Tag Archives: Winsor McCay

Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Rio Aubry Taylor on “Little Nemo in Slumberland”

Note: This is the fourth in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.

These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!

All illustrations and captions in this particular post were incorporated into the original essay, along with captions or comments in brackets [like this], by the Survey I instructor Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes.

________________________________________________

Little Nemo: 1904-1915
by Rio Aubry Taylor

This collection, published in 2000 by Taschen under the Evergreen imprint, purports to include every weekly Sunday strip featuring Little Nemo from 1904 to 1915.  Though not presenting Winsor McCay’s strips at their original size of 16 x 21 inches, this book’s sheer girth makes up for its lack of dimensions.  As it is, the measurements of the book (about 9.5 x 12.5 inches) ensure that the strips are large enough to be readable and that the collection on a whole is not unwieldy.  The reproduction of the colors and line work are crisp, bright, and pleasing to the eye and, of course, McCay’s art is beautiful and surreal.  This collection showcases some of the best surreal comics produced at a critical point in the evolution the medium.  It also demonstrates how McCay’s work does a better job at dreamlike story telling than either the traditional literature that came before or the modern media of today.

Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I had always known that the character of Little Nemo existed in the multifarious milieu of children’s entertainment.  I did not, however, realize his extreme significance to the history of American cartooning.  I mostly knew Nemo as the star of the popular Nintendo title Little Nemo: The Dream Master, which I vaguely recognized as being based on an animated film. The game had Nemo explore large multi-platformed levels as he threw candy at animals who then let him ride on their backs in order to defeat enemies.  As with many video games of this type, I absolutely loved it, and the surreal backgrounds and characters seemed totally natural to my young mind.  Looking back on it now, the game’s very existence is a standing testament to McCay’s vision and influence.  I sometimes wonder how many people my age got turned on to McCay’s strips after being introduced to the character in the video game scene.

As is stated in Bill Blackbeard’s brief introduction, the  original run of Nemo’s adventures is called Little Nemo in Slumberland but was changed to In the Land of Wonderful Dreams in 1911 when McCay changed publishers.  The earliest strips showcase Nemo’s attempts to reach Slumberland through his dreams, always aided by a different denizen of King Morpheus, the ruler of said kingdom, who wishes for Nemo to be a playmate for his daughter.  The format of these strips is straightforward and evidences McCay’s evolving style and penchant for storytelling.  In these simple adventures Nemo struggles to make it through dangerous and frightening dreamscapes with the aid of King Morpheus’s various strange and fantastical servants.  However, by the end of each strip Nemo always seems to get frazzled and lose his bearings, causing him to wake up in a tearful fright.  The last panel of every strip shows Nemo suddenly awake in his bed, where he sometimes must be consoled by one of the adult members of his family.  These early pieces often make gags of Nemo’s parents scolding him for eating some strange combination of food before bed (“The next time your mother lets you eat raw onions and ice cream before bedtime I’ll, well…”).

Though I find these stories incredibly entertaining, I wonder if some of them may have been rather frightening to children at the time; it seems as though McCay may have intended for his strip to be read by a slightly more mature audience. For example, at one point Nemo must travel through a kingdom consisting of people made entirely of glass.  By the time the strip is over Nemo has accidentally shattered all of  that week’s supporting characters.  In another strip a giant turkey tries to bring Nemo to Slumberland by devouring his house and everything in it. Nemo’s parents feature in this dream, but get lost when the Turkey drops Nemo into a sea of cranberry sauce.  Nemo then wakes up wondering about the fate of his parents.  The strip seems to imply that Nemo’s parents might have died within his dream, a heavy notion for the average child!

I find the first twenty or so weeks worth of material to be gratifying but slightly irksome to follow.  These early strips showcase McCay’s evolving styling as a cartoonist as he experiments with how best to present his narrative.  My largest trouble with these strips are the continually present captions at the bottom of each panel.  These captions narrate the action of the panels in such a way as to make the pictures redundant.  I find the captions especially distracting because the sentences usually do not end with their connected panels, but rather continue to the next.  This creates a disconnected flow by allowing for two parallel tellings of the same story.  The captions appear to be broken down by an arbitrary and predetermined amount space rather than anything else.  Though this style can sometimes be aggravating for the modern reader, it serves as a piece of history for those interested in the evolution both of McCay’s style and comics in general. Of course, McCay was a pioneer in his field and it did not take him long to modify his work and make it better.  In fact, throughout this entire collection the observant reader can see evidences of McCay’s experimentation and breakthroughs.

