking up and self-published these hypnagogic hallucinations. In Regards from Serbia the sensitised Zograf conveys the nightmare-like state of living through the NATO bombings in free-flowing autobiographical comics. Rather than offering any interpretation, American Jesse Reklaw  started in 1995 inviting the public to send him their dreams for him to adapt into four-panel weekly strips, as bizarre as giving a pill to a bulldog with a ‘rolodex’ of multiple tongues or a horse made of vanilla cake with bad teeth. Still going strong today, Reklaw has a new 250-page collection due after Dreamtoons in 2000.

Spiral Dreams from 2000 showcases Al Davison‘s ability to recall vivid dreams from a very early age till the age of 2, a period when he was in totally cut off in an isolation unit due to his spina bifida. Remarkably, he records his infant dreams of conversations and of flying, even though he was unable to talk and had never seen the sky. Davison’s output suggests that, far from being the result of eating cheese on toast, dreaming may be so primal, so hot-wired in us, that it is almost another life experience, one that most of us can only dimly remember, and one that comics can brilliantly recapture.

Posted: November 18, 2007

This article originally appeared in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga, in 2007.


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Rarebit Fiend Book
Ulrich Merkl Interview
Huib Van Opstal’s Analysis
Unpacking Slide Show

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