Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Graphically Speaking: The TOON Treasury of Classic Children's Comics

Words: Christopher Irving

The downside of the vast proliferation of adult-aimed graphic novels that have propelled the comics medium forward, is that we sometimes forget just how sophisticated comics “for kids” can be.
Just reading The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics makes me forget – because I’m too busy enjoying the stories to think about it.

Edited and compiled by Art Spiegelman and Francous Mouly, the Treasury breaks kid’s comics down to five chapters: Hey, Kids!, Funny Animals, Fantasyland, Storytime, and Weird and Wacky. You’re taken through everything from John Stanley’s Melvin Monster to Carl Bark’s seminal Uncle Scrooge in a four-color journey that rekindles my memories of reading Whitman and Dell comics by a nightlight…and should give the next generation of comics readers a great starting point.

The ironic thing about TOON Treasury is that it claims to have been done for kids, yet the introduction appeals to the adult who drops a relatively low $40 for the hardcover collection. The best I can think of is that the pair has built this collection to appeal to the adult buyer, hoping that they share this guilty pleasure with their kids.

Perhaps the best and most unexpected treat, is a sequence from Scribbly, Sheldon Mayer’s semi-autobiographical comic about a boy cartoonist. Mayer was the editor responsible for bringing Superman from the slush pile to the comics page, and also the mastermind behind the long-running comic book Sugar and Spike, which follows the exploits of two mischievous babies. Where Mayer was a seminal figure in the history and development of DC Comics, this is one of the few places this material has ever been reprinted; reading about Sugar and Spike trashing Spike’s father’s workshop, or seeing Scribbly inspire his principal to cartooning and misbehavior, is testimony enough to Mayer’s narrative genius and the need to have more of his work reprinted for posterity. While Sugar and Spike and Scribbly may have been considered too niche for DC’s earlier Archive series, I truly hope that they collect his work in some form in the near future.

The most requisite kid’s cartoonist is in the Treasury, with three of Carl Barks’ Donald Duck stories. The longer of the three, “Tralla La”, makes Uncle Scrooge’s strength (his vast fortune) the source of his misery as, fed up with expectations that come his wealth, he and the rest of the Duck family head out to the fabled land of Tralla La, a “place without money”. What happens when Donald, Scrooge, Huey, Dewey, and Louie discover the fabled land is a firm case of one man’s junk being another’s gold. A story about Donald’s battle with his nephews’ beehive ends with a subtle and warming touch, that Barks delivers as a tender punchline: Donald, bee stung and in the hospital, samples a piece of bread slathered in honey “farmed” by Huey, Dewey, and Louie. “Ah! We parents!” he smiles while munching. “What RICH rewards we reap!”

Walt Kelly, unsurprisingly, has a presence with several stories, including a fairy tale (Prince Robin and the Dwarfs) and a Pogo installment. His sense of physical humor and comic timing is at show in his Pogo story “Never Give A Diving Board An Even Break”, and his silent one page Uncle Wiggily story (featuring a distinguished rabbit in coat tails and top hat) shows his ability to draw pantomime. The mouse duo of Hickory and Dickory, in a late ‘40s strip, find themselves overwhelmed with the task of laying Easter eggs for the Easter Bunny.

John Stanley rounds out the foursome of kiddie comics with a Little Lulu story that shows how easily a play on words can amuse kids, and with an eerie Tubby story about a ghost hotel that has a lot in common with Hotel California. The Melvin Monster story, about a mouse restaurant living within the wall of the Monsters’ house, shows Stanley’s work at one of the cleanest and most basic levels

Several other strips of note, but not often reprinted, include Jack Cole’s comedic Burp the Twerp (think of a round version of Plastic Man, but with detachable body parts), Harvey Kurtzman’s brilliant Hey Look! (that does everything from break the fourth wall to employ absurdity to genius levels), Fox and the Crow by Jim Davis (a bona fide talented and funny cartoonist, not to be confused with the Garfield guy), about a conning Crow and his gullible pal Fox (who, in one strip, metatextually digs through back issues of their comics to see through Fox’s multitude of schemes), and Basil Wolverton’s insanely creepy and silly Powerhouse Pepper.

All of this is without missing the gems waiting to be discovered: I’d never heard of Andre LeBlanc’s big-headed Intellectual Amos and his pet gremlin, Mayer’s fourth wall-breaking J. Rufus Lion, Dan Gordon’s Droopy the dog, or John McNamara’s frenetic Alix in Follyland. Dan Gordon’s Anthony the Rogue is a real stand-out: a housecat who spends his days basking in the fireplace lazily, Anthony sneaks out at night in tattered coat, spats, derby hat, ascot, and smooshed cigar. He’s a cross between Felix, Wimpy J. Wellington, and The Kingfish, trying to con his way through a nightlife primarily dominated by dogs, looking down his furry nose at the alleycat and neighborhood dog he pilfers from. When Anthony winks back at the reader in the last panel, it leaves you wanting more of his nightly misadventures as a cat-about-town.

The TOON Treasury measure in at 9 1/4” by 11 1/4”, with the pages presenting the strips in flat colors that appear to be cleaned up versions of the print comics themselves. The dustjacket hides a classy cover design.

In all honesty, finding faults with The TOON Treasure of Classic Children’s Comics would be akin to trying to point out the character flaws of a saint: Abrams, Spiegelman, and Mouly have done a commendable job collecting truly the best kid’s comics. I just hope that they get a wild hair to follow this up with another volume.