[Flip and King Morpheus from Little Nemo in Slumberland]

After about twenty weekly strips McCay begins to summarize each strip at the outset before telling his stories simply with the action and dialogue within the panels.  This lends to a more pleasant reading experience that gets even better ten weeks later when McCay abandons narrative captions altogether and begins to tell his stories almost entirely through dialogue.  Though some exposition sometimes occurs at the beginning of each strip, the author usually incorporates it into the tales through conversations between the characters or in-story written communication such as signs or letters.

As stated above, the earliest strips are simple and can generally be seen as stand alone episodes.  The story really picks up, however, when McCay introduces Flip, who soon becomes a main character.  Once introduced, and until Nemo finally meets his future playmate, Flip’s sole existence seems to be to divert Nemo from reaching the princess, whom Flip would like to woo himself. Standing in stark contrast to Slumberland’s motto of “don’t wake up,” Flip’s hat actually reads “wake up,” and when he first encounters Nemo that is exactly what our protagonist does!  The initial rivalry between Flip and Nemo gives McCay a solid chance to elaborate on both Nemo and Flip’s respective personal characters. Whereas the previous strips present Nemo as a curious but rather impersonal hero, these strips showcase Nemo’s general nobleness and outstanding sense of what is right and wrong.  As the story progresses, these traits contrast heavily with Flip’s rascally and somewhat needy personality.

[In this Sunday, November 13 1910 episode of Little Nemo in Slumberland, Nemo and his pals fly over Coney Island, such as it was before the fire that wiped out much of Coney Island's own "Dreamland" and more. In this story sequence, Flip ended up lost on the subway system and stranded in Brooklyn!]

_________

Though paired together as adversaries, Nemo helps Flip on more than one occasion, simply because he believes helping people is the right thing to do.  When a Slumberland ally cautions Nemo not to help Flip, who is marooned at the top of a tower after a failed flight attempt, Nemo replies “I can’t help it.  I can’t see anybody in such a fix.  No Siree!”  Nemo, who at this time has become a giant, then proceeds to help Flip down, but is later punished for his deed by being shrunk down to mouse-like proportions.  This, however, does not stop Nemo some twenty strips later from saving Flip from being executed by King Morpheus’s royal guard.  This marks a major change in the series as Flip evolves from Nemo’s supposed worst enemy to a beloved and cantankerous ally.

At this point McCay’s narrative really reaches a stride.  At first Nemo and the Princess constantly try to avoid Flip as though he is an annoying neighbor, but later join him in a series of adventures outside and within the royal palace of Slumberland.  During the course of their exploits they meet a host of interesting and colorful recurring characters, and even pick up another regular  ally in the form of the unfortunately stereotyped Imp.  The Imp, who appears in a supposedly tribal getup and speaks an incomprehensible nonsense language, follows Flip, Nemo, and the Princess on their adventures.  Though McCay depicts him outwardly as a savage in black-face, the Imp proves to be a valuable companion and friend to the characters who gladly employ his help when needed.  The stereotypical appearance of the Imp that McCay employs, though popular at the time, is now recognized by readers with modern sensibilities to be undeniably racist.  The fact that the Imp becomes an important part of Nemo’s entourage, however, is testament to both Nemo and the Imp’s noble character and McCay’s sense of youthful friendship.

The question remains:  what benefits can a modern audience get from reading this collection of strips? These artfully rendered adventures offer something that can only be hinted at outside the comics medium and is still, unfortunately, rarely found even there: a truly surreal entertainment experience. Though technology has grown in leaps and bounds, these strips still represent an artistic peak in dreamlike storytelling, for which the medium of comics presents a unique link between more traditional literature and newer forms of entertainment technology.

