Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Toon Books

This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.

Former RAW co-editor Francoise Mouly is heading up a new line of comics primers aimed squarely at 4-6 year olds, which is such a brilliant idea that one wonders why it hasn't been done before. Mouly co-edited the Little Lit series, which I reviewed here. That brought in both respected alt and underground comics creators, often collaborating with illustrators or children's authors. The Toon Book line is a much more focused attempt at creating comics for children, both in terms of design and content, and the results are intriguing.

First, the books (co-designed by Mome cartoonist Jonathan Bennett) have the look, feel and shape of classic children's books. They are slim, small hardcovers that any child could pick up and hold. Picking them up reminded me of the first time I read a Dr Seuss book when I was a child. However, there is no mistaking these for illustrated novels--they are comics, told in the language of comics, through and through. We get tipped off to that right away on the cover of each book, because they both depict action and have word balloons. In the most RC Harvey sense of the definition of comics, each of these books carefully combines word and image on every page and requires a reader to understand how they combine to form an experience that is very different from looking at words or pictures alone. They're also very deliberately propulsive in terms of the action on the page, emphasizing panel-to-panel transition and the way that motion can be depicted on the page.

Let's begin with Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons, by French children's book author Agnes Rosenstiehl. This is the book I'd first introduce to the youngest readers, perhaps as young as two or three. The concepts and action in this book are simple: Lilly experiences the seasons through a series of activities: playing in the park in spring with her teddy, looking for things in the ocean in the summer, picking apples in the fall, making snowballs in the winter and flying on a swing back in the next spring. The images here are simple and Rosenstiehl's line is warm. That warmth will immediately draw in young readers who are used to similar imagery in books they've seen up to that point in their lives. The panel-to-panel transitions here as Lilly throws a snowball or gets on a swing are simple to understand and will spur on a child's understanding of how movement can be portrayed on the page.

Geoffrey Hayes' Benny & Penny in Just Pretend is the most impressive of the three initial books in the line. Hayes, the older brother of highly innovative (but sadly deceased) underground artist Rory Hayes, is another children's book author. In his case, he carried a lifelong love of comics into his chosen career, so his understanding of the nuances of how to compose a page is quite remarkable. Moreover, his skill in depicting gesture and expression in his characters really brings them to life. The story is about an older brother and younger sister (Benny & Penny) and his reluctance to let her play with him.

The characters are anthropomorphic mice, yet their expressiveness is so very lively. The way Hayes composes his page is playful and engaging, but it also perfectly introduces children to the formal elements of comics. Panels tilt to indicate motion, particularly exciting scenes spill out of panels, certain scenes without panels carry their own emotional resonance, and the use of circular panels instead of squares draws the eye in differently as well. The warmth of his line and the gentleness of his pastel palette makes this book another perfect transition point for young readers, especially for the recommended 4-5 year olds who are ready for a more complex narrative. There's a sweetness to this story that is still true to the conflicts that siblings can have. Still, it's Hayes' gorgeous, lively line that makes this my favorite of the three books, especially with regard to eyes and facial expressions.

Otto's Orange Day, drawn by political cartoonist Frank Cammuso and written by underground legend Jay Lynch, is a book I'd probably recommend to slightly older readers. The art is much slicker than in the other two books and the coloring (by design) is much more forceful. It will appeal to children who like watching a lot of modern animation in terms of its character design, coloring and story action. It's about a young anthropomorphic cat who loves the color orange. He is given a genie-inhabited magic lamp and gets his wish granted to have everything in the world turned orange. When that results in chaos (traffic accidents, orange lamb chops, etc), he tricks the genie into changing colors--but then he changes everything into blue. They have to trick him one more time into making the world normal again (thanks to the magic of pizza). This isn't really a book I'd give to a child who hasn't experienced comics before, but as I noted earlier, it's certainly one I'd give to one who loves animation and wants to experience the the equivalent on the written page. The most appealing aspects of this comic are the gags that Lynch comes up with, which isn't surprising considering that I always considered him to be the funniest of the underground artists.

The Toon Books line is one of the best-conceived comics series I've seen from a book publisher. The selection of creators, the design, the understanding of its audience and the niche it's filling in the world of comics all seem scrupulously well-studied and considered. Most importantly, the actual books seem perfect for the intended audience and an ideal way to get kids to understand how to read comics and get them to seek out more as they grow older. Mouly acts as an aesthetic guidepost here, imprinting her own sense of aesthetics and design on the series while bringing out the best in each of the artists she chooses to work with. I'm eager to see the books in the fall release cycle by Eleanor Davis, Art Spiegelman and the team of Jay Lynch & Dean Haspiel. As RAW determined to bring comics kicking and screaming into fulfilling its promise as something other than adolescent pap, the Toon Book line from RAW Junior is setting out to inculcate a lifetime of loving comics for generations that are increasingly removed from its influence.

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