Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Kid Lit

This article as originally published at sequart.com in 2006.
The three comics I'm reviewing in this space are all for children, but the contexts for each are radically different. Kevin Pyle's Blindspot is a lush, imaginative graphic novel aimed at kids 9 and up. Sardine In Outer Space 2 is a collection of stories featuring the wacky adventures of Sardine, a young girl who happens to be a space pirate. The latest Nick Mag Presents is an all-comics special aimed squarely at Nickelodeon's target audience, roughly kids 10 and under.

Going in reverse order, the new Nick Mag can be found on any magazine rack. While it features comics versions of their most popular cartoon characters (Spongebob Squarepants & Fairly OddParents), it also features an array of strips from some of alt-comics' most interesting artists. Comics editors Chris Duffy & Dave Roman (the latter a cartoonist in his own right) have been providing a steady outlet for cartoonists for quite some time. It's odd to see someone like Johnny Ryan in here, considering that most of his regular work is so filthy, but his strips still work because kids like fart jokes more than anyone. It's a particular delight to see folks like Jason Shiga do his thing in here. Shiga loves embedding comics in choose-your-own-adventure frameworks, and so it was a natural for him to do a maze where he's trying to get the Fairly OddParents to grant him wishes to get a girl to fall in love with him. Even better is an algorithm he designed later in the book to determine your perfect mate--with the determining factors being things like "lots of hair vs the color green".

That's just one example of a strip that doesn't feel at all watered-down, even if it's not exactly what the artist would do with their own work. Brian Ralph's gorgeous "Twiggy Stumps" strip, about a boy trying to find a place to stay during the winter, has exactly the same look and feel as his Cave-In or Climbing Out strips. He's not the only ex-Highwater Books cartoonist in this issue. Jordan Crane (with the nom-de-plume Jane D'Rancor) did a strip called "Shortcut", which is in a style very similar to his recent children's book The Clouds Above. Underground legend Justin Green offers a strip about humanitarian ways to kill flies, done in the same washed-out style as his regular comics. The imagination and wit that pervades the personal work of the indy cartoonists here makes the issue a pleasure to read as an adult. I especially liked the humor in Craig Thompson's comics here; he had one page with four completely separate strips, all of which impact the other somehow. Ellen Forney's comic on how to make your own autobio strip is enormously clever, as is her smaller strip that ran along the bottom of several pages.

The best thing this issue does is give a nice outlet for gag strip experts and humorists. Along with Ryan, there's the highly-underrated Karen Sneider, Sam Henderson (with his regular "Scene But Not Heard" strip), Mark Martin, Evan Dorkin & Sara Dyer, Terry LaBan, Gahan Wilson and Michael Kupperman. The latter 's strip, "The Worst Comic Book Villains That Never Existed" could have been out of an issue of his Tales Designed to Thrizzle comic, including characters like Doctor Buckethead, Pants-On-His-Head-Man (the archenemy of Underpants-On-His-Head-Man), and the Crayoniacs. I've long felt that there was a need for a comics anthology that had nothing but humor strips in it, and Nick Mag is the closest thing we have to that at the moment. I honestly can't thing of a better way of getting kids to love comics than this magazine: it's appealing to both genders, it's funny, it's attractive to look at (they don't skimp on production values), there's a variety of styles & stories, and it can be enjoyed without having to understand a lot of backstory.

Sardine is what I would call minor work from two excellent cartoonists, Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert. . Sfar in particular is a huge favorite of mine. This collection of strips is aimed squarely at kids (even the flap on the front cover says "No Grown-Ups Allowed! (Unless they're pirates or space adventurers)"). In these stories, Sardine the space pirate travels with Captain Yellow Shoulder and Little Louie, having all sorts of adventures. They're in constant combat with the villainous Supermuscleman and mad scientist Doc Krok, always foiling their schemes. Each story is 10 pages long, just long enough to establish a conflict and resolution.

What makes the stories fun are the absurd set-ups: a comet covered in carpet, with a ruler that tries to force its visitors to buy some; a planet filled with flies that put bad dance tunes into its victims ears, the kind you can't get out of your head; a giant with video cameras inside its body; a lonely worm that creates a spaceship in a bid to make friends that only scares them off instead. When the stories move away from the oafish Supermuscleman (who gets outsmarted by Sardine so easily that he doesn't make for much of a villain), they're much funnier and weirder. For example, Sardine and Louie are able to save their friends in a flea circus from that video giant by going inside his body and playing soccer--that's because "wherever there's soccer, there's cameras".

The comics are more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. They're in the tradition of a Carl Barks, mixing adventure and silliness. The real highlight of these stories is Sfar's loose, vibrant style. While the character designs are simple and iconic, he still manages to pack an enormous amount of detail in a given panel. This makes his pages easy to follow (some of them have only two panels) but rewarding to look at. The use of color is another major component of the overall visual impact; they're kept bright, basic and even a bit garish. These stories occur in a fantastic world, and their non-naturalistic look and feel adds to the effect.