McCay’s Nemo strips offer superb and fantastical art that bring the reader into a special world that could not be presented in any other way.  Whereas traditional literature can present a narrative with language alone, comics have the power to immerse the reader in a visual world of the artist’s choosing.  In this, McCay succeeds in presenting his own unique graphic language in a precise and insightful narrative.  Written descriptions could simply not suffice to describe the truly splendid imagery he creates to tell his stories, as neither could a draftsman of lesser talent.  By the same token, newer technology such  as film, though offering a more sensorial experience, has the tendency to reveal too much.  What traditional literature lacks in showing a precise artistic vision, modern film makes up for by bombarding the senses with information, thereby disallowing the viewers’ imaginations from taking hold and leading them through the narrative.  Only the medium of comics could succeed in presenting the truly surreal world of Slumberland.

The benefit of comics, which McCay uses succinctly to his advantage, lies in the fact that actions occur between the panels.  In every comic the artist must choose which scenes to present to his audience, and which actions to leave out.  The chosen scenes must be precise enough to continue the proceeding narrative.  The audience then fills in the information between the panels in much the same way a reader of traditional literature might form images of the story in his or her mind.  In a more mundane comic the panels flow continually through time and space in a linear manner.  McCay, however, has the advantage of setting his characters in a world where the normal laws of space and time do not exist.  This means that he has the freedom to manipulate the rules to an almost infinite extent in order to continue his story telling.  His genius lies in the fact that his comics remain acute and readable, containing a clearly identified story and progressive narrative while simultaneously bending the normal rules that readers must submit to in everyday waking life.  Through reading these comics the reader becomes a co-creator in McCay’s surreal world, subconsciously choosing for herself the timings and specifics of the strange occurrences between the panels.  For this reason McCay’s comics, and others like his, might represent the entertainment medium that comes closest to actually emulating a real dream.

McCay touches on the sorts of experiences that anyone, especially children, can relate to.   Because the normal rules do not affect his characters, they exhibit a sense of youthful exuberance, unbounded by any fetters except for that of the author’s imagination, which he consistently exhibits to be quite extensive.  Nemo and company grow and shrink, meet strange and interesting creatures, and even travel to Mars, none of which seems out of the ordinary for the citizens Slumberland. Though many people may not realize it, they essentially live two lives, separated by their level of awareness and consciousness.  Most people’s dream lives remain essentially unexplored, but McCay brings the regular ritual of dreaming into full focus.  The strange adventures of Nemo and his friends showcase that other part of the human condition, the part most people neglect to talk about.  The human mind is truly fantastic, and in its most creative depths can bring forth stories that no conscious mind could.  McCay was able to reach into those depths in order to create a delightful experience that can still be enjoyed today, and for that we should be grateful!

[The above essay is ©2010 Rio Aubry Taylor, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]


________________________________________

About the author/student:

  • Rio Aubry Taylor has an older blog/website, Light Riot, which you can access with this link.
  • PS: Rio‘s former art/living space also made the grade in photographer Abby Banks’s photo book Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy, which you can purchase here.
  • (PPS: You can also visit with Rio on Facebook, if he chooses to ‘friend’ you!)

  • Further reading & resources:

  • For more on Winsor McCay’s influential early 20th Century comicstrip creations, see Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Katie Moody on Winsor McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” Click this link!
  • Also be sure to read Survey I classmate Bill Bedard’s own essay on Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” Click this link!
  • Though the book is now out of print, you can purchase your own copy of Little Nemo: 1904-1915 at amazon.com; here’s the current availability at amazon.com
  • and the current availability at abebooks.com. Happy hunting!
  • We most highly recommend editor/publisher Peter Maresca’s marvelous Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!, which reproduces the McCay strips in their original Sunday page dimensions; copies of are still available at amazon.com. Here’s the current availability.

  • Both books are in the Schulz Library‘s permanent collection.

  • We also most highly recommend the followup volume Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splendid Sundays, Volume 2; copies of are still available at amazon.com. Here’s the current availability.

  • CCS instructor Stephen Bissette interviewed Peter Maresca back in November of 2005, when the first volume of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! was first published. Here’s the complete interview, archived on the original Myrant blog site.
  • Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Bill Bedard on “Little Nemo in Slumberland”

    Note: This is the third in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.

    These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!

    All illustrations and captions in this particular post were incorporated into the original essay by its author, Bill Bedard. Bill also prepared them all for this online posting; thanks, Bill! Unless otherwise noted, any images accompanied by captions or comments in brackets [like this] were added by the Survey I instructor, Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes.

