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Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Saturdays

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2008
By: Matthew J. Brady

Winsor McCay
Winsor McCay
Checker Books
Winsor McCay is probably best-known for Little Nemo in Slumberland, but from 1904-1913, he also worked on another dream-based comic strip, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. While Nemo featured a serialized story following the adventures of a dreaming little boy, each Rarebit strip was a standalone story aimed at adults, showing the weird dreams of a person who had eaten rarebit, a Welsh cheese that was known to bring on strange, disturbing dreams.

This volume collects the majority of McCay’s Saturday Rarebit strips, which were larger in size than the daily version. While the reproduction quality is sometimes a bit rough (which is to be expected, considering the age of these strips), and I would have liked to have known the original publication dates, the sheer amount of comics contained in this volume make up for any shortcomings.

These strips present a fascinating look at life in the early twentieth century, showing us the fears and concerns of the people. While some of the strips are just goofy fun, a large number of them seem to address some real psychological issues that people deal with--such as infidelity, finances, and politics.

However, what really makes the strips great reading is McCay’s ability with the artwork. He could come up with some amazing vistas, especially in the concrete canyons of New York, and he could make it believable when something bizarre would happen and create chaos.

One of my favorite strips is the second one in the book. In it, a small child knocks over a tower of blocks, which knocks over a chair, then a table, and so on--creating a chain reaction that results in all the skyscrapers of the city knocking each other down like dominoes.

There are plenty of other examples of that sort of thing, but McCay also excels in smaller-scale chaos, with cars or horse-drawn carriages crashing into each other--or trains or ships going off course and demolishing buildings. And then there’s the slapstick, with people ending up in ridiculous situations. It’s all so meticulously detailed that it’s just a pleasure to look at.

It’s not so much a pleasure to read, however. McCay’s dialogue was most certainly not his strong point. Sure, the dialogue in comics wasn’t exactly sophisticated at the time. Still, it often becomes a chore to read these strips. Nearly every panel contains one or more large balloons crammed full of sometimes hard-to-read words in which the characters describe what is going on, often repeating “Oh!” and “Um!” It gets pretty tiresome.

There is an occasional ray of light, though. I do like some of the period slang (characters often tell somebody else to go away by saying “Skidoo!”), and there is the occasional strip that features fantast characters using weirdly surreal language. One strip involves a man being used as a projectile by some sort of giant elves who say things like, “I might be a wax trager’s hauling tod, but I am not a boztropper’s wingle top!”

Really, I mostly breezed through the word balloons, focusing on the artwork and seeing what weirdness McCay came up with in each new strip. The range of ideas he came up with here is pretty amazing. Some strips involve the dreamer going through some sort of metamorphosis--such as growing fatter or taller--and often continuing on to ridiculous extremes.

For instance, one strip sees a man growing larger and larger until he is trudging across oceans to reach new continents. He eventually grows larger than the earth itself, and ends up scrambling for a handhold and trying not to fall off. Hey, why not?

In fact, another area in which McCay excelled was using the large format of the strips (they are almost all between 15 to 30) to inflict gradual changes on the characters--almost to the point where the changes seem unnoticeable from panel to panel but end up causing large changes over the course of a strip.

In one, a man sleeping in a hotel room thinks the room is shrinking, and it is. With each panel, the walls become closer and closer together--eventually breaking his bed to pieces and crushing him. Elsewhere, a jungle slowly grows up around a man’s bed, or a woman gradually transforms into a tree. It’s fascinating to watch McCay work.

McCay also loved to play with metafictional ideas, with characters realizing that they are within a strip (often speaking directly to “Silas,” McCay’s pen name).

One memorable strip sees a man jealous that his girlfriend loves Silas, so he starts tearing the strip apart, pulling more and more of the “newspaper” down in each panel, until nothing is left.

Other times, McCay’s hand looms into the panel and redraws the characters, and one strip even features McCay (Silas) as he spends the entire comic accepting huge piles of cash (in bags with dollar signs printed on them, of course) to endorse various products. It appears that concerns about “selling out” aren’t really anything new.

In fact, a lot of the psychological concerns on display here are interesting due to their universality. Many strips deal with a young person trying to find a husband or wife, only to be stymied by some embarrassing circumstance (such as a propensity for eating throw pillows). In one, a man decides to sculpt a wife out of clay, but he backs down before bringing her to life--deciding to stay a bachelor.

Other times, husbands or wives show concern for their spouses by having dreams about how they might be deficient. One woman’s husband is a literal blockhead, in danger of having his square noggin knocked off at every turn. In another, a man gets freaked out when his wife runs in a race of fat women. It’s a fascinating mix of relationship-based anxiety.

There are plenty of other issues on display here, too.

A woman keeps getting touched by the ghost of old age, morphing farther from being a young beauty and closer to an old crone with each touch.

A man finds himself reincarnated as a dog, but everyone he once knew treats him horribly, as if he has been totally forgotten.

Even concerns about the day’s fashion are featured--such as a strip in which a woman’s bird-shaped headdress comes to life, grows to gigantic size and takes off flying, carrying her across the city.

However, the strips that I found most affecting were the ones that reflected concerns about finances. In one, a man reacts violently every time he hears the phrase, “They’re off!”--showing his concern about his gambling habits.

In another, two men are seen gambling by throwing gigantic dice from the roof of the New York Stock Exchange. It’s a great, subtle look at the fear that unknown men are frivolously playing with other people’s money (remember, this was well before the 1929 stock crash and the Great Depression).

Whatever sort of weirdness you’re looking for, it’s likely to be featured here. McCay was a genius with this sort of thing, and this book is a good, affordable selection of some of his best work. I highly recommend it.



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