Predating his more well-known comic strip Little Nemo by about a year, Winsor McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend detailed the bizarre dreams had by numerous people after eating a dish called Welsh rarebit, a dish where one spreads a spicy cheese sauce on toast.
The comic has a considerably more mature and adult-oriented tone than Little Nemo, often featuring adults getting into more...well...adult situations (such as drinking too much, politics-related arguments, etc.) during their dreams. The comic is also noticeably more violent than Little Nemo usually gets, as well. (One comic features a man getting blown to pieces trying to cross the street, for example.)
Notably, Edwin S. Porter created a silent live-action short film based on the comic strip, titled Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, in 1906. In addition, McKay himself created animated adaptations of a few strips.
A good amount of these comics can be found on The Comic Strip Library along with Little Nemo.
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend provides examples of:
- Acid Reflux Nightmare: The whole premise is that people eat the eponymous dish and experience some very strange nightmares. Interestingly, some scholars have noted that rarebit— a dish consisting of seasoned cheese melted on toast— is actually a fairly innocuous meal, not the sort of thing most people would associate with nightmares. Presumably that's part of the joke. That said, there are old wives's tales about eating cheese before sleeping causing nightmares.
- All Just a Dream: A Foregone Conclusion every time (it's right there in the title!), but this device let McCay get away with a lot more surrealism than he might have been able to otherwise.
- Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: A man in jail dreams that he is a giant drunkenly rampaging through New York City.
- Bait-and-Switch: Some comics have the nightmares seeming to be experienced by one person, only for the final panel to reveal that someone else was having the dream. Sometimes, the person having the dream may not have actually been in the dream at all.
- Body Horror: A frequent occurrence in the dreams.
- Bloodier and Gorier: More bloodier than gorier, but injuries and general violence often have blood flying around.
- Catapult Nightmare: Numerous of the comics end with the dreamer pulling one of these.
- Dada Comics: Possibly the Ur-Example, predating the Dada movement itself by a couple of decades.
- Darker and Edgier: Than Little Nemo, by a long shot.
- Deadly Bath: A man dreams that his bath is interrupted by the appearance of a number of jungle animals in the tub with him, including a angry hippopotamus, a crocodile, and an anaconda.
- Direct Line to the Author: A few strips conclude with the dreamer waking up and saying something like, "Wow, I'm going to write that dream down and send it to Silas!"
- Dream Within a Dream: A man dreams that he continuously meets clones of himself. He wakes up commenting on his dream as everyone else does...only for his duplicates to wake up in bed beside him and tell him to be quiet. He then wakes up for real.
- Everything Explodes Ending: Not so much the strips themselves, but several dreams end with a huge explosion caused by something.
- Every Episode Ending: Each strip concludes with someone waking up and expressing regret that they ate too much rarebit (or occasionally a different spicy food).
- Felony Misdemeanor: In this strip, a man's nightmare concludes with the horrifying revelation that he and his wife got a new apartment in Brooklyn!
- Fountain of Youth: An older gentleman takes some pills that gradually make a person younger, but he takes too many and winds up turning into a baby, much to his wife's surprise.
- Mad at a Dream: A woman dreams that her mother is being executed and her husband cannot keep himself from laughing with glee throughout. She wakes up extremely irate with him.
- Miracle-Gro Monster: One of the shorts, "The Pet" has its dream involve a strange animal be taken in by a couple only to grow with everything it consumes. And we mean everything. It's only defeated when it's at Kaiju size.
- Mushroom Samba: One man dreams that he has tried a new beverage called "wood alcohol whiksey" at the local bar, and while it starts off with him seeing circus animals everywhere, it quickly escalates to Surreal Horror in the form of a giant shrimp with a man's face yelling at the dreamer and then nearly getting eaten by a giant python.
- Never Smile at a Crocodile: Or insult an alligator for that matter. Here, a woman receives an alligator purse as a gift, only for it suddenly become a real alligator. The gator takes offense at the woman attempting to drive him away and gobbles the woman up.
- Never Trust a Hair Tonic: A balding man takes a new hair tonic to regain his hair, but it works so well that he becomes a walking hairball and becomes a sideshow attraction.
- Non-Indicative Name: The food "Rarebit" does not contain any rabbit, Welsh or otherwise. It's cheese on toast.
- "Not Wearing Pants" Dream: A man realizes that he left his pants at his workplace and goes off to get them, leading to people staring at him and getting arrested for public indecency.
- Pen Name: McCay originally wrote this strip under the byline "Silas," for contractural reasons. After 1911 he switched newspapers and signed it under his own name.
- Rubber Man: A number of dreams have people's bodies stretching beyond what would be possible in real life, such as this one where a man stretches his neck to get a better look at the horse race that he's spectating and winds up clothes-lining the jockeys.
- The Tooth Hurts: A woman has a dream wherein her dentist has trouble pulling one of her teeth out and resorts to such measures as a hammer and chisel, a crowbar, and dynamite.
- Tuckerization: McCay's Pen Name "Silas" was the name of his neighborhood garbage cart driver.
- Use Your Head: After failing to get some engineers to halt their train so she can move her dog off the tracks, a woman opts to stop the train by headbutting it. It works and the train stops in place...but as a result another train rear-ends the first one and makes a huge mess. Of course, it was All Just a Dream like all of the other incidents.
- We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: A 60-year-old man fights to avoid being taken to the "Chloroformatory".
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Double Subverted in this comic. A man who likes snakes finds a snake while walking and decides to keep it as a pet. More snakes continue to show up, however, and soon the man is completely surrounded and covered by them. He wakes up screaming in frustrated horror.