Monday, July 6, 2009

Digging Deeper: Melvin Monster and Moomin

Rob reviews two intriguing reprint projects from Drawn & Quarterly: MELVIN MONSTER VOL I and MOOMIN VOL IV.

In this, the Golden Age of Reprints, we've started to get all sorts of heretofore unlikely and obscure comics getting loving reissues. While Fantagraphics' reprinting of PEANUTS kicked things off and there have been other long-running and beloved series getting rereleases, this is also a time when publishers are taking chances and printing some less obvious choices. Drawn & Quarterly in particular has been issuing forgotten series or comics unfamiliar to American audiences for quite some time. Indeed, the Drawn & Quarterly anthology in years past reintroduced such classics as Gasoline Alley as well as the work of Doug Wright.

D&Q has really gone to another level by taking a risk and reprinting Tove Jansson's classic MOOMIN series, with great success, as well as starting the John Stanley Library. Seth's design for Stanley's shorter and lesser-known comics is not unlike a prestige children's line of forty years ago, complete with an embossed cover, a "John Stanley Library" seal on the back, playful endpapers, etc. Rather than reprinting the series on glossy paper (the bane of many reprint series, especially when originals can't be found), it's on paper that uncannily mimics the original pages. As a designer, Seth sets the emotional tone for his projects with the endpapers and repurposed images from the original art. For PEANUTS, he's reclaimed the strip's contemplative and melancholy aspects, using dark tones in the endpapers and stripping the characters away from familiar background shots. PEANUTS, partly through it being so thoroughly marketed over the years, had become shorthand for sentimentality as opposed to more complex emotions, and it felt as though Seth needed to correct for this.

In MELVIN MONSTER, on the other hand, Seth seems to be attempting to create an alternate reality where John Stanley's books have always been children's classics, read by millions in perpetuity. It's as though we've reached through a time machine to pluck out a newly-published volume from 1965. The first endpapers we see reinforce the "JSL" brand with lots of funny drawings of the title character; it's both slightly stuffy (indicating to parents the brand name) and endearing (letting children know the emotional tone of the book). The next few pages tell the reader that while this comic is funny, it also involves monsters and vaguely disturbing images--the way Seth has black-ink drawings on charcoal-gray backgrounds, with only the eyes colored bright white, creates an atmosphere that is somehow both goofy and slightly scary.

Getting to the stories themselves, the hook of the series is a young monster boy who is a constant disappointment to his parents because he wants to be good, go to school, not be destructive, etc. Stanley gets a lot of mileage out of this very simple shtick, as the indomitable Melvin has to find ways to outwit his parents and everyone around him. The situational gags are better than some of the cheaper visual gags. It's funny that his mother is "Mummy" and is dressed up in bandages and his father is "Baddy" and is a hulking Frankenstein-like monster; it's funnier to see him innocently outwit the parade of creatures (and people) trying to kill him. It's even funnier when he winds up in "human bean land" where "everybody is nice and kind", only to be tossed down into a manhole, chased by a car and whacked by a woman carrying a purse. The punchline layered on top of that betrayal is that Melvin interpreted these actions as people trying to make him feel at home!

The best sequence of the book is where his parents send him to the cellar as punishment--a place where even they don't go. Stanley throws all sorts of sight gags in, like being told to watch out for a steep third step, only to find that there are no steps at all after the third one. Melvin wavers between being a scared little boy (calling for his guardian demon, whose help is dubious) and an invincible innocent, stumbling into adventure after adventure and inadvertently escaping harm. When his father winds up in the cellar later on, it's sweet (but unstated) revenge. The stories in this volume (reprinting the first three issues of the original comic book) vary from longer adventure stories to shorter bits that establish life in Melvin's house, like the furry arm in his wall that acts as his alarm clock but also plays checkers with Melvin during the night.

Stanley the writer is clever, but what sells the work is Stanley the artist. His line is simple and his figures are delightfully cartoony. His characters are remarkably expressive despite the simplicity of their design; like Schulz, Stanley, with just a squiggle or two, could completely change the mood of a page. In the Monsterville sequences, Stanley throws in eye pop after eye pop (Will Elder-style), punning on monster cliches with either funny drawings or funny labels. What I like best about his art is the way he propels Melvin from scene to scene, creating constant but seamless action. I'm really looking forward to future releases in the Stanley library, especially his teenager comics. There's a breeziness to his character design that I find irresistible, and such comics are really in his wheelhouse as a cartoonist. It's a tribute to his skill and ingenuity that he was able to pull off a slightly more visceral and wacky style in MELVIN MONSTER.

This was the first volume of the collected MOOMIN strips that I'd read, and as it turns out four of the five stories were written by Lars, as opposed to Tove, Jansson. Tove still drew the stories that were featured in a British daily newspaper, and they still possessed a remarkable amount of gentle charm and wit. Jansson's line is remarkable simple and graceful in creating her family of hippo-like Moomintrolls. She got more out of less than any cartoonist this side of Charles Schulz. Unlike Schulz, Jansson's work also had a number of clever decorative touches. In many of her strips, she used things like umbrellas, canes, flutes, pens and lamps to form the vertical interior panel borders, subtly reinforcing the story's themes. Jannson first gained fame as a children's book illustrator with her Moominfamily, but these strips were actually aimed at adults.

