Monday, June 16, 2008

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend
by Ulrich Merkl, 2007.

Nominated for 2008 Eisner Award.

“A dream is no joke. It is a condition in the mind of a sleeping man which, if it existed when he was awake, would land him in the psychopathic ward.”-- Winsor McCay

Ulrich Merkl’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is indispensable as history, but the heart of this remarkable table-top book is the collection of dated and cross-referenced comic strips, 369 episodes reproduced in the book, and a further 452 strips on the DVD, many in colour, for a grand total of all 821 episodes known to exist. There are three superbly illustrated essays. Comic historian Alfredo Castelli contributes two superb articles: Dream Travelers 1900-1947, Precursors and epigones of Winsor McCay and A dreamer with his feet planted firmly on the ground. Jeremy Taylor provides dream background in Some archetypal symbolic aspects of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Rarebit Fiend delivers great comic art, an essential biography, and a scholarly history of New York’s fledgling comic strip industry.

McCay’s early years were spent working as a sign-painter in Chicago and Cincinnati. In 1886 a newspaper reported that the average wage of a billboard painter was $10 per week. He began the year 1889 in Chicago, at the National Printing and Engraving Company where he painted circus posters, then moved on to Cincinnati, and a new employer, Kohl and Middleton’s Vine Street Dime Museum.

Montgomery Phister wrote of McCay‘s dime museum days, which lasted approximately from 1889 to 1898;

“Mac stuck to his work, unmindful of the irregularity of the visits of the ghostly paymaster. His studio was a dingy little room on the top floor of the museum. Here he toiled on, his own teacher, without models and without adequate materials or tools. On the front of that Heck and Avery institution blossomed out each week in a blaze of Mac’s well-mixed pigments, an edition deluxe of fat women, snakes, living skeletons, and ossified men.”

McCay’s artistic style developed out his trade as a sign painter. Billboards, canvas, and posters were painted in bold outline and filled with solid primary colours. Traces of Art Nouveau style entered his art, floating in on the Zeitgeist to land on his drawing board. He had an intuitive understanding of surrealism, psychology, mechanics, motion, and dreams, that led to his two greatest achievements in newspaper comics, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904) and Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905).

Kohl and Middleton’s chain of dime museums stretched all through the Midwest, in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Louisville, Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Dime museums popped up like whack-a-moles during the peak years (1880-1900). Entertainments were a variety of ‘platform entertainments', freak shows, hirsute women, dog-faced boys, magicians, mesmerists, learned lecturers, lightning cartoonists, spectacle melodrama,* waxworks and the newfangled cinema. In New York in 1886 it was said that “dime museums have sprung up in Brooklyn like mushrooms. One can hardly walk a block in the Eastern District without meeting a dazzling electric light, beneath which he reads in six foot posters that a “refined and elegant entertainment is to be enjoyed within for the small sum of ten cents.”

It was in the dime museums, vaudeville houses, and penny arcades that slot machines were available, consisting of flip-book photographs viewed through a peep-hole and hand cranked to give the illusion of motion. The first of these was the Edison Kinetoscope cabinet perfected by his assistant W. K. L. Dickson in 1889. McCay was later to credit his son Robert with inspiring his own animated cartoons with his toy flip-books, but he must have watched hundreds of films on the peep-hole machines during his long apprenticeship at Kohl and Middleton’s.

A reporter visiting an arcade at Coney Island in 1897 had his interest piqued by the peep-hole cinema:

“But here is something that really does promise to be wicked: a row of stereoscopes, kinetoscopes, mutascopes and what not- you find them all over the island- with salacious titles: “How Maggie Had Her Shower Bath,” “What They Saw Through the Keyhole,” “Little Egypt Doing Her Seeley Dinner Dance,” “Boarding School Pillow Fight,” and that kind of thing. You drop your nickel, if you are a bad, bad man, and set the machine to going, and you turn away with a sigh of “Sold again.” the pictures are of the slimmest sort of interest, the figures are clothed, and the action, when there is any, is merely theatric and rehearsed.”

One seminal influence on McCay must have been the films of Edwin S. Porter who had once held a job as a bill-poster in a circus. He began freelancing for Edison as a photographer of newsreels in 1899 and his short works were shown on peep-show machines. He specialised in ‘trick’ photography using many techniques that were also applicable to animated cartoons, like stop-motion photography and double exposure.

Porter produced many children’s films and comedies making good use of animation. There were Jack in the Beanstalk in 1902, Fun in a Bakery Shop, which showed a baker sculpting faces out of loaves of bread (actually primitive clay-mation), and The Teddy Bears in 1907, featuring stop-motion animation to bring the bears to life. In 1903 Porter photographed 3 enormously popular films, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Life of an American Fireman, and the film he is remembered by today, The Great Train Robbery.

Moving pictures had already been available on peep show machines for about ten years by the time Edison’s Vitascope projector was exhibited in New York in April of 1896. It is said that McCay saw his first film projected on the screen at the Vine Street Dime Museum, and though the title of the film is not given a description survives of a train rushing directly at the audience. The film must have been Edison and Porter’s Black Diamond Express of 1896, which was recycled along with two other pictures in an intriguing film copyrighted on January 27, 1902 called Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show.

