Monday, December 10, 2012

Kid Lit: Enfant Books From Drawn & Quarterly

One critique of some of the Drawn & Quarterly reprints and repackaging of classic children's comics from John Stanley, Tove Jansson, etc is that they were neither fish nor fowl. They weren't presented in such a way that satisfied collectors obsessed with preserving details of the original publications, but they also weren't quite kid-friendly either. Young children like to be able to hold, carry and manipulate their own books, and the large collections made this difficult. The format of Francoise Mouly's superb Toon Books line has revolutionized comics for kids, merging the practical but pleasing format of the best of kid lit with some excellent comics aimed precisely at its target age levels. In Drawn & Quarterly's new Enfant line, they've addressed some of these issues and have a new format to fit some classic (if obscure to American audiences) comics.

The short comics stories of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking are done in roughly Dr. Seuss dimensions and format: a hardcover that's around 10" x 7". The comics were drawn by original series illustrator Ingrid Vang Nyman, and the stories are wonderfully anarchic. The Pippi books are still quite popular in their depiction of The Strongest Girl in the World, and these comics capture Pippi's essential charm as an adventurer who lives outside the law. She's a sort of one-girl Marx Brothers troupe in that she can baffle the authorities through mangling language like Chico, employ a series of rigorous physical gags like Harpo and frustrate & outsmart the well-heeled through fractured logic like Groucho. Pippi is a walking adventure who subverts every typical environment she happens to wander into, be it the circus or school. There's a delightful crudeness to Vang Nyman's line, a flatness and almost naive quality to her line that brings tremendous energy to the proceedings. Pippi's disdain for authority has an almost acidic quality coming from Lindgren; it reminds me a lot of John Stanley's take on Little Lulu.

D&Q continues to market the Tove Jansson Moomin comics with a new format. They initially published those comics in big hardcover editions--ideal for adults, but less so for littler hands. To address this, they're releasing a series of 6.5" x 8.5" editions that cover a single story. The two sent to me were MoominValley Turns Jungle and Moomin's Winter Follies. These are perfect storytelling objects. Even with no knowledge of the cast, Jansson is able to quickly catch a reader up to speed in introducing the world of the Moomins. Jansson's line is wonderfully smooth and clear and her character design is impeccable. The simplicity of her figures is set against the naturalistic structures and lushly-depicted nature scenes, adding depth and atmosphere to her stories. There's a deep, almost vicious satirical streak in her stories that's aimed at adults but can be understood by children as well. Winter Follies is all about gender relations and the ways in which women are sometimes attracted by men who are disinterested in them. It's also a commentary on men and the ways in which they need to prove their masculinity. At the same time, it's also a brutal satire of the Olympics and the mania that surrounds it, as the Moomins decide not to hibernate during winter and instead try to enjoy winter's beauty. When they are hijacked into participating in sports events by the aptly-named Mr Brisk, the book alternates between satirical digs and convoluted sight gags.

Jungle starts with a drought that turns into a jungle thanks to some magic seeds and a nighttime downpour. The story satirizes those that don the title of expert, as plants come to life and zoo animals are "invited" to come live there by a troublemaker. Jansson was an expert at slowly and systematically raising the stakes over the course of a narrative, repeating themes and then subverting them. The animals all initially set out to eat the Moomins until fate sees them all saved in turn, making them loyal. The real danger for the Moomins turns out to be the zookeepers, who declare them to be hippopotamuses and threaten to have them carried off to the zoo. Luckily, the arbitrariness of classification saves them, as two scientists arguing over whether something was an animal or plant the whole way through the book wind up convincing the zoo. Jansson makes sure to add a healthy dose of adventure to the book along with humor, making it appealing on a number of levels. Hopefully, this line will be a financial success, because I'd love to see more books like this.

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