While restraint was certainly Tove's watchword as a cartoonist, the stories themselves had a surprising amount of bite. While "Moomin Goes Wild West" is the weakest of the five storylines in this book (due in part to the reliance on stereotypical western humor as the Moomins go back in time), it does wind up redeeming itself by revealing that the wild west adventures they experienced were all part of a cynical, money-making con. "Snorkmaiden Goes Rococo" is another slightly formulaic story spoofing the overromanticization of the age of enlightenment. The book really picks up with "The Conscientious Moomins", a hilarious spoof of manners and "duty" that felt like a direct blow to philosophers like Kant. Jansson depicts a great deal of chaotic bufoonery in her drawings, yet her strips were always clear and never cluttered. Like Schulz, Jansson rarely relied on funny drawings to get across her gags, preferring to let her art tell the story and the gags flow naturally from character and situation.

The book saves its best for last with "Moomin and the Comet" and "Moomin And the Golden Tail". The former is a surprisingly grim, apocalyptic tale of how the various denizens of Moominvalley deal with the arrival of a potentially deadly comet. The satire of parasites, opportunists and last-second religious converts is pointed but still gentle; even the biggest phonies in these stories tended to be treated more with pity than scorn. The latter story was written by Tove and is incredibly rich in characterization and acidic in tone. When Moomin accidentally acquires a golden tail and receives unexpected fame, he has to face the negative consequences such a life brings. It's obvious that this was a commentary on Jansson's own life as an unexpectedly huge international success; the cutting remarks on managers and worldwide merchandising rights sounded like they were coming from the voice of experience. Despite that success, it was obvious that Jansson related much more to the carefree, bohemian lifestyle of the Moomins and their friends rather than any attempts at "bettering" themselves or putting on aristrocratic airs.

Rescuing these strips from obscurity was truly a public service on D&Q's part. It's encouraging that this big risk has paid off so handsomely for the small publisher; the Moomin books have become their biggest sellers. It's interesting to see a boutique publisher like D&Q suddenly flourish in the book market, especially with collections aimed at children and old-time strip fans. It's only logical that the publisher will branch out and starting reprinting Jansson's actual children's picture books, which will be a departure of sorts since they've rarely strayed far from comics in their publishing history. I think the biggest reason why their reprints aimed at children have been so successful is that these have been labors of love that have paid off for both designer and publisher, rather than cynical money grabs. The care and detail in these projects shows and no doubt draws in the curious reader. With more Stanley volumes and Jansson reprints on the way, readers will have much to look forward to.


  1. Melvin Monster is a great book, and I'm thrilled with the reproductions, but I can't agree with you about Seth's graphic design work. Seth has a very particular, idiosyncratic art style, and unfortunately, whenever he designs a book, he really sticks to his own style, regardless of the project. (Seth acknowledged this himself in a recent interview.) I don't find that this works, either in the case of Peanuts or Melvin Monster. I just don't find that he's able to adapt to the tone of the work itself, particularly in the case of Peanuts. While I agree that there is a melancholy aspect to Peanuts, I don't think that Seth's covers actually reflect melancholy. They just look like Seth's own work – especially his very particular, very dated hand-lettering. I don't blame Seth for all this – he's not really a graphic designer – but I wonder why people keep asking him to design books, especially when there are so many great graphic designers out there, like Jacob Covey (see Popeye).

  2. Yeah, I gotta agree with the previous post: the Seth design here really bug me. By chance my MELVIN MONSTER wound up stacked in my "to read" pile right next to GEORGE SPROTT and they're almost indistinguishable--font, colors, etc.

    More to the point, though, why have anyone's artwork on the cover other than John Stanley's?!

  3. D & Ben,

    The melancholy aspects of Seth's design in Peanuts' has more to do with the endpapers than the covers--the isolation of images like doghouses, trees, walls, etc without the gang reflects that feeling of isolation that many of the characters feel, but especially Charlie Brown.

    That said, compare the covers of his Peanuts collections to the ones that Random House (I think) was publishing. The latter ones had the sort of mushiness to them that the average person associates with Peanuts in its last 25 years--sentimentality or background advertising art. The first Seth cover for Peanuts had a scowling Charlie Brown on it. The first Snoopy cover featured him howling. I really like the starkness of that design.

    Seth's design sense is less "his" than belonging to a particular aesthetic--that sense of borrowing from an older, more elaborate design sense. That's what I get from his John Stanley Library scheme--that retroactive sense of "these have always been classics". That's why I think MM and George Sprott look so much alike; they're all springing from that same "old/new" aesthetic preference. He's trying to evoke "this is a classic" in the design scheme, but I can definitely understand how one could find that a distraction or off-putting.

    Point taken, though, about needing a Stanley image on the cover of a Stanley book. I'd be curious as to why Seth did that.

  4. I haven't read this volume yet, but based on your description I suspect that one reason for the relative strength of "Moomin and the Comet" is that it was based on Tove's initial experiment with comics, which ran in a Finnish newspaper and was in turn adapted from her novel Comet in Moominland.