Waking from a rarebit-induced nightmare. Artist: Winsor McCay.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: The New York Evening Telegram
First Appeared: 1905
Creator: Winsor McCay
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Winsor McCay's Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend has been called Little Nemo in Slumberland for adults. It would be more accurate to say Nemo is a version of Rarebit Fiend made for …

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… children, which reflects both their chronological order and the acknowledged inspiration of the Nemo scenario. Both debuted in 1905, Nemo in James Gordon Bennet's New York Herald and Rarebit in Bennet's Evening Telegram, but Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend appeared several months earlier.

Both comics featured bizarre, fantastic dreams, ending with the dreamer sitting up in bed, suddenly awake. But while Nemo was all about princesses, giants and other fairy tale denizens, the Rarebit Fiend encountered mind-numbing violence, horrifying transformations, intense embarrassment, and other nightmarish situations. Both were intended for laughs, and got them in abundance, but in the grown-up comic — by far the funnier (tho less charming) of the two — the humor was tinged with unease.

Also, while Little Nemo in Slumberland featured lengthy storylines about its continuing characters, in Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, not only was each page's story complete in itself — even the unnamed protagonists appeared only one time apiece. The only thing they had in common was eating rich food late at night, experiencing somnolent disburbances as a consequence. McCay (whose other works include Little Sammy Sneeze, Tales of the Jungle Imps and, in another medium, Gertie the Dinosaur) may have been the first cartoonist to build a strongly coherent series around a theme rather than a character.

For contractual reasons, McCay used a pseudonym, "Silas", for this feature. According to a 1907 interview, he chose that of a neighborhood fixture, old Silas, who drove a garbage cart past the newspaper office each day.

The Rarebit Fiend soon made it into film. The first came out in 1905 or '06, directed by Edward Porter, who had done Buster Brown movies in 1903 and '04. Porter used stop-motion photography to create his dream-like effects. McCay himself made four animated shorts about the Fiend in 1921. Also, about 60 pages were reprinted in book form in 1905, and Dover Books (Palmer Cox's Brownies, Milt Gross's Nize Baby) re-reprinted those pages in 1973. In recent years, Checker Books (Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon) has reprinted Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend as part of an ongoing series reprinting McCay's early work.

In comics, McCay's Rarebit Fiend work ended after only a few years. But in 1991, cartoonist Rick Veitch (Greyshirt, Swamp Thing) used a variation on the name for his own dream-inspired work. At first it was only fillers, but later it was given its own title. Veitch's King Hell Press published 21 issues of Roarin' Rick's Rare Bit Fiends starting in 1994.


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Text ©2007 Donald D. Markstein. Art ©: Winsor McCay's Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.