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Winsor McCay’s comic strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend ran in the Evening Telegram (a sister newspaper of The New York Herald) from 1904-1911. Pictured here is the cover of the Dover Books facsimile of a 1905 book compiling the early strips in the series. The original book released by publisher Frederick A. Stokes is quite rare, but Dover does a wonderful job of preserving such scarcities for us all to read.

Best remembered today as an animation pioneer and the author of the classic comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, Winsor McCay premiered much the same concept as Little Nemo in the more adult Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. With each daily strip we are thrown into a surrealistic dream sequence, only to find out in the last frame that the strange events depicted are in the mind of a sleeping character who has gorged on too much Welsh rarebit the night before. The “rarebit fiend” usually wakes up and blames his nightmare on the toasted cheese & ale concoction.  The fiend then opines that nobody warned about the effects of too much Welsh rarebit, OR, despite the warning,  they ate it anyway and now regret it, OR,  or the vow is made never to indulge again.

While the premises behind Little Nemo and Rarebit Fiend are similar—involving a character who falls asleep and has adventures in a dream, only to awaken again in bed—Rarebit Fiend is more “R-rated.” In the first few pages of the 1905 compilation, you encounter amputations, nudity, cannibalism, sexual longing, an alligator purse turning into a woman-eating beast, etc. Apparently the concept of a family newspaper did not hold sway yet in 1905. Fascinating to read comics from a major newspaper that a few years later would only have been publishable as underground comics.

In 1906, Edwin S. Porter (of The Great Train Robbery fame), co-directed and photographed The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, which was based on one of McCay’s January, 1905,  newspaper strips. In our current era of comic-based movie spinoffs, it is interesting to look back on this early example. Just like the modern comic book movies that are so obsessed with telling the characters’ origin stories, Porter’s film fleshes out Winsor McCay’s concept by showing the rarebit fiend gluttonously consuming toast, cheese from a fondue pot, and several bottles of ale. The newspaper version of McCay’s comic strip never shows the rarebit fiend before the dream sequence. Instead, McCay starts the action in medias res and only resolves it in the final frame when the character wakes up to blame his nightmare on too much rarebit. In the film, it is obvious that the character’s intoxication leads to the dream sequence; in the comic strip, it is suggested that the dream is more a product of overindulgence and dyspepsia.

The film owes a lot to French precursors like Georges Méliès and the fantasy trick films from Pathé. Porter, who was always a technically minded and innovative cameraman/editor more than he was a director, employs matte techniques and a variety of other tricks to tell the story.  In fact, the film was promoted in its day for its special effects.

By 1911, Winsor McCay the cartoonist ventured into film himself. Aside from drawing newspaper comic strips, he started making animations to be accompanied by himself, live, as part of a vaudeville act. Many of his films only survive in pieces or are lost, but a couple are quite famous: Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). Part of McCay’s legacy is that he is often cited as the most important early animator prior to Walt Disney.