Dream of the Rarebit Fiend -- beautiful new book

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From 1904-1912, Winsor McCay wrote and drew a funny, strange, and imaginative comic strip called Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, about the surreal nightmares of people who eat food containing cheese. I've always loved reading the episodes that have ran from time to time in various books and magazines, even though they were printed too small.

A wonderful fellow named Ulrich Merkl has collected almost every single known episode of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and loving compiled them into a monstrously large, boat-anchor heavy book and accompanying DVD. It's limited to 1000 copies, one of which he gave to me. Without a doubt, it's my favorite book of the year.

In addition to the strips, the book includes lots of McCay history. One of my favorite parts shows how scenes from Rarebit Fiend found their way into movies like King Kong, Dumbo, Mary Poppins, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It doesn't matter whether or not the film makers were directly influenced by McCay's work -- what's interesting is how much of what McCay did in the early 20th century has become part of our popular culture.

Each episode presented the dream of some poor soul who had the misfortune of partaking of Welsh Rarebit (a melted cheese toast) before retiring, a decision that resulted in unusual and fantastic dreams. In the last panel, the dreaming victim awakened, vowing never to partake of Rarebit before bedtime again.

The strip was written and drawn by Winsor McCay (1867-1934), famous for his Little Nemo in Slumberland. Other than Little Nemo, which was addressed to children, and mainly lived from its spectacular layouts, DREAM OF THE RAREBIT FIEND focused on the plots, seen from a decidedly adult point of view, and was devoted to adult nightmares and phobias, making it one of the weirdest, most amazing and shocking comic strips of all times, simply "the most bizarre newspaper feature in American history" (Jeet Heer).

This book contains

  • detailed information about both the life and works of Winsor McCay, as well as the DREAM OF THE RAREBIT FIEND series
  • 369 reproductions of the best DREAM OF THE RAREBIT FIEND episodes, taken from the best available sources, digitally restored, and reproduced to their original published size, most of them reprinted for the first time since their original publication a century ago
  • 641 additional images (219 in color) illustrating the author's life and work, and the historical and artistic background to individual DREAM OF THE RAREBIT FIEND episodes
  • two articles by comic book historian Alfredo Castelli: Dream Travelers 1900-1947. Precursors and epigones of Winsor McCay A dreamer with his feet planted firmly on the ground
  • an article by dream worker Jeremy Taylor: Some archetypal symbolic aspects of DREAM OF THE RAREBIT FIEND a DVD with
  • high resolution scans (8 or 3 MB each) of all 821 episodes known to exist (including those not reprinted in the book)
  • a 600 page WORD file with a catalogue raisonn of all episodes, containing a vast array of information about the individual episodes, including chronological strip numbering, original publication dates, later reprints, whereabouts of the original artwork, inspirations used by Winsor McCay, later quotations taken from this strip, and historical background information, & the complete text of the printed book
  • the surviving fragments from McCay's animated film Gertie on Tour (c. 1918-1921)


  1. I’m always excited to see Mccay’s work as I owe my first name to Little Nemo in Slumberland.

    I was under the impression that some of Mccay’s works like Nemo had entered the public domain. Is there any reason they cannot be released as a free e-book onto sites like Gutenberg?

    I would love to see more people aware of little Nemo, it’s a beautiful series.

  2. Congrats on scoring a free copy, Mark! I collect comics/GNs for the Columbia University Libraries, and Art Spiegelman gave me the heads-up on this edition after he taught a course here last spring. I’m so glad I was able to get a copy for our library! Winsor McCay is my personal comics god, and this is as fitting a tribute as one can imagine…

  3. @ #2 – “I was under the impression that some of Mccay’s works like Nemo had entered the public domain. Is there any reason they cannot be released as a free e-book onto sites like Gutenberg?”

    I own 3 of the “Complete Little Nemo” hardcover series; if what you say is true, I’d be willing to scan/upload them in full. EVERYBODY should see these drawings, they’re stunning and totally unique.

  4. Donopolis beat me to the punch. Rick Vietch’s RARE BIT FIENDS is fantastic stuff, like most of the rest of his oeuvre. He’s like what you’d get if Steve Ditko and Jim Woodring were spliced together.

  5. @ AFO: from wikipedia:

    “The strips[little nemo], along with most of the rest of McCay’s works, fell into the public domain worldwide on January 1, 2005, 70 years after McCay’s death (see Copyright and the EU’s Directive harmonizing the term of copyright protection for details). The complete set of Little Nemo strips is available in a single volume from Taschen: Little Nemo 1905-1914 (ISBN 3-8228-6300-9), leaving out only the later revival from the 1920s.”

    So as far as I can see it is in the public domain, so it has always struck me as peculiar that it’s not available on the web. I’ve searched extensively over the past few years.

  6. well I’ll be darned! I am darned to scan. the only question now is, where should they go? is there an appropriate archive?

  7. Careful — although the strips themselves may be public domain, the cleaned-up version in your book may not be.

    Taschen can’t copyright public domain work, but they do hold some rights to their clean-up efforts.

    As to how much “some” is, I have no idea. But I’m sure there’s some legal difference between that dollar-store video-rip DVD, and the Criterion Collection version, namean?

    Barnacle Press, above, posts scans from original newspapers (er, quite often microfilm, which accounts for their often poor repro quality). So even though they have (some) Little Sammy Sneeze, it doesn’t interfere with the Checker publication, becuase they aren’t using Checkers remastered, cleaned-up etc. version (if you’ve ever tried scanning & cleaning up b&w line art from a poor source, it ain’t no bed of roses).

  8. i’m torn.

    i love the work and deem a complete collection necessary
    i also am so tired of all these overgorgeous trophy fetish books

  9. I hear you, Billy.

    I’d love to have this collection — it looks fantastic! But at $114 there is no way I can justify it to my fiancee. :-(

    If, you know, there were _more_ than 1000 copies, it might be affordable. The arts and crafts movement created some beautiful works, but there’s something to be said for the age of large-scale mechanical reproduction, as well.

  10. For so many years, very little of McCay’s work was available, so I went for it – might not be around again. I’ll never be able to afford the originals I’ve seen for sale at Comic-Con, so this a bargain. I’ve passed up some earlier comic collections on occasion and have always regretted it. I figure it can help prop up “So Many Splendid Sundays” and “Little Sammy Sneeze” on my bookshelf.

  11. I went on a hasty search for something downloadable after reading about Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, especially since the works are in the public domain. I managed to find a copy of Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay from 1905 on Google Books, but I don’t think it’s a complete collection. It should contain a nice sampling, if only 59 pages worth. Link to Google Books:

  12. My 2¢:
    I just bought this book, and while I am very excited to finally have a compemndium of all the work, I have serveral design issues with the book.

    First of all, they put the book title upside down on the spine. Defying convention, the title reads from bottom to top as it sits on the bookshelf.

    Secondly, there is a weirdly disturbing design element running through the book. They underlay these weird scraps of newsprint paper under the comics throughout many pages of the book. This is just plain weird looking and IMHO is bad design.

    All in all, its great work, but I find the presentation in this book to be lacking.

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