In this Porter film a country boy in the big city takes in a picture show. Three short Edison films, Black Diamond Express, Parisian Dance, and Country Couple, are projected on the screen while the naive country boy becomes increasingly agitated at the sight. Finally he attacks the screen to save the actress who plays the heroine. The scenes have echoes in McCay’s later film Gertie on Tour in which McCay stands on the stage and puts an on-screen Gertie through the paces. He then walks off-stage and reappears as a character on screen. The DVD accompanying Ilrich Merkl’s lavish book contains fragments from the animated film, Gertie on Tour.

Edison/Porter’s The Twentieth Century Tramp of 1902 showed a man attach a bicycle under a balloon and fly over New York. It would be interesting to know how well Porter and McCay knew each other at the time. If McCay was familiar with the film this may have been the real genesis of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.

When Edwin S. Porter filmed McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend in 1906, at a cost of $350, feature pictures were, as one newspaper critic wrote, “of a more or less sensational order, all splendidly worked up and realistic and generally combining tragedy and humour. Of such order were Stolen by Gipsies, in which the kidnapping of a child was the subject; The Life of an American Policeman, comprising a series of interesting scenes, ending up with a highly sensational arrest of a burglar; An Escape from Sing Sing Prison, in which three convicts are seen in thrilling exploits; and Raffles, the Cracksman, showing the methods of Raffles the gentleman burglar of magazine fiction fame. Humorous to an excruciating degree again were the pictures entitled I’ve Lost my Eye-Glasses and The Rarebit Fiend and others kept them company.”

“Silas,” author of “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” wrote on January 30, 1906 in a newspaper article titled How the Rarebit Fiend Happened, that “about a year ago, when nothing disturbed the calm morning air except the noise in the street, the machinery in the building, and the yells of the other employees going to and fro in the halls, my brain gave birth to a tiny idea.”

“At first his (the Rarebit Fiend‘s) bed was in my card case, then in a stamp drawer. He soon grew so that from a shoe box filled with cotton he required a soap box filled with sawdust under my desk. I fed him regularly, groomed and petted him fondly, and exhibited him semi-weekly, while he kept on growing until to-day he reaches from coast to coast both ways.”McCay based many of his Rarebit Fiend strips on correspondence from his fans relating their dreams after partaking of the delicacy. “Yes, I do feel my work,” he wrote, “I put my heart into my drawings and act them in imagination as an actor might. Thus, when I am illustrating a man having his skeleton pulled out through his mouth by a dentist you can imagine the terrible sufferings I endure.”

In 1905 Frederick A. Stokes Company of New York, who described their publications as ‘comic books’ in advertisements as early as 1903, issued a collection of strips under the title Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. A tongue-in-cheek prologue in which a scientific study of the symptoms of rarebit poisoning was supposedly carried out on the psychopathic ward of Bellevue Hospital, reveals much about the dreams of Winsor McCay regarding the art of animation. Patients were manacled, straight-jacketed, and tightly bound to their beds. Using a device called the Smitherson’s patent Revograph (not yet traced) “pictures of the dreams experienced by each patient were magnified and thrown upon large white sheets placed at the end of the beds in the thoroughly darkened ward. In the interests of science, as well as in corroboration of the explorations made by Mr. McCay, it must be said that in all but three cases, the rarebit eaters were troubled by visions of a distressing nature. Armadillos, red serpents, green street cars, and innumerable objects were portrayed upon the screens as they passed through the disordered faculties of the dreamers.”

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was the most cinematic of McCay’s comic strips. Well before 1909 when his first animated film, Little Nemo, was exhibited, McCay was experimenting with motion in the comic’s panels, which can almost be described as storyboards of the imagination. They reveal the hopes and dreams the cartoonist had for animated projects of his own, as yet unrealised. The comic strips in their infancy were for the most part static; close-ups, long-shots, and bird’s eye views did not come into common usage in comics until live action films had adopted the practice.

The animated film up to this point was not considered at all different from trick films that used human actors. Emile Cohl’s films used stick figures while the early films by lightning cartoonists J. Stuart Blackton in the United States and Tom Merry in Britain were little more than filmed versions of their staged chalk-talk performances. McCay’s visionary films were a major step forward in the art of animation, the problem was that his system was so laborious, life was so short, and time so destructive to the original nitrate film, that today only fragments of his work in animation survive.

There is a visceral appeal to the illustrations in Ulrich Merkl’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Newspaper cartoons were a major selling point and the comic artist was given plenty of space to dream on paper. He lived in an America that was mad about technology and excited about the future. McCay dreamed of trains, telegraphs, telephones, street cars, automobiles, phonographs, drawings that moved, and full colour Sunday supplements. Magic, alchemy, dreams and art all depend on symbols and correspondences, something that the creative dreamer Winsor McCay fully understood.

Ulrich Merkl’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is a massive dream book for the ages and the best collection of comic art yet to be published in the 21st century. The reader has a rare chance to look into the mind of a comic genius, a man who relied on "memory sketching" to hone his fine eye for motion in comics and animated movies. Every page evokes strong feelings and a conviction that Winsor McCay was the ideal delineator of his age. Information on purchasing the marvellous Rarebit Fiend can be found HERE.

*[A staple of the dime museum melodrama was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. McCay borrowed the scene of Eliza dashing across the cracking ice with the baby in her arms for episode no. 629, page 410 in this book.]

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful article this is. Thank you for the time and information you provided. I have bookmarked your site for a place to visit and learn.