Winter 2009

Comic sans the grown-ups

The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics

By Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly
Abrams Comic Arts, £24.99 / $40

There are two names responsible for bringing comics ‘out of the trash and into a treasury’. One is Bill Blackbeard, the author of The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and founder of the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. The other is Art Spiegelman, coiner of the above quote, founder with Françoise Mouly of Raw Books and Graphics, and author of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. The former should not be forgotten and the latter needs little introduction.

Yet some casual comics readers may not know that Spiegelman and Mouly have been in the vanguard of the comics-for-kids movement (and maybe you didn’t even know that there is such a movement). Together they operate the imprint Raw Junior, which publishes the Little Lit anthologies of contemporary and vintage cartoons, and Toon Books, a series of original comic stories by Jeff Smith, Geoffrey Hayes, Jay Lynch, Eleanor Davis, and Spiegelman, among others. To round out their niche art market the duo has recently published The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, a rich collection of yellowing newsprint pages from the most well known and lesser known artists and their respective stories in the comic book universe.

Anyone who grew up reading Dell Comics (which guaranteed that ‘the comic magazine bearing [the Dell trademark] contains only clean and wholesome entertainment’) or the DC Comics’ line, including Fox and Crow and Sugar and Spike (each approved by the censorious Comics Code Authority), will have soothing pangs of nostalgia.

But the most enjoyable revelations, I’m sure, will come when you stumble on the freakish Foolish Faces by Basil Wolverton and pre-Spongebob Flip and Flopper by Don Arr from the chapter devoted to ‘Weird and Wacky’. Also in this section is the virtuosic Hey Look by Harvey Kurtzman, one of his first signature features to wed abstract comic art and physical graphic comedy.

For anyone who believes that comics are just for adults, pages from Burp the Twerp by Jack Cole, and Gerald McBoing Boing by Theodor Seuss Geisel and P. D. Eastman will disabuse that notion. All these stories have broad generational appeal, but the main focus is on kids and the kid in all of us. Where else but in a child’s mind can such unbridled absurdity as Billy and Bonny Bee by Frank Thomas or The Tweedle Twins by MAD magazine’s Dave Berg be taken so seriously? And who else could be drawn to Albert and Pogo, the not-so- innocent (and eventually radically political) creations of Walt Kelly, but the younger set.

Not all these characters appealed to me when I was a kid (I was into Classics Illustrated), but most of the selections in Toon Treasury, chosen for their visual virtuosity and narrative invention, have incredible artistic resonance. For me, the biggest joy was the introduction to Walt Kelly’s little known Hickory and Dickory in ‘Help the Easter Bunny’. Who can top this exchange between the two protagonist mice, when Hickory says: ‘Now that we’re out of sight, let me ask you – does the Easter Rabbit lay Easter Eggs?’ Dickory responds, ‘Golly –’ Hickory adds: ‘Because if he does, it leaves us in a rather awkward position’. Dickory: ‘You mean – ‘ Hickory: ‘Exactly – he told us to supply the eggs – and that can mean only one thing…’ Dickory: ‘Have you ever laid an egg?’ Ahhh, to return to the important questions of one’s youth, rather than grapple with the health-care debate and war and peace in the Middle East.

First published in Eye no. 74 vol. 19 2009


EYE74

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.