The main criticism I'd have of this collection is that there's a certain repetitiveness to the stories. Every story details some adventure or misadventure of Sardine and her friends, often against the same set of opponents. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's formulaic, but there's a sense of diminishing returns the further one gets into the book, even if each individual story is enjoyable on its own. From a child's standpoint, this probably isn't a big deal--if they like the stories to begin with. Unlike the Nick Mag, with its wide range of styles, this Sardine volume is best given to children who are already inclined to enjoy this sort of story.

The audience for Blindspot is entirely different, and not just because of the 9-and-over target group. This is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Dean, who retreats into army fantasies as a way of dealing with the alienation he feels in relating with other kids, his family's constant moving around, and the difficulty he has in dealing with authority. The irony is that he chose war and army scenarios as a symbol of rugged freedom, when the military is the ultimate form of regimentation. The key is that his understanding of war is what he reads in comic books, and these fantasies inform his playtime with his friends. Eventually, a frightening encounter with a homeless man snaps him out of his war fantasies.

What makes the book more than a routine exploration of pre-adolescent problems is the masterful use of color. Pyle employed single-color palettes during every real-life sequence, but his use of color was non-naturalistic. He used green (army soldier green) during every sequence where Dean and his friends were playing army in the forest, and used it once again towards the end to reflect a significant change for Dean. He used a light lilac to depict winter, but more importantly, a time of reflection and an attempt at understanding. An aqua-green represented times of crisis in school, or a sequence where he had to go to a child psychologist. Light blue represented both night and the sense of elation that turned into panic when he was faced with a homeless man angry at him and his friends for destroying his hovel--but really wanting someone to unload the story of his own life's misery on. Brown seemed to represent the times when Dean was most grounded in reality. Sometimes this was because of family difficulties, and other times because he was finally able to exult a bit in enjoying himself as a kid in the here and now. There are other shades for other encounters as well, but these were the ones that stood out.

The stand-out stylization that Pyle used came when Dean was deep in his army fantasies in his friends. The art would shift from the simple palette to one resembling old war comics--flat and four-colored, looking a bit like Joe Kubert or Dick Ayers 60's war comics. It was no accident that these sequences (meshing the kids' "play" dialogue into something resembling the dialogue from such comics) had color that was comparatively more vibrant, but in no sense was it meant to be realistic. In a later scene where Dean is at the psychologist's office, he slips into fantasy mode, with the page drawn like Dean's a soldier being interrogated. As Dean relaxes and realizes that there's no threat here, the fantasy fades and we him going back to a more realistic view of the situation.

Dean felt trapped as a child, and the forest where he played represented freedom. The life of a soldier as he saw it in the forest was the ultimate form of liberation: living on your own wits and toughness, righting wrongs, performing tasks that meant something. Being punished for doing poorly in school didn't mean anything to him. What slowly started to change him was seeing images of the Holocaust in a library book; the images of dead bodies started to interfere even with his war fantasies. While that shifted his fantasies, it didn't change his desire for solitude and self-determination. That didn't change until the homeless man (who boasted about his freedom) revealed the devastating details of his miserable life. Dean was finally able to leave that fantasy behind after that as his parents rescued him from the forest and he came to see them, and his life, in a very different light. He understood that there was a thin line between freedom and alienation, and how easy it was to cross that line.

The whole sequence with the homeless man is heralded by a typically clever use of color. Right before that, Dean was out with his friends, having fun on Halloween. He was just a normal kid, and it felt good. This was highlighted by the use of brown in this scene. After he says goodbye to his friends, we suddenly shift to light blue, with only a slight red-brown in the sky as the sun sets. It's the only time in the book that colors are mixed on a non-fantasy page, and here we see the warm feelings represented by brown start to fade into the ominous blue of the night, panel by panel. It's a transition significant enough to make up the bulk of the book's cover.

The understanding that Dean's change in his self was apparent when we see him playing baseball and the color is back to that army-green. Chasing a long fly ball, Dean is faced with his fantasy forest again, probably for the first time. He's finally come to terms with what it represented to him, and he was literally able to turn his back to it and move on. This point is hammered home in the book's final sequence, where Dean's family has moved again. In brown tones, he meets some new kids and befriends them, telling them that army play is "kid's stuff". It's perhaps a bit too obvious a cue after so much subtlety in this book, the only wrong turn in a comic filled with so many right choices.

Blindspot rewards multiple readings as one begins to absorb and understand Pyle's use of color and the subtle shifts in the story's tone as a result. Rite-of-passage fiction is a genre that's been mined quite deeply, but Pyle's sensitivity, skill and cleverness make this book a uniquely rewarding experience. I would recommend it in particular to junior high school students, especially boys.

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