Cheese on toast

Charles Solomon is the author of many books, including "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation" and "The Disney That Never Was."

ALTHOUGH his name is hardly a household word, Winsor McCay ranks as a giant among 20th century cartoonists and illustrators. As an editorial cartoonist, he rivals even Thomas Nast in his drawings, although McCay had the unenviable assignment of illustrating the polemics of William Randolph Hearst’s New York American editor Arthur Brisbane. He began making films with “Little Nemo” (1911), and his animation was unequaled until the glory days of the Disney Studio in the 1930s. As a comic strip artist, he is at the pinnacle of the medium, with George Herriman, Milt Caniff, Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson, for his draftsmanship and visual imagination.

McCay was born in Spring Lake, Mich., probably in 1869. He initially dreamed of becoming a humor artist in the tradition of A.B. Frost, the illustrator of “Uncle Remus.” As a young man, he found work drawing posters and scenery for traveling carnivals and circuses. In 1898, McCay joined the Cincinnati Enquirer as a reporter and illustrator.

His first comic strip, “Tales of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle,” caught the eye of James Gordon Bennett Jr., the publisher of the New York Herald and Evening Telegram. Bennett brought McCay to New York, where he drew his two greatest strips for the Bennett papers. In 1904, McCay began “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” in the Telegram, followed by “Little Nemo in Slumberland” for the Herald in 1905. Both works showcased his ability to imbue drawings of anything and everything with a sense of weight, solidity and presence.


“Simpsons” creator Matt Groening once said he felt about “Futurama” the way Paul McCartney must feel about Wings, and that’s probably how McCay regarded “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” Although it was the longest-running of his comic strips, it never matched the brilliance and beauty of “Little Nemo,” in part because it was drawn to fit a smaller space and was printed only in black and white. Having tracked down printed pages, microfilm and original artwork from numerous sources, Ulrich Merkl has assembled “The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-1913)” ( 464 pp., $114), the largest “Rarebit Fiend” collection ever published.

The “Rarebit Fiend” strips are a series of variations on a single theme: A person finds himself trapped in an increasingly bizarre adventure that turns out to be a nightmare caused by indigestion. The sleeper awakens in the last panel, vowing never to touch Welsh rarebit again. McCay’s extraordinary draftsmanship makes the weirdest situations appear plausible: Hippos arise from the depths of a bathtub; alligator bags, plumed hats and fur pieces come to life and attack chicly dressed women. A man rides a dinosaur skeleton in a steeplechase, only to end up trapped in a pile of bones when his mount stumbles and falls apart.

But the “Rarebit Fiend” cartoons offer more than visual pyrotechnics. McCay’s dry wit remains funny and often surprisingly topical a century after the strips initially appeared. When a parson finds himself in hell and asks for directions to heaven, the attendant devil replies, “Heaven? You’ve got your gall. You’re from Manhattan are you not? You’ll stick around here, you’ll find.” A missionary dreams he’s been captured by cannibals -- who complain he’s too tough to serve anywhere but “one of those cheap boarding houses.” After failing to find suitable lodgings anywhere else, a couple must endure the horror of moving to Brooklyn.

Compiling “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” was clearly a labor of love for Merkl. He tries to present the strips with the kind of graphic panache Chip Kidd applied to “Peanuts” in “The Art of Charles Schulz.” But Merkl lacks Kidd’s discerning eye, and the book is hopelessly over-designed. The text pages are cluttered with red highlights, blowups of figures from the strip, white type on black backgrounds and reprints of newspapers that are often difficult to read.

To go with the drawings, Merkl recaps most of the information that exists about McCay’s life, borrowing heavily from John Canemaker’s definitive biography, “Winsor McCay: His Life and Art” (Abrams). Merkl’s enthusiasm for his subject is almost palpable. He provides copious notes for each strip and identifies caricatures of politicians and social figures who may not be familiar to 21st century readers. He even includes a recipe for Welsh rarebit.

But Merkl lets his love for the “Rarebit Fiend” carry him away. Although McCay drew wonderfully baroque fantasies, the repeated suggestion that the strips may have influenced the paintings of Salvador Dali and the films of Luis Bunuel (among others) seems more like wishful thinking than serious scholarship. McCay’s drawings belong to the long tradition of fantastic imagery in Western art, with none of the intellectual underpinnings of Surrealism.

Despite these caveats, anyone interested in the history of comics or American graphic art will want “The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” But oversized and weighing about 10 pounds, it’s a cumbersome volume that can be read comfortably only at the dining room table. Included with the book is a DVD containing a catalogue raisonne of the 821 cartoons, the text of the book, high-resolution scans of all the strips and the surviving fragments of McCay’s animated film “Gertie on Tour” (an odd choice, as the artist worked on three film adaptations of “Rarebit Fiend” strips).