Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Top Shelf Kids Komix Kavalcade

Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World, by James Kochalka

Korgi, Book 2: The Cosmic Collector, by Christian Slade

Yam, by Corey Barba

All Top Shelf, 2008

Garrett Martin:

So we got this stack of kids comics from Top Shelf, a thoroughly respectable publisher located in my hometown of Marietta, Georgia. They've got a diverse catalogue, publishing both the improbably cute kids comic Owly and Alan Moore's high-class metafictional art-porn Lost Girls, among many other fine books. Owly's kind of blown up of late, it seems, and so Top Shelf, hoping to ride the edge of that lightning bolt, has prepared a passel of similar kid-focused books, including Yam, Korgi, and Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World. The books aren't too similar artistically or tonally, but they're all well-illustrated and well-intentioned, and at least two of them should appeal to audiences of all ages.

Oddly enough, Korgi, which I'd think is for slightly older children than the other two, was the least enjoyable for the totally grown-up adult guy I theoretically am. An odd fantasy/sci-fi tale about fairy-gnomes and their sorcerous pet Welsh corgies, Korgi is a bit too precious, with too thin of a plot. There're also a couple moments of surprising violence in the action scenes that don't quite fit the tone of child-like fairy-magic wonder. That violence, plus the less overtly whimsical art style, make me assume Korgi is for older kids, like late elementary school, but the plot is thin and characterization non-existent and so there's not much of substance to grab hold of. Not too much of a problem for younger kids' books, but when all these elements are combined it becomes hard to tell who the book is for. My six-year-old niece would probably be scared off by the evil alien, especially when he shoots the fairy's wing off, but then I'd think a ten-year-old wouldn't be stimulated enough. What do you think?

Hillary Brown: I thought it might be a little confusing for kids, no matter what age, if they decide to dive into volume 2 the way we did, rather than starting with volume 1, and that, mostly, it's an excuse to draw cute doggies. I'm fairly mystified by the whole idea behind the thing (Why are they magic? Why corgis? What does their magic consist of?), but, you know, I assume Christian Slade has some corgis that he loves, which led his to writing/drawing a book about them. The art is, as you mention, a bit precious--the kind of thing you'd find in a crystal store--but if you're shooting for the 10-to-12-year-old girl market, which is my guess as far as the marketing strategy, it's pretty much right on. To continue in the vein we've both mined as far as our respective dorky childhoods, I was super into faeries (yes, spelled like that) at about that age, and I regularly visited a store that sold not only crystals, but figurines, windchimes, geodes, incense, and the like. In other words, this book might have been right up my alley. Still, I'd agree that I liked it the least of the three they sent us, partially because, um, doesn't it have a secret message about people who collect things being selfish jerks who don't care about hurting others? That's me, the comic book reader, and I'm not sure I appreciate being lectured.

My favorite of the three, despite its almost nonexistent plot and frequent lack of sense, was James Kochalka's Johnny Boo. I'm curious what you thought of that one and if you think I'm crazy.

GM: Johnny Boo was great. It's the most obviously youth-oriented of the three, so the near-lack of a story didn't bug me too much. Kochalka's art is adorable, and this was no exception. Despite having words, it reminded me a lot of Owly, particularly the relationship between Johnny Boo and Squiggle; they interact just like Owly and Wormy. Between the hardcover binding, the uncluttered art, the clear-cut moral, and the easy-to-follow story, this feels the most like a children's book, and I could totally see this doing well at places like Target and Wal-Mart if Top Shelf could somehow get in those markets. I probably wouldn't buy subsequent Johnny Boo books for myself (ten dollars is a lot for a seven minute read), but would definitely give 'em to my nieces and nephews. I wouldn't call it my favorite of the three (that'd be Yam), but it is really good, and I'm interested in hearing why it is your favorite.

