Friday, May 25, 2012

Comics For Kids: A Survey Of New Material

A truism in the world of publishing is that comics for kids are one of the few growth areas available.  Whether they're aimed at new readers, readers on their way to developing a lifelong passion for reading, or for the fabled "all-ages" audience that also encompasses adults, there seem to be more publishers who have a real sense of what they're doing in creating comics. 

Let's begin with Francoise Mouly's remarkable Toon Books line.  When she started this imprint, she actually tried to shop her idea (comics aimed at emerging readers from ages two through five in hardcover form), she was rejected across the line because every publisher didn't quite know what to make of her end product.  She saw it through herself and made it an offshoot of RAW Junior, and the results have been quite successful.  In addition to winning several industry awards, the Toon Books have also become staples at libraries.  One of the slight modifications she's made is indicate the specific reading level for each book with an easy numerical code.  One indicates the youngest readers (kindergarten and first grade), and the content focuses in on a single character or two doing specific things while using a limited vocabulary.  Two is the middle level (first and second grade), with multiple protagonists interacting with each other, a larger vocabulary and a story arc.  Three is aimed roughly at second and third graders, as characters interact with the larger world around them, the books are divided into chapters and the vocabulary tops 1000 words.  Mouly has done a nice job of getting cartoonists to write these children's books, but she's also excelled at getting children's book authors to write these comics.

The most recent batch includes three such books, including an author new to the Toon Books line in Philippe Coudray.  His book, Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking, marks the first book of gag comics for kids that Ton Books has published.  It's a legitimately funny book of single-page gags, with four panels to a page.  It's a perfect primer in how to teach kids humor whose punchline takes an unexpected detour from its premise.  Every single joke is a sight gag, making it perfect for kids.  It's an unexpected pleasure to read a children's book where no lessons are to be taught or examples followed other than making the cognitive leap of understanding a certain form of humor.  On the other hand, Geoffrey Hayes contributes a new character, Patrick in A Teddy Bear's Picnic And Other Stories.  Hayes is a remarkable craftsman with years of illustration experience, but his true love was always the comics he would make as a child with his brother Rory.  Done in colored pencil, this book has a warmth and organic feel unmatched by other children's books.  There's an incredible sense of comfort to be found in these pages, even as Hayes playfully and skillfully leads the young reader through a fairly complex set of panels on each page.  He can't help but have images sticking out of panels, having panels disappear altogether, and having other panels act as decorative devices.  For the youngest of readers, Agnes Rosenstiehl returns with Silly Lilly in What Will I Be Today?  The titular character tries out all sorts of professions, from musician to city planner to vampire (!), with amusing variations on each job for the young girl.  Rather than the fluid panel-to-panel transitions of Hayes, Rosenstiehl employs a deliberately posed technique in each panel, allowing a young reader to see how Lilly is moving from panel to panel very slowly.  It's a clever technique that introduces the idea of the passage of time from panel to panel to young readers.  None of these books are cheap (about $13 for 34 pages), but the production design is top-notch.  The Hayes books and the Coudray books are definite keepers for anyone, but if I were buying these for a child, I might check some of them out of a library first to see what they liked best.

A book done in much the same format as the Toon Books is Aron Nels Steinke's The Super-Duper Dog Park.  I wasn't keen on his first book for kids, Neptune, given that it violated the "show, don't tell" rule.  It kept talking about how wacky things were instead of really making things wacky.  With his new book, Steinke (once again working with Blue Apple Books "Balloon Toons" line--they published his second book for kids, The Super Crazy Cat Dance) gets straight to the telling from the very beginning.  An important rule for keeping kids involved in your book is to provide a propulsive sense of momentum and to keep it going, which is what Carl Barks was so good at in his Disney comics.  Here, Steinke tells the reader that a bunch of people are going to a dog park, he follows their car to the park, and then everyone plays in the souped-up dog park until it's time to go.  Using a clear and simple line, he devotes each page to a different part of the park, including a section where dogs make music.  There are lots of eye pops and sumptuous background details, but the characters themselves are kept simple.  There are amusing bits but no real jokes, per se--Steinke seems to be aiming at delighting and amusing rather than trying to make his audience laugh out loud. Steinke is not in the same class as the Toon Books creators, but it's clear that he's making strides in determining his strengths.

First Second aims a lot of their books at young readers, but Nursery Rhyme Comics is their youngest-skewing book to date.  Edited by Leonard Marcus, the book features a murderer's row of cartoonists and illustrators putting their spin on classic nursery rhymes.  Some create entirely new dialogue and narratives to go with the rhyme, like James Sturm's back-talking "Jack Be Nimble".  Lucy Knisley took the rather dreadful rhyme in "There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe", turning a story about a woman whipping her children before bed into a rock 'n roll babysitter who forms a band called The Whips with the children she tends to .  Craig Thompson's "The Owl and the Pussycat" is drop-dead gorgeous, turning this poem into a true romantic fantasy.  Raina Telgemeier makes sure that "Georgie Porgie" gets his for making the girls cry, in her own gentle way.  Jordan Crane really shows off his chops as someone familiar with doing books for kids with his version of "Old Mother Hubbard" that shows off a new dimension to his work: as a bigfoot cartoonist.  Jaime Hernandez' "Jack and Jill" displays his facility for drawing children.  There really aren't many duds here, but the work of the natural cartoonists is better than that of the illustrators, at least in terms of trying to interpret the work in a new way.  The biggest surprise is recent CCS grad Mo Oh, whose "Hush, Little Baby" is superb.  It's funny, playful, visually dynamic and genuinely touching.  I'd be excited to see her do a longer work of this kind.

