Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Comics For Kids; Toon Books, Adventures In Cartooning, Anna & Froga

The latest batch of comics for kids definitely skews toward the alt-comics neck of the woods this time around, with several new releases from Toon Books, a new volume in the Adventures in Cartooning series and an English translation of a book by Anouk Ricard.

The Toon Books line is an interesting success story, given that editor and publisher Francoise Mouly was initially unable to sell her idea of comics for very young readers to a single big publisher.  Fast-forward a few years, and the line has sold a lot of books and won several awards, and is now an imprint of a larger publisher. Mouly still retains control, but she's started to farm some of the work out ever so slightly to her daughter Nadja, who was a "guest editor" on a couple of the recent books. Mouly has expanded her initial vision for the line, concretizing the notion that some of the books are aimed at pre-K kids and others are for more slightly advanced readers. As such, a couple of the books here are longer and more challenging than any of the prior volumes, but Mouly is also careful not to abandon established formulae, like the beloved Benny & Penny books of Geoffrey Hayes.

Let's start with Hayes. His latest Benny & Penny book is called Lights Out!, and it's once again an evocatively drawn story about two siblings at bedtime.Hayes has an incredible knack for portraying their relationship with great affection yet still understanding the ways in which children squabble and generally enjoy making each other miserable at times. Here, the mischievous Benny can't settle down at bedtime, annoying his sister in every way imaginable, until he has to go get his all-important pirate hat from the playhouse outside. Throughout the series, Hayes has loved folding back a story's conflict onto the aggressor (usually Benny), putting them in the sort of situation that they taunted the other about. Once again, Hayes masterfully balances his background as a traditional illustrator of children's books with making this work as a comic, including finding ways to lead the reader's eyes across the page as simply as possible. At the same time, he provides a wave of eye pops, as characters bleed off-panel or tiny bugs pop up in the same place. For the youngest of readers, these are perfect story and art objects.

Frank Viva (an illustrator for the New Yorker) takes a completely different approach in A Trip To The Bottom of the World. Drawn in Illustrator, this book is much colder and starker than Hayes' work, filled with a confluence of basic shapes and colors that pop off the page.This book is actually based on Viva's own experience on an Antarctic research vessel, as the things that the explorer's mouse sees are things Viva spotted. The plot (with the mouse constantly wanting to go back home, until the trip is over) is fairly boilerplate for this kind of thing, but it's Viva's visuals that make this one worth a look.

Mouly switches things up once again with David Nytra's pen-and-ink comic The Secret of the Stone Frog. It's more than a little influenced by Lewis Carroll (and of course the illustrator John Tenniel) by way of Winsor McCay, as a girl and her younger brother try to find their way home in a mysterious forest, aided by the immobile but loquacious titular frogs. This 80-page book is  the longest of the Toon Book entries and is billed as the first Toon graphic novel, and as such it's obviously aimed at a six or seven year old as an early "big" book for them. The book is beautiful to look at and carries the line's usual sterling production values, even if it does feel derivative.

The gem of Toon's fall batch is Rutu Modan's Maya Makes A Mess. It's a pure visual joy and has some of Modan's best-ever cartooning. It's about a messy little girl with bad table manners who is called to eat with the Queen, and her uncouth nature (done because it's more fun to eat with your hands) has a surprising effect on the Queen and her court. Modan's line is crisp and clear, and her already highly-developed color sense makes every page a treat, without going into too much pyrotechnics. There's also a running gag at the bottom of the page that appears to simply be a visual flourish at first, but is revealed to simply be a time-release joke. I love that this book does not desire to teach any sort of lesson about good manners but rather is all about pursuing a joke to its logical end.

The Center for Cartoon Studies team of James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost return for their third book in the Adventures In Cartooning series, this time with the every-sturdy Christmas Special. This book really does have "stocking stuffer" written all over it, as it's by far the least interactive of the three books. The first one taught cartooning basics and the second volume was pretty much a cartooning workbook, but the Special is mostly just an extended series of (effective) gags and rhymes about Santa struggling to deal with giving gifts in the digital age. All the reader gets to do is write a comic strip for Santa about something cheerful, and they are then encouraged to send it to CCS ("Halfway to the North Pole") for Santa's benefit. It's a clever idea, and I'm curious to see what kind of responses they will wind up getting. The book takes a while to warm up, but once the cartooning elf summons forth the cartooning knight of the first two books, the gags start flying and the visual storytelling of the trio starts popping. I'm still not quite sure what the division of labor is like on these books, but it does seem like I sense Frederick-Frost's hand most strongly. I'm not sure where this series goes next; does it try to teach a more advanced lesson, or will it stick with concept books like this one? I'm hoping for the former (at least another challenging activity book), but I'm guessing the latter would be an easier sell.

It makes sense that Ben Jones blurbed the translation of Anouk Ricard's Anna & Froga: Want a Gumball? That's because her figures look a lot like Jones' own weird, crude and ugly drawings. Like Jones, however, those figures have an enormous amount of personality and power on the page, thanks in part to what looks like a lively application of magic marker. I've never seen a book that had so many ugly drawings on it that made me want to stare at it for hours. Part of that is Ricard's judicious use of negative space on every page, saving the reader from being overwhelmed by the drawings and the colors. Indeed, the use of white made it easy for anyone to follow the characters across the page and zero in on the gags at hand. As interesting as the art is in this book, it's Ricard's skill as a humorist that makes this book endlessly readable. The title characters, plus dog friend Bubu and cat friend Ron form a kind of Seinfeld gang that milks a lot of humor from awkwardness, vanity, self-deception and a healthy sense of mutual aggravation. On some pages, Ricard goes from her crudely-drawn comic strip to beautifully painted full page strips that comment on the previous story. One of the best things about this book is Ricard's storytelling rhythm. With each story running about three or four pages, that allows Ricard to pack a lot of gags into this forty page book. She ramps up the awkwardness in each strip until the climax of the final punchline, gives the reader a palate cleanser with her paintings, and then repeats the process ten times. The result is a highly meaty forty pages, though I found myself wanting more by the end. This is a truly outstanding book for kids, one they will be able to follow with ease as well as appreciate the jokes, which generally wind up with a chase scene, things being thrown, or something gross or cruel happening to one of the characters. I hope this sells well enough for Drawn & Quarterly to publish many more volumes.

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