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Winsor McCay, aka Silas, is regarded as one of the founding
fathers of newspaper comics in the United States, a pioneer in the
panel-based artform and early animation techniques at the turn of
the 20th century. Drawn to McCay's fantastic, imaginative
storytelling (which famously includes the Little Nemo in
Slumberland series), German author and editor Ulrich Merkl has
produced his first major publishing effort, a limited-edition book
about and DVD compilation of McCay's Dream of
the Rarebit Fiend. Merkl, who has previously authored
three books about medieval book illumination and many articles
about art historical themes, is an avid collector of comic books
and original comic art, making him an apt steward to preserve the
1904-1913 strip for future generations. The massive, over-stuffed
(12x17-inch, 464-page) volume is a pleasure for the initiated and
uninitiated alike. We caught up with Merkl long enough to discuss
why and for whom he painstakingly crafted this compendium.
Episode 678: A commuter is joined on the subway by various
Heller: Ulrich, you are the second entrepreneurial
publisher to revive a Winsor McCay classic strip in a mammoth
format. What enticed you to do this?
Cover of Merkl's book Dream of the
Merkl: Well, an artistic giant deserves a giant
book But seriously the unusual format is simply reflecting the
original published size. The large horizontal Rarebit
Fiend episodes were originally published in newspapers where
they took up half a page, about 15 inches wide. All earlier
reprints had been reduced to [around] a third of the original size,
resulting in microscopic, almost illegible lettering, and in
general a loss of detail and impact. I received many positive
feedbacks especially regarding the presentation in original size,
and the full-size strips were a surprising discovery even for
people who believed to know the Rarebit Fiend—however,
during the course of the work I had to learn that such a large
horizontal format cannot be bound automatically, therefore
Heller: And did your own passion play a
Merkl: I decided to collect, edit and reprint
the Rarebit Fiend because it is one of the best comic
strips of all times. While mainstream artists like van Gogh, Monet,
Klimt, Picasso, etc. are reprinted again and again—they do deserve
it—Winsor McCay, whose work is a hundred percent the same quality,
is more or less unknown among the broad public. McCay, and the
public, deserved an adequate publication of his artistic
Heller: What were some of the challenges, or obstacles,
in obtaining all this material?
Episode 425: A man is having “a devil of a time.”
Merkl: Anyone who has worked with vintage
newspaper comics is confronted with the problem of obtaining good
quality copies of the illustrations. Since most of these strips
have never been reprinted since their original publication a
century ago, only two kinds of picture sources are available:
original newspaper tearsheets and microfilm. Hardly any of the
original printed newspapers are still in existence. The bound
volumes kept by the public libraries were disposed of as they took
up too much space and the poor quality paper had become brittle. I
was lucky enough to win a large collection of original Rarebit
Fiend newspaper clippings on eBay. Other copies from original
clippings were contributed by the Cartoon Research Library of the
Ohio State University, the only public collection of its kind.
Imagery that is no longer accessible in the form of original
clippings had to be reproduced from microfilm, which was purchased
from the New York Library and from the Library of Congress.
Additional material was provided by collectors, by online newspaper
archives, scanned from original artwork, purchased on eBay,
Heller: It must be a gargantuan effort to maintain high
Merkl: All pieces had to be scanned and
digitally restored, and there is an average of six restoration
hours in each Rarebit Fiend episode. Ninety percent of the
work on this book was devoted solely to obtaining and working on
Heller: The Rarebit Fiend has been republished
in the past; what makes your book different from the
Merkl: When I decided to work on this project
in 2001, only 200 out of 820 episodes had ever been reprinted.
Unfortunately, from 2003 to 2006 a series of cheap and careless
Winsor McCay reprints was thrown on the market, containing about
half of the Rarebit material I had intended to reprint for
the first time. Despite all its merits, this reprint is fairly
disappointing, and its shortcomings made me determined to continue
my project, despite the loss of exclusiveness.
Episode 396: Two twins, living in the panel frames next to each
other, become engaged in an argument.
Heller: What did you learn about McCay while compiling
this material that you didn't know already?
Merkl: My most surprising discovery—apart from
hundreds of never reprinted Rarebit Fiend strips—is that
Winsor McCay incorporated real daily life in almost every episode:
from fashion, sport, politics and work through to prominent
personalities, architecture, technical progress and many other
features. The strip is a mirror on the United States and New York
City in the early 20th century. You will find everything:
automobilization, baseball, vaudeville, alcoholism, people with
German accent, tramps, fraternal organizations, New York City
landmark buildings, the quest for the North Pole, elections,
women's hats and clothing, horse racing and, and, and...