    ________________________________________________

    Little Nemo in Slumberland
    by Bill Bedard

    Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay is a masterful work. Published Sundays off and on from 1905-27, the strip follows the adventures of a tousle-haired boy in his dreams. The boy, Nemo, first spends his time in dreams attempting to reach Slumberland to be the playmate of the Princess, daughter of King Morpheus of Slumberland. In later strips, having achieved his goal and reached the princess, the strip follows the antics of Nemo and friends through the madcap and surreal landscapes of Slumberland. McCay’s work was ground breaking at the time, and nearly a century later still considered to be a perfect example of what potential for excellence the comics medium holds.

    While Little Nemo has ignited the imagination of many artists to chronicle their own dreamlands, some successful contemporary artists look back on Nemo with a critical eye, taking umbrage with McCay’s lines or the attention lavished upon the surreal landscapes at the expense of the characters. These criticisms are to a degree very valid, but must be considered not only in the framework of a single Sunday page, but as an ongoing part of thousands of single stories that work together to tell a narrative. In this way, a character like Nemo, who may appear flat may in fact be a multifaceted hero whose character and personality is simply divulged over a course of months and years.

    Nemo’s bed goes for a walk; 1905, The New York Herald.

    _____

    Finding Fault with Nemo

    One of the most common criticisms that Little Nemo receives is that Slumberland, along with all the other fantastical dream lands that are visited in Nemo, including the North Pole and Mars, are treated with more deference than the human/dream beings are afforded. Bill Waterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame lamented in an article:

    “To be perfectly honest, however I admire Little Nemo more than I actually like it. McCay was clearly more interested in his stage than in his actors, and a stage, no matter how grand, can’t carry a play. The inventive visual effects notwithstanding, I can’t read the strip without thinking how much more enchanting Slumberland would be if the characters, rather than the backdrops and costumes, advanced the story.”

    Watterson called the characters “cardboard dressup dolls” and cited the word balloons done by McCay as evidence that story was a pale second in comparison with the design of the world itself. He pointed out that the balloons tend to seem like a squished in afterthought- not part of the page design until the eleventh hour. Watterson also noted that dialogue generally fails to use characters’ voice as a way to describe them. He excluded Flip Flop the clown from this generality, but Nemo and the rest had nothing but “flat, exclamatory dialogue or overuse of exposition.”

    In this strip from the NY Herald, Thanksgiving Day 1905, Nemo doesn’t say anything in word balloons that doesn’t rehash the captions or end up as a call for his mother or father. This doesn’t stop the strip from being an ingenius reversal of who normally gobbles whom on Turkey Day. The title panels and page design on the whole are excellently crafted, and even the celery stalk forest mirrors the white verticals of the nightshirts in the upper panels.

    In this sequence from 1905 in the NY Herald, Nemo and the Imp are lost as giants in a city. The dialogue balloons do not actually mirror the action, but still may feel as if they were put in as “afterthoughts” by McCay, due to the their organic and “smooshed” look.

    ______________

    Measuring Up to the Environment

    In some cases Watterson and others’ claims are certainly true, and the interaction and dialogue between Nemo, Flip and other denizens of Slumberland appears flat in comparison to the charm and personality that Slumberland itself can affect during the course of a Sunday strip.

    However, a close examination of McCay’s work as a whole reveals a variety of personality and growth for the main characters. Nemo’s own reticent nature may have been a purposeful choice on the part of McCay.

    Richard Marschall, editor of The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland, wrote in his introduction to that book that Nemo’s name, the Latin translation of which is “No-One,” may actually have been a conscious decision to keep the main character as bland or passive as possible. According to Marschall, Nemo is the “every-man dreamer” who corresponds to the reader. Famed illustrator Maurice Sendak wrote of Nemo that one reason for his quietude and reticence during the journeys through Slumberland is that “Nemo lacks savior-faire. He is naive and as simple and straightforward as apple pie.”

    Descriptions of McCay’s characters as one-dimensional suggest readings of McCay’s work as single pages instead of as parts of a larger narrative whole. Nemo isn’t passive to the actions of Slumberland and supporting cast. Flip, the main antagonist and later a sort of “buddy” for Nemo may jump off the page at times with his zany jealousy and rivalries, but Nemo grows into his role as Slumberland explorer.

