Dark and Still Funny: Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

On September 10, 1904, New York’s Evening Telegram published a new comic strip by Winsor McCay, the talented cartoonist behind the fairly popular strip Little Sammy Sneeze — a boy whose violent sneezes cause catastrophic destruction in every episode.  It was an amusing premise, but other than sublime draftsmanship and a tendency to break the fourth wall (in an art form barely ten years old, yet!). it wasn’t anything truly special.

The new strip was definitely something special, though, and it made McCay famous.  It was called Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and much of it is still hilarious.

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The What and Why of Welsh Rarebits (or Rabbits)

McCay wrote and drew the strip as an examination of the nightmares supposedly evoked by eating melted cheese sauce on toast just before bedtime.  Stouffer’s sells a pretty tasty frozen version to this day (you have to provide your own toast, though).  I don’t believe medical science has any recorded cases of cheese-caused night terrors, and none of the premise makes a lick more sense than Sammy Sneeze:  someone has a nightmare, wakes up, and expresses remorse for their choice of late-night snack.

That’s it.

But instead of the earlier work’s monotonous formula, he used this simple premise to eviscerate modern humanity’s deepest, darkest fears and display them to us  like deer carcasses on a pickup hood.

Ummm… funny deer carcasses.

And I do mean modern humanity, too.  The main reason the strip still works now, of course, is that human nature changes slowly at best, and McCay had the talent to capture himself and his fellow citygoers with sheer ruthlessness and perfect ink lines.  But one of the true joys of Rarebit Fiend is this: though things are definitely different after the passage of 114 years, you’d be amazed at how much of it hasn’t really changed all that much.  Or am I the only one that hates to ride with a friend because said friend drives more like a circus daredevil  than someone that passed a driving test?  (That’s an actual strip — it opens with the driver running over a cat.)

Here are two of my favorites.  I intend to publish a few of these on an entirely arbitrary basis, with explanations of the more bizarre aspects of turn-of-the-previous-century society when necessary.

First up is a fine illustration of the reason we’re afraid of public speaking.

(Click on the images to read the entire full-page strips. Note that these are very large files.)

A brilliant young lawyer has some difficulty with a brief after-dinner speech.
A brilliant young lawyer has some difficulty with a brief after-dinner speech.

And here is a potshot McCay took at the Masons and other secret societies of the time.  These “fraternal organizations” were usually a way to make business connections or provide life and injury insurance, but they took their rituals and initiations very seriously.

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A man discovers to his dismay that the initiation secrets of his lodge are taken pretty seriously.

Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble belonged to one of these: The Royal Order of Water Buffaloes.  Actually, you’d be surprised at how many of them still exist, although some are having difficulty finding new members to replace the older ones that Father Time sees fit to usher off this mortal coil.

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