The strip is an encyclopedia of everyday life and a fantastic
reference work and collection of material for anyone interested in
the early 20th-century history and culture of the United
Episode 326: The world shrinks to the size of a ball.
Heller: How does this strip compare with McCay's classic
Little Nemo in Slumberland?
Merkl:Little Nemo was addressed to
children and mainly lived from its spectacular layouts. Dream
of the Rarebit Fiend has a darker side, is more inventive, and
is devoted to decidedly adult nightmares and phobias, making it one
of the weirdest, most amazing and shocking comic strips of all
times—simply “the most bizarre newspaper feature in American
history,” [according to] Jeet Heer. I think Rarebit Fiend
is the better strip, overall. Visually, Little Nemo is
tops, even though Rarebit Fiend also has its share of
wonderful visuals. But Rarebit Fiend definitely has the
better ideas—indeed, so many Nemo strips are just
reimagined from Rarebit originals—and the more enduring
content. Its imagery and ideas reflect the unconscious life and the
psychology of dreams with a startling reality that's somewhat
lacking in the more fanciful Nemo. Rarebit is
still, even today, shocking and horrifying and brilliant.
Heller: Tell me about the business model for this
project. Did you see a viable audience? Did you finance it
yourself? And how are you getting it into the right hands of
Winsor McCay at work in his studio, c. 1925.
Merkl: I never submitted this project to any
publisher because I knew from the beginning that the book was too
expensive, too unusual and too crazy to even be considered. The
whole book is a one-man-show. As some of my previous publications
had suffered due to indifferent editors and printers, I took the
risk of monopolizing all the work myself—I used to work as a chief
editor and know the tricks of the trade. That meant text and image
research, obtaining pictures, copyright research, image scanning,
image restoration, printing, promotion, selling and shipping.
Advantageous as this may be in terms of having total control and
reducing costs, the risk remains that mistakes can easily be
overlooked. And it costs a lot of time.
Heller: At a price of $114 apiece, how many must you
sell to break even?
Merkl: Eight hundred out of [the total]
Heller: What were some of the design considerations in
creating this book? Did you want to present a purely neutral frame
for the work or, as it seems to me, were you hoping to editorialize
through your book design?
Merkl: An unusual comic strip requires an
unusual design. I found a brilliant designer
who knocked my ideas into shape, the only person besides me who
contributed substantially to the book. And what a fantastic result,
if I may say so! First, I believe we did a good job on the
organization of those giant oblong pages, which are really
difficult to handle. Note our text layout with one wide and two
narrow columns, mirrored on opposite pages. Note the recurring
element of pieces of newsprint paper, alluding to the fact that all
of Winsor McCay's work was published in newspapers. Note the use of
black and red. Note the wonderful endpapers!
On page 74, Merkl comments on the dark side of matrimony in
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.
Heller: Obviously, McCay is a key figure in comics. What
would you say is his ultimate contribution?
Episode 443 detail.
Merkl: Winsor McCay's art is timeless and
incredibly rewarding. It is modern, exciting, inspiring, fresh,
appealing, brilliant and shocking—even today, after one hundred
years. He is standing there like a monolith in the desert. He had
no precursors; he left no pupils. The sheer volume of his output is
breathtaking. He single-handedly invented and refined most devices
the entire comics and movie medium rely upon to this day. He was
the founding father of animation, of surrealism—and of pop culture.
He was a brilliant visionary whose work was not only ahead of his
time, but ahead of ours as well. McCay must be ranked not only
among the greatest cartoonists but among the greatest artists of
all times, comparable only to giants like Michelangelo, Shakespeare
and Mozart. Read the book and you will agree.
Heller: Your enthusiasm for McCay is certainly
Merkl: Discover Winsor McCay! Enjoy Winsor
McCay! Be inspired by Winsor McCay! He will never, never disappoint
For further appreciation: watch anaudio slide show
on Dream of the Rarebit Fiend by the Boston Sunday
How does one master the art of publishing comics and books of
visual culture? Heller seeks wisdom from the sensei, Dan
Nadel of PictureBox.
Section: Inspiration -
interview, Voice, illustration, book design
This essay is part of "Centennial Voices," a series initiated as part
of AIGA's Centennial celebrations to spark conversations about the
past, present and future of design within the design community and
Section: Inspiration -
critique, culture, technology
Come spend an evening chatting about all things UX with Jared Spool, one of the greatest minds in the industry.
Attendees will be invited to pick up a pen and create simple shapes, swirls, pictures and numbers that will be reproduced as color-in postcards for Peach’s Pen-Pal Project for Peach's Neet Feet.
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