    Sendak actually laments one of the ways in which Nemo grows into his character, where Nemo and Flip come to blows, and Nemo wins. Sendak wrote: “A sad victory: Nemo exchanges childhood for manhood, never thinking he might have both.”

    Even in strips sans Flip, where Nemo plays off the Princess or a missive from Morpheus, his own personality comes through. In the case of Somnus, the horse he is given to arrive in Slumberland, Nemo is challenged to a race and lets his pride get the best of him—he is thrown off the horse and lands in bed. (1904, NY Herald)

    A second example is the moment where Nemo, overwhelmed by his desire for the beautiful Queen Crystalite, takes her in his arms in a big kiss and breaks her into a million pieces. (1906, NY Herald)

    _______

    While these emotive experiences do seem to fit in Sendak’s assertion that Nemo is perhaps exchanging his boyhood for manhood, Nemo’s personality does not seem to be permanently altered by the strips. The next Sunday, he is back to be being an unsure and cautious dreamer in a world which, many times, turns dangerous at any moment. These moments of assertive (and usually wrong-headed) “adultness” combined with his passivity and fearful approach as a child in a dangerous dreamworld serve to make Nemo a complete whole, instead of a onedimensional character who serves as a foil for the Slumberland and Flip. Just as dreams can have the dreamer childlike and afraid one night and aggressive the next, McCay allows Nemo the full range of possibilities.

    Above and below: Three examples from the NY Herald of Nemo being his non-character “coward” self afraid of an ogre, and then more expressive, five years later in an adventure on Mars.

    It’s Not All “Agout” Nemo

    Nemo isnt’ the only character who blossoms with a more complete reading of the work. Secondary characters evolve and change with the plot as well, as is the case when the brooding and wise Morpheus gets painful gout (NY Herald, 2 Jan, 1910) or later Nemo strips when the Princess and Nemo engage in play dates and get into trouble. Being secondary characters, they still aren’t as fully fleshed out as Nemo and Flip, but having them change means they are more than just the “brooding king” and “lonely princess” archetypes they seem at first brush.

    Gouty Morpheus, NY Herald, 2 Jan, 1910

    ________

    Hidden in Plain Sight

    What critics of the strip often forget is that Nemo, Flip and the denizens of Slumberland aren’t the only characters in McCay’s works. Slumberland itself is as much a character as any of the actors on its stage. When the strip was reinvented under a different name because of legal issues with the publisher owning the rights to the name of Little Nemo in Slumberland the strip name didn’t even include “Nemo.” Instead, it was penned as In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. Later, when the rights reverted and the strip was rebooted in the 1920s Nemo’s appellation did return. However, during the most popular Nemo strips (those taking place from 1908-1912) a main driving force behind action and narrative isn’t just the titular boy, it’s the world in which he finds himself.

    In Slumberland’s case many of the events that happen to normal comic book heroes, such as growth, change, conflict and resolution are present (sadly, most often the resolution for Slumberland is that the place falls to pieces or melts as a result of sunlight and deposits Nemo back into consciousness).

    In a typical Slumberland scene, Nemo is told not to touch something, he does, and as a result, unravels the very fabric of Slumberland. (1905, NY Herald)

    ______

    Right: Famed European illustrator Jean Giraud, aka “Moebius,” cites Little Nemo as a great influence in his work and worked on his own version of the tale in 1994.

    Watterson also presented a critique of the design of Slumberland itself, saying that the environments look too “sterile” and, like his opinion of the characters, are more superficial than substantive. While McCay uses an art noveau line, which at times almost borders on (or also influenced– as in the case of many European artists like Moebius) the ligneclaire style, a question of sterility ends up really being a matter of taste. A reason for Watterson’s criticism could be simply that the differences between McCay’s architectural marvels and the and expressionistic planets or jungles that Watterson’s brushwork conjured are extreme. Again, it comes down to personal style. Watterson’s planets could not exist without Spaceman Spiff, but Slumberland doesn’t need Nemo to work.

    Great cartoonists like Watterson may not like McCay’s style, but there is no arguing with the care and talent with which McCay impregnated each page. “Every page is a marvel of design and ornament,” Watterson wrote. “The constant invention ,the playful distortions, the subtle coloring, the panoramas of architectural splendor… never has another comic strip taken such full advantage of the visual possibilities for surprise.”

