Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review: Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend

When I was young, comic strips from the first half of the 20th century weren't very appealing to me; as I've grown older, I've realized I simply wasn't seeing samples of the best strips from the early days. One of my favourites is Winsor McCay's Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, so I was pleased to find a decently-priced collection of this work in-print.

The nature of this collection is certainly worth commenting on - it's published by Dover, not a publisher I know for their comics-related work. The actual book is a reprint of a volume first printed in 1905, then reprinted by Dover in 1973 and still being reprinted to this day, like most books in Dover's library. The collection features 62 examples of Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend with an informative introduction explaining the history of the comic strip.

The quality of the strips reprinted is not the greatest; in a way, it demonstrates how much has changed in terms of archiving this material since the 1970s; the 1973 edition ommitted some strips from the 1905 book because they were apparently too racist; today's archivers of comic strips include everything for the serious scholar. There's also no source on when each of the strips were first published and no particular sense of why these 62, of all those which could have been printed, were the select few.

Regardless, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend's quality shines through. Putting aside the racist strips, the violent content is definitely beyond today's newspaper strips (see above). Each strip follows a character into a dream world, sometimes beginning in a realistic or at least subdued fashion, then growing more and more wild until the character wakes up in the last panel, just like McCay's Little Nemo strip. It's interesting to see McCay played with the readers' expectations at some points, such as making you guess which character in the dream is the one having the dream. Each one follows dream logic so perfectly, in such a haunting, ridiculous fashion; you could probably write an essay on each one. This is the second McCay book for my shelf - I hope to find more in the future!

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