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Though the last century has witnessed a supernova of scientific innovation, our fizzy watery brains still haven't revealed the mysteries of sleep and dreams. Whatever underlies these prickly enigmas, many embrace dreams as something fundamental, almost primordial, to their being. Some even claim those inchoate simmering movies that invade our senses through some wispy interior camera obscura expose our desires, fears, or our "real selves." Perhaps this seemingly inexplicable nature of our private films explains why a some one hundred year old comic strip, fashioned with simple pen and ink, can enrapture gadgetized and digitized twenty-first century people. "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend," a newspaper comic strip that ran in the first decades of the twentieth century (1905 - 1911, 1913), penetrates the human psyche even today. It must have given unsuspecting nineteen-noughts incurable nightmares. Some strips may even disturb modern readers. The premise was both simple and brilliant: each strip depicts a horrid surreal nightmare that ends with the dreamer sitting up or plummetting out of bed while cursing the apparently psychotic properties of Welsh Rarebit (sometimes also called "Rabbit"). Each cursed dreamer has imbibed this cheesy concoction served over toast before retiring to bed. Not one of them questions the correlation between their gluttonous ingestion of this noxious substance and their subsequently well-deserved nightmare. Had a "National Welsh Rarebit Council" existed at the time, it would have declared outright war against this comic. History was kind, thankfully, because "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend" stands as one of the medium's unquestioned masterpieces. One of the numerous brainchildren of Winsor McCay, this early strip often gets lost in the shadow of his better known masterpiece, "Little Nemo in Slumberland." "Rarebit Fiend" is often described as "Nemo for adults."
For adults it indeed is. At least, adults will likely appreciate it more than children (the platitude "comics are only for kids" is an unfortunate recent development in the US). This slim inexpensive volume reprints one of the few, if not the only, volumes printed during the strip's actual run (according to the back cover, only two or three copies of the original book exist). Following a brief introduction, including a McCay biography, the phantasmagoria begins to spew. The first strip features a poor soul being dismembered, a la Monty Python's "Black Knight," by speeding carriages. Before his wife, who is the dreamer, awakes, we see his disembodied legs, arms, torso and head floating splayed behind a rushing car. The head proclaims "Well! I believe I see my finish at last." This serves as an apt introduction to what follows. Another man gets cooked by natives (depicted in the stereotypes of the day), but they find him insufficient, humorously adding insult to injury. Another dreamer gets melted in a sticky mass (also featured on the cover). Others find themselves eaten by handbags that morph into vicious animals, getting soaked in blood, being cloned, frozen in giant icicles, headbutting locomotives, stuttering during important speeches, falling down endless steps, being buried at their own funeral, being hideously suffocated to death with chloroform, or simply going mad. One bizarre episode involves a cigar store Indian (again, remember the times) who seduces a man into kissing her. His wife sees him and sues for divorce. In the next to final panel a judge declares "I grant your wife absolute divorce and $5000.00 a minute alimony. Yes." The wooden seductress says "I love him still as much as ever." Absolutely brilliant. Other unforgettable strips involve a tailor trying to fit an amorphous and impatient customer (with "bazazza fits") and a man whose perspiration causes a flood, bringing a trolley car to a helpless halt. The scariest episode appears towards the end as an already frightening furnace transforms into a demon that pursues its owner across rooftops. He runs and screams in absolute terror before waking. Here lies the stuff of nightmares. If one could distill this strip into a catch phrase, "Psychological horrific surreal comedy" might suffice. Maybe. It defies description. Don't even try.
This small book provides the best introduction to this sadly obscure strip. Nothing like it exists, or could exist, in today's mainstream. "Rarebit Fiend" hails from the golden age of comics, where newspapers were one of the few means of mass communication. And comics helped sell newspapers (as anyone familiar with the history of "The Yellow Kid" knows). Consequently, newspapers wanted the most sensational, artistically accomplished strips possible. Today's comics, even the best ones, pale embarrassingly to the strips of this early era (at least those in newspapers; today's "Graphic Novels" often include stunning artwork). This book provides the perfect glimpse into these bygone glory days. Even some one hundred years later it can shock, intrigue and disturb. The artwork, of course, shines throughout (discounting McCay's puzzlingly sloppy word balloons and often smashed text). Readers who want more have few additional resources. Checker books have released a book of Saturday strips and anthologies of McCay's early works, including examples of "Rarebit Fiend." Also, a complete collection was printed privately in a limited run of 1,000 in 2007. Copies now fetch quite a premium (though many strips were on an included DVD). As admirable as that book is, hopefully a more widely accessible complete collection will emerge soon. In any case, given the stunning quality of this much smaller collection, "Rarebit Fiend" has the staying power of our very nightmares and dreams.