    Sources: “A (Very) Short Bibliography”:

    Images and articles from The Best of LIttle Nemo in Slumberland, Richard Marschall. 1997, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, NY, NY.

    Quotes from Maurice Sendak were excerpted from his essay “An Elaborate and Audacious Fantasy,” first published in 1973.

    [The above essay is ©2010 Bill Bedard, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]

    ________________________________________

    About the author/student:

  • Bill Bedard has a blog/website, which you can access with this link. Pay it a visit, won’t you?

  • Further reading & resources:

  • For more on Winsor McCay’s influential early 20th Century comicstrip creations, see Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Katie Moody on Winsor McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” Click this link!
  • You can purchase your own copy of The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland at amazon.com; here’s the current availability.
  • We also most highly recommend editor/publisher Peter Maresca’s marvelous Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!, which reproduces the McCay strips in their original Sunday page dimensions; copies of are still available at amazon.com. Here’s the current availability.

  • This book is in the Schulz Library’s permanent collection.

  • We also most highly recommend the followup volume Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splendid Sundays, Volume 2; copies of are still available at amazon.com. Here’s the current availability.
  • CCS instructor Stephen Bissette interviewed Peter Maresca back in November of 2005, when the first volume of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! was first published. Here’s the complete interview, archived on the original Myrant blog site.

  • Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Katie Moody on Winsor McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend”

    Note: This is the first in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.

    These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!

    Unless otherwise noted, any image captions or comments in brackets [like this] were added by the Survey I instructor, Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes. All illustrations in this particular post were added by the instructor.

    [Winsor McCay, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: This March 8, 1905 installment of Rarebit Fiend inspired McCay's 1921 animated film The Pet, the first-ever 'giant monster attacking a city' motion picture ever made. Thus, McCay and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was arguably the wellspring for immortals like King Kong and Godzilla!]

    ________________________________________________

    Strip Analysis: Winsor McCay’s Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend
    by Katie Moody
    (CCS, Class of 2012)

    The first sixty strips of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, as collected by Frederick A. Stokes in 1905 and recollected by Dover Publications in 1973 [cover pictured at left], are a hallucinatory window into the 1905 adult’s subconscious. As a pioneer of the nascent storytelling medium that modern readers would recognize as comics, Winsor McCay in particular represents a bridge between static, classic illustration and the more flexible, faster-paced nature of comics storytelling, a change itself enabled by advances in printing technology. His sophisticated themes, visual tropes, and other stylistic bids for sequential art’s legitimacy—all readily apparent in this mere seven percent of the strip’s run—remain relevant to comics enthusiasts today.

    Following at least ten earlier newspaper strips from McCay—with his more lighthearted Little Sammy Sneeze and Hungry Henrietta among them—Dream of the Rarebit Fiend stands out as a series of grand experiments. Its target audience is adult readers; the laws of reality and reason apply only to the final panel, the themes are more mature, the protagonist (almost always an adult) changes with each installment, and the entire blossoming field of psychoanalysis (Freud’s seminal* Interpretation of Dreams was published only five years prior) is McCay’s playground. Deep-rooted desires, primal fears, and social anxieties—the latter represented by dreamt inept encounters with peers who deliver, with straight matter-of-factness, what readers would immediately recognize as gleeful absurdities—frequently imperil the rarebit-fueled sleeper, and these fever-dream themes are so universal and relatable that many of the scenarios, metaphors, and visuals are still compelling over a century later.

    McCay’s accomplished Dream illustrations—with his characteristic strict perspective, lush detail, and trendy Art Nouveau influences in line weights—are obvious attempts to appeal to turn-of-the-century sensibilities. McCay was a woodcut illustrator first, and so upon switching professional gears to creating newspaper strips he must have been well aware of engaging in a popular art form—almost by definition ubiquitous, embraced by the public, and dismissed by critics. While he was pragmatic enough to find such profitable venues for his creative experiments as print and (especially with his animation milestone Gertie the Dinosaur) vaudeville, the work itself has a level of craft and technical integrity that is inarguable to modern eyes.