One of the biggest publishers for children is Scholastic, the company that publishes the Harry Potter books in America.  They usually know what they're doing, although they did turn down Toon Books.  They jumped into comics by publishing collected, colorized editions of Jeff Smith's Bone, then went on to publish Raina Telgemeier's smash hit Smile.  They sent me something odd in a comic booklet of Scooby Doo! A Merry Scary Holiday, by Lee Howard and Alcadia Scn.  This is a straightforward adaptation of an old Scooby-Doo cartoon, a property whose durability is puzzling thanks to the hokey plots and dated 70s quasi-stoner "humor".  There's something weirdly comforting about the stale formula that little kids today seem to like, in so much as it allows the funny talking dog to run around.  This is a faithful enough adaptation, but without the cartoon's sole redeeming quality (the chase scenes that were genuinely fun), it's mostly a bore.  There's a weirdly sentimental ending tacked on as well.

On the other hand, Scholastic struck gold again with the Amulet series, by the driving force behind the Flight anthologies, Kazu Kabuishi. The last couple of volumes have been New York Times bestsellers. It's a tribute to his skill as a storyteller that a new reader can dive right into the fourth volume (I'd only read the third volume but remembered very little from it) and very quickly pick up on the conflicts and character interactions.  Kabuishi makes a couple of interesting storytelling choices in these books.  His character designs are simple and cartoonish, but the backgrounds are done in sumptuous, breathtaking color.  He's gotten better at both as he's developed as an artist, always keeping his characters as the focus of the reader's eye but letting them drink in the lush backgrounds and action sequences when appropriate.  As with most of the material in Flight, the story itself is predictable and formulaic, though he keeps things moving at a quick pace.  It's very much a variation on the Harry Potter story: young person receives a power they're not prepared for, then is thrust into a situation where they have to rise to the occasion to save their family and friends.  There are betrayals and an impossibly powerful enemy, and comic relief characters that come in from time to time.  It moves like clockwork, but it all feels a bit cold and precise to me.

Perhaps that's why I enjoyed their newest offering, Pandemonium, by Chris Woodring and Cassandra Diaz.  There's the usual fantasy political intrigue, magic spells and whatnot (and author Woodring takes it seriously), but there's a jokey quality to the proceedings in this book that give it a level of charm that the deadly-serious Amulet books lack.  The story of Seifer Tombchewer, a boy kidnapped in order to take the place of a missing prince he happens to greatly resemble, is a familiar one.  He's a fish out of water put into a series of dangerous (but frequently funny) situations, and his ability to navigate them (and attract help) surprises even him.  Diaz' art is strongly manga-influenced, dovetailing nicely with the book's more playful aspects.  Woodring tosses in the usual plot twists and hints at future revelations in other volumes, but the book works because the reader gets to know Seifer and his friend Carcassa (the names in the book alone are worth the price of admission).  About the only problem is that Diaz's facility for clearly delineating fight scenes is weak, and the moody color scheme does her no favors in that regard.  I had to read a few pages several times just to figure out precisely what happened during action sequences, which is not a good sign.  Given how much the rest of the book worked, it's a forgivable offense.

Finally, there's the category of the all-ages book.  Fantagraphics' translation of The Littlest Pirate King, by David B and Pierre Mac Orlan.  This edition is done in full European album size, allowing David B's art to really pop off the page.  This is the rather grim story of the Flying Dutchman and his damned crew, cursed to never be given their final rest even as they try to destroy their ship.  Then they come across a baby and raise him as one of their own, planning to kill him when he reached age ten.  Instead, the boy's presence brought the crew of skeletons joy as he ran around the ship, and he wanted nothing more than to be dead so as to be like the rest of his "family".  The crew starts to feel regret at keeping him on board, and so drops him off on land--not realizing that they deposited him on an iceberg, dooming him to a lonely death.  It's a horrific ending as many fairy tales are, one made all the sadder by the possibility of happiness that both crew and boy felt earlier in the book.

From Drawn & Quarterly comes Jinchalo, by Matthew Forsythe.  Forsythe's debut, Ojingogo, effortlessly combined whimsy and menace, and Jinchalo takes that a step further.  The mostly wordless story is heavily influenced by certain manga tropes in terms of character design, but the storytelling is distinctly Western.  It concerns a young girl with a voracious appetite who is charged to go out and get some food for her family.  She meets an anthropomorphic bird with a magic egg, bumps into him, and winds up with his egg.  From there, the girl embarks on a series of bizarre, almost hallucinatory adventures.  At one point, she steps out of the story and drags the artist into things, demanding he fix a particular image.  She winds up traveling into her own future before coming back down to earth with food, but her father gives her a big surprise.  This book is charming, cute and horrific in turns and simultaneously, creating scenarios that any child could follow and both laugh and wince at.  Forsythe's cartooning is excellent throughout, creating images that are familiar in form but entirely his in the way he moves them across the page.  This is a book that will delight, amuse and confound any close reader.


  1. Your description of the end of Littlest Pirate King made me think I had totally misunderstood the book! I had to go back and check my copy. While the ending is sad and the place the boy is left is somewhat barren and ambiguous, it's definitely not an iceberg - there are trees, at least! I wouldn't seal his fate.

  2. I'll double check as well--it seemed like they had miscalculated and put him somewhere where his fate was sealed, not where he'd be found.