Rarebit Fiend

by John Holbo on November 11, 2007

Josh Glenn has a great little slideshow for you, in the Boston Globe. His worthy theme: Winsor McCay’s classic early comic strip, “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” [1904-1913]. (McCay is more famous for Little Nemo. You’ve certainly heard of that one.) The occasion: a lavish new edition, The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, all the strips reprinted for the first time at full size; edited and annotated by some fanatic by the name of Ullrich Merkl. Here’s the book page. You can download substantial samples (PDF). Looks nice, though pricey. (Older editions [amazon] are in print as well.)


As I was saying: Josh’s little slideshow – with voiceover – documents the influence of “Rarebit Fiend” on five later films: L’Age D’Or, King Kong, Dumbo, Mary Poppins, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I guess Glenn is taking his cue from Merkl’s work. I deem it well worth 3 minutes and 31 seconds of your time.

Speaking of the shift from print cartooning to film, Winsor McCay, if you don’t know, is pretty much the God-Grandfather of the animated cartoon. He was one of the very first (the very first?), and hand-drew every damn frame, apparently. (With an occasional assistant.) And he did these vaudeville tours in which he lectured and interacted with the films. Obviously the joke is to synchronize your patter with the film itself. YouTube has it all: “Little Nemo” (1911) (but you have to wait until, like, 8:30 minutes in for the actual animation to start.) “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914); and “Gertie on Tour” (1921); “How a Mosquito Operates” (1912); and some other stuff, too. Gertie the Dinosaur has the distinction of being the first made-for-animation character, I believe.

Last but not least, Josh Glenn himself has a fun new book out: Taking Things Seriously [amazon] – I’ll get around to reviewing that one. Basically, he invited people to submit their objects. And so they did.



joel turnipseed 11.11.07 at 6:03 pm

Great post, John! The Josh Glenn slideshow is definitely worth three-odd minutes & the YouTube finds are fantastic.


Mary Racine 11.11.07 at 7:13 pm

Thanks! Rarebit was a frequent dinner growing up (especially when Dad was cooking), and there were often jokes about being rarebit fiends, but I didn’t know that it was a specific reference.


thompsaj 11.11.07 at 8:33 pm

one of my favorite nintendo games games as a kid in the early 90’s was little nemo the dream master. I thought, until now, that it was just some nintendo game developer’s overactive imagination, but it totally makes more sense now. thanks so much for the heads up about “rarebit”, too!


Luther Blissett 11.12.07 at 2:02 am


Edwin S. Porter made a short film, “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend,” in 1906. You can find it in the *Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941* DVD collection.


KCinDC 11.12.07 at 2:17 am

Luther, it’s online.


kid bitzer 11.12.07 at 3:42 am

unfortunately, i keep hearing in my mind fowler’s dictum that:
“welsh rabbit is amusing and right, welsh rarebit is stupid and wrong”.

expressed with full fowlerian confidence, of course.


Vance Maverick 11.12.07 at 6:17 am

Right, and since a British usage guide of 1926 frowns on way an American spelled the title of a comic strip beginning in 1904, … actually, I’m not sure what follows from that.


kid bitzer 11.12.07 at 5:43 pm

“actually, I’m not sure what follows from that.”

i am. what follows from that is that it’s unfortunate that i keep hearing fowler.


gmoke 11.12.07 at 9:15 pm

McCay was also a propagandist for the US entering WWI. His animation of the sinking of the Lusitania is not only artistically striking but also effective public opinion management.


The Modesto Kid 11.13.07 at 3:59 am

That “Little Nemo” video is excellent.


Josh Glenn 11.15.07 at 6:52 pm

Thanks, John!

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