    Now that McCay’s later strip Little Nemo in Slumberland is universally recognized as an early comics masterpiece, and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is an obvious precursor to Nemo in both subject and content, it is clear that McCay took the entire rarebit endeavor seriously in spite of all the wild experimentation. Even the angles and placement of the dialogue text are toyed with, as seen in strips forty-three to forty-five (on pages 45-47); A word balloon twists up along the wake of its tossed speaker [above, right], angry and indignant retorts swirl around the chaos of a physical altercation [left], and even the “OH OH OH OH” of a sideways-flattened commuter is placed on end [below]. The reading experience was McCay’s to toy with, manipulate, and consciously attempt to control; perhaps his testing and invention in the medium was further bolstered by the use of a pseudonym, “Silas” (employed for contract reasons).

    So why does this strip have such longevity and an immediacy that enchants new readers to this day?

    In spite of the 1905 collection’s claims to the contrary, Rarebit itself is unnecessary, as any other foodstuff could stand in for the arbitrary nightmare fuel if sufficiently spicy or exotic. In this strip, rarebit simply symbolizes excess and a source of regret; it is a seed that has a vivid and unsettling blossom of insight, though the shuddering dreamer rarely cares to give their experience further exploration. The modern equivalent of rarebit is another ubiquitous “cheese pie” that is often paired with beer—a combination still blamed for occasional agitating misadventures in dreamland.

    Since it’s not the specific source of the dreaming that has endured, it must be the dreaming itself. The few topical references of McCay’s time that made it into this collection’s strips—Roosevelt, the newly constructed Flatiron Building in New York, jabs at Mormons (whose church had only officially abandoned polygamy, the strip’s topic, in 1890)—are curious artifacts of its original time-specific context, but the episodic and continuity-free nature of each exuberant installment allow the strip to remain welcoming to new readers. The entertaining exaggerations and alarming scenarios, the fast and furious rush of strange plots and characters’ resonant emotional responses, and the operatic lushness of McCay’s panels all but beg further reading. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is a page-turner if ever there was one, with more eventful developments in its eight to nine panels than in an entire issue of most modern “event” tie-in pamphlets.

    Given the fast-paced and effusive assault of content that McCay packed into each episode of Dream, the alacrity of this new medium must have been intoxicating to him. Far before Hollywood became the special-effects powerhouse that we (and Michael Bay) know so well today, Winsor McCay was using pen, paper, and gray matter to convey the most fantastical stories scenarios that he could conceive. Though he would later explore the logical conclusion between comics and film with his forays into early animation, his visual storytelling needed no more than the printed page itself in order to convey a compelling experience to his audience. That McCay’s chosen medium would still be struggling for serious legitimacy a century later, in spite of the mature themes and visual metaphors employed by him and countless other creators over the intervening years, is due to no fault of his own.

    Footnotes:
    * (Cough.)

    Source:
    Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend; McCay, Winsor. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY. 1973.

    [The above essay is ©2010 Katie Moody, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]

    [A page of Winsor McCay Rarebit Fiend original art, from the collection of Dr. Ulrich Merkl (see below).]
    ________________________________________

    About the author/student:

  • Katie Moody comes to CCS with professional credentials in the field, which you can see here;
  • at present, she does not offer an online blog or site for her work, but once she does, we’ll add that link.

    Further reading & resources:

    * CCS faculty member Stephen Bissette interviewed German art and comics scholar/archivist Ulrich Merkl about Dr. Merkl’s definitive Dream of the Rarebit Fiend collected edition, which we have in the Schulz Library rare books collection (donated by Bissette and Dr. Merkl).

  • Read “Dream of the Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: An Interview with Ulrich Merkl (with Three Addendums),” at the original Myrant blog site (archived at this link), July 23, 2007.
  • In his 2007 Myrant overview of the year’s best books, Bissette wrote:

    “Ulrich Merkl’s ravishing, absolutely definitive Dream of the Rarebit Fiend collection is jam-packed with much, much more than “just” the most complete collection of Winsor McCay’s seminal comic strip available anywhere on Earth. It’s also a comprehensive overview of McCay’s life, career and the context of the times in which one of our greatest cartoonists created this still-amazing strip, which essentially poured the foundation for the whole of 20th Century comics (and, as Merkl demonstrates, much of its art, cinema and visionary works).”

  • Joshua Glenn of The Boston Globe has archived this lively narrated online slideshow, based on Dr. Merkl’s book, demonstrating the influence of McCay’s work on many famous films (covered in further detail in Markl’s book, of course).