Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Cityscapes and Backyard Adventures: The Latest from Toon Books

Rob reviews the newest releases from Toon Books: LUKE ON THE LOOSE, by Harry Bliss; and BENNY & PENNY in THE BIG NO-NO!, by Geoffrey Hayes.

The Francoise Mouly-edited Toon Books are among the best edited and conceived books in all of comics (regardless of genre). It's hard to think of a better introduction to the art form than these books, which cleverly disguise their pedagogic nature in the form of their stories. At their heart, these books are Comics 101 courses, carefully breaking down and isolating what makes comics successful and how to make this plain to anyone. Take the covers, for example. Great care is taken to indicate that this isn't simply another illustrated picture book, but rather something far more immersive. The word balloon attached to a character on the cover screams "comics!" and makes a new reader pause to try to figure out how word and image are interacting. Above the main illustration on the cover are a couple of panels depicting action, whetting the reader's appetite for the book's content and again letting them know that this is something different from what they're used to.

The latest books are once again from artists not known for sequential storytelling. Geoffrey Hayes, who checks in with his second Benny & Penny book, THE BIG NO-NO!, is best known for illustrating his own children's books. Harry Bliss is an illustrator who also does cartoons for the New Yorker. Both artists are longtime comics fans being given an opportunity to do stories in the style of comics that inspired them.

Hayes once again manages to combine his delicate, feathery line with unusual page & panel composition along with an unerring sense of propulsiveness. The way he obviously manages to tap into his relationship growing up with his brother, deceased underground cartoonist Rory Hayes, gives the story a sense of verisimilitude that any children with siblings will instantly recognize. This story finds the pair going over the fence into the yard of a new neighbor in quest of Benny's missing pail. The sight gags and gentle humor of the story is fueled by the mutual love and mutual sense of aggravation that the brother and sister share for each other. They give each other a hard time one minute and are concerned for their welfare the next. Hayes' lush style will be instantly familiar to any child reading a comic for the first time, especially in the way he draws anthropomorphic animals as his characters. He uses that familiarity to go to town on the page, leading the reader's eye around the page at a near-whiplash pace. He even leads the eye entirely out of panels and into gutters, like the mysterious footprints of their new next-door neighbor.

After I finished reading Bliss' LUKE ON THE LOOSE, I immediately thought "This is an entry-level Will Elder comic". Reading his bio, he notes that he grew up loving Will Elder, so it was no surprise to see all sorts of eye pops and background gags in addition to the manic main storyline. This story is also a love letter to New York city, in all its diverse glory. It's about a little boy named Luke who squirms away from his father in Central Park in order to chase pigeons, and his tireless chase leads him halfway across the city, causing chaos in his wake.

This book is completely different in approach than THE BIG NO-NO!, yet both books have a certain flowing, kinetic quality to them. Bliss's line is much thinner and his use of color much flatter than Hayes, whose comics have a lot of decorative drawings that help draw the reader along the page. Bliss instead packs layers of gags Elder-style on each page, often inserting famous comics characters into his scenes or having animals provide commentary. The way he uses animals in particular is very funny, as when a dog leaps into his owner's arms and hugs him like a person.

While both books have a lot of action, THE BIG NO-NO! is a softer and gentler tale while LUKE ON THE LOOSE ramps up the action and the stakes on each page. I love the way the latter depicts New York as being simultaneously perilous and packed with potential adventure, yet still full of caring individuals. The former book nails sibling interaction and vividly creates a world that any young reader will relish visiting. Both books are remarkable in how well constructed they are, given that neither artist is greatly experienced crafting long-form comics. The design of the books (simple and elegant) and the steady editorial hand of Mouly no doubt made it easy for these artists to adapt to a new form. The long-term effect of Toon Books won't be felt for quite some time, though one hopes it will encourage a new generation to read comics and continue to read comics throughout their lives.

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