Let's take a look at some of the recent releases from the increasingly ambitious Toon Books line, edited by Francoise Mouly.
Hansel & Gretel, by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti. When is a collaboration not a collaboration? When a writer uses previously extant images and reinterprets an old fairy tale. That's precisely what Gaiman (whose previous work with Mouly came in the Little Lit line of books) did here, taking Mattotti's haunting artwork conceived for an opera and adding his own spin on the classic tale. Mattotti is a master of shadow, nuance and form, and his drawings were deliberately simple and made to be seen big. Thus, the oversized deluxe die-cut hardcover edition of this book is the best format for overall impact and is most faithful to Mattotti's vision. For his part, Gaiman's reworking is clever and spare, one that hews closely to the darkness of the original source material. For example, Hansel & Gretel are taken to the forest by their father but at the urging of their mother, since the family no longer has enough food to feed everyone. Subsequent versions have made this the archetypical "evil stepmother" figure rather than a birth mother, which makes her scheming far more cruel. While this isn't really a comic, it's still a striking package that brings to life the gloom and terror of the original source material.
Written And Drawn By Henrietta, by Liniers. This book by the Argentinian cartoonist works on a number of levels. The genius of the book is that the "real" events in the book are drawn in a simplified manner using colored pencil, and the "fictional" events drawn by the titular character are drawn in an even more stripped-down fashion (the hand of a child), also drawn in colored pencil. The result is visually bold, clever and exciting. Thematically, having Henrietta draw a story in order to both entertain herself (and her cat) as well as address her fears speaks to the restorative power of art and its ability to communicate what cannot be communicated with written or spoken language. That deftly plays out in the way that her story about monsters and hats goes in fits and starts, as she challenges just how far she's willing to go as she improvises her story. The cohesiveness of the book's aesthetic brings across these points in a poignant and efficient manner.
The Suspended Castle: A Philemon Adventure by Fred. Better known as one of the founders of Charlie Hebdo, the late cartoonist's Fred's adventures starring a boy named Philemon are somewhere between Lewis Carroll and Winsor McCay in terms of their sheer weirdness with ironclad internal logic. In this book, Philemon tries to help his eccentric friend Mr. Bartholomew get back to the island he initially escaped from: an island in the shape of the letter A, which can be seen in any map as one of the "A's" in "Atlantic Ocean". This is Fred's great trick: he takes the figurative and makes it literal, but only in the most absurd and extreme ways. However, once he does this, the rules of that particular world are serious, immutable and logically consistent (precisely like Carroll). From landing on an island in the shape of an "i" (including a separate dot!) to an encounter with an owl lighthouse and walking on its beam of light, literal logic is taken to its most hilarious and nightmarish (but still funny) extremes, with the protagonists barely escaping and going home.
That's especially true in the detailed look at two different societies: a whale-galley propelled by slave-rowers under a cruel captain's arbitrary edicts and a group of pelican-flying whale hunters who live in a castle suspended by a chain in the sky, Fred pokes fun at a number of cultural and societal follies. In particular, Fred satires the military (in the form of the whale galley) and religion (in the form of the pelican riders), especially in terms of how ingrained bureaucratic structures defy all reason. That's especially true in the way they adhere to dogma in the face of contrary evidence. Most importantly, Fred lampoons their inability to even comprehend viewpoints different from their own, much less accept them. When Philemon and Bartholomew wind up back home after literally going down the drain, it reminded me a bit of McCay's Little Nemo waking up in bed no matter what happened in Slumberland. This is a fully-formed, ambitious and fiendishly delightful series.
Windmill Dragons: A Leah and Alan Adventure, by David Nytra. Nytra's work is aimed at older readers than most Toon Books, at over a hundred pages, it's a genuine "graphic novel" for kids. This is a visually dense book, as Nytra pounds the reader with hatching and cross-hatching on every page. There's very little room on each page for the eye to rest on negative space. Over the course of a hundred pages, this approach is a bit wearying, especially given the relative simplicity of the narrative. That said, Nytra combats that with the simplified faces of the children who are the main characters, who essentially get little more than a few squiggles for their visages. The way Nytra delved into myth and religion to derive the book's story was highly clever, as the winds were stirring up and turning windmills into destructive monster, which led the kids to find the source of those winds. Nytra's page-to-page impact of his images is impressive, but there are times the book felt a bit stiff in terms of panel-to-panel flow. The book feels more like it's illustrated than cartooned at times, even though so many of those images are strikingly beautiful.
Little Nemo's Big New Dreams, edited by Josh O'Neill, Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens. This is a distillation of the humongous Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, published by Locust Moon Comics. That anthology had a hundred cartoonists in full tear-sheet size, all doing their take on the classic strip created by Winsor McCay. This book features a quarter of those strips, in an edition that's about a third as big as the original. There were some logistical problems in making this transition. A number of the strips that are printed across two pages look a bit awkward with the book's spine running through the middle, though the designer's tried to ameliorate this difficulty as best as they could. The main problem I have with this book is that I'm not sure it's going to appeal to kids as much of the rest of the Toon Books output, especially since some of the homages here refer directly to characters in the original strip that a new reader might be baffled by.
That said, there are a number of incredibly clever and funny strips in this book that is especially effective in the hands of artists who are formalists and/or stylists. Peter and Maria Hoey's circular washing-machine comic is simply ingenious. James Harvey's ode to Manhattan by way of Slumberland is remarkable in terms of its structure as well as its stylistic flourishes. Cole Closser's strip about supporting character Little Flip is funny and speaks to Closser's incredible skill in rendering comics that fit in with McCay's aesthetic. Jamie Tanner's comic is appropriately creepy and disturbing, while Bishakh Kumar Som's strip is light and airy. Andrea Tsurumi's strip about Nemo going bra shopping with some denizens of Slumberland is another funny one that still manages to fit the aesthetic.The capper is of course R.Sikoryak's "The Interpretation of Wonderful Dreams", which is a mash-up of Nemo and the works of Sigmund Freud.