HB: I think I'm just a big fan of Kochalka's weirdness. The non-sequiturs he puts in the mouths of the characters remind me tons of real kids, who are almost always saying shit that is practically from outer space. And the pacing, which is jumpy and odd, kind of cracks me up too. I don't know if you read his ongoing series of Monster Attack comics done with his son Eli, but they're one of my favorite things on the internet. American Elf itself is quite concerned with his family life, and he seems to pay attention to kids and how they think and perceive the world. So I think all that plays into it, plus, as you point out, it's really cute. It's all cuddly and huggy and yay for ice cream, but without being too sweet, due to that undercutting weirdness as well as all the yelling. And I love the art, the coloring, and the printing. I'm a sucker for an aqueous varnish on a book cover. I agree with you that I'd totally buy it for kids, but I don't know if I'd buy it myself. Seven minutes might even be a generous estimate as far as reading time goes.

Yam, on the other hand, while equally weird, just kind of doesn't click for me, at least not regularly, so tell me why it's your favorite.

GM: I give Yam the edge over Johnny Boo partially because it's a longer read, but also because I think it's more engaging to a truly all ages audience. I can appreciate Johnny Boo, but I don't think I can love it as much as, say, my five-year-old nephew could. Yam, although designed for and thus totally appropriate for kids, has greater artistic depth than either of the other two books. And I mean visually, when I say "artistic". Corey Barba's characters are just as cute as Kolchaka's, but the panels are more detailed without being weighed down by those details. As adorable as Johnny Boo, Squiggle, and the Ice Cream Monster are, they're still slightly outclassed by Marzipan Gato and Yam's anthropomorphic television. Yam also is more sophisticated in terms of both story and storytelling, which doesn't necessarily make it better than Boo, but does make more enjoyable for a thirty-something dude like me. And the weirdness in Yam is even more inexplicable than Johnny Boo's, operating on some semblance of dream (and/or video game) logic. Yam could pretty easily be marketed as a comic for teenagers or adults without changing a thing.

HB: Or stoners! That's the thing. I'm stuck in this place where I don't know, often, if I should be getting it or if it's just weird and nonsensical. Not that the latter isn't fine. Yam tends to remind me of a lot of Japanese pop culture in that way. I guess I'd just like to have a little icon at the top of each strip that indicates: yes, this one makes sense if you think about it; or no, it's just an idea pursued to a conclusion, but it's not logical, and, in fact, if you try to think it through you'll just get annoyed. Of course, art doesn't do that, pretty much ever, so it's not a fair complaint at all. I agree that the storytelling is far more sophisticated and takes much more of your brain to understand, and its wordlessness is impressive--not as impressive as Owly, which is also cuter than both Yam and Johnny Boo, but that's some tough competition.

GM: Yam's frequent inscrutability is intentional, I'm sure. And I don't always need logic from my kids' lit, or always from my comics, as long as they look amazing and are illogical in novel or unique ways. Yam meets both requirements. Plus Yam starts a band with a family of flowers, which is kind of incredibly awesome.

HB: It is kind of awesome, and I don't always need logic either. Maybe it's that it's printed in black-and-white, while Johnny Boo has all these candy colors that make my eyes happy. I'm not opposed to black and white, but some of the panels seem squished up to me. Is it printed on less nice paper? That could be unconsciously biasing me too.

GM: Yeah, the presentation of Johnny Boo is of a higher quality. Kochalka's a bigger name, he deserves it. And the Yam strips in color look better than the black and white ones. Plus the reproduction of some of those Yam strips look blown-up, like the strips were drawn to a smaller scale than they appear in the book. The lines kind of break up a bit when that happens, things look spotty and washed out. There's a note in the beginning of Yam that one or two of the strips were originally published Aragones marginalia-style in NickToons magazine, so maybe that explains the ones that look worse. But yes, Johnny Boo is a more aesthetically pleasing book, but Yam has more thoroughly satisfying content.

HB: Says you! I think it depends on your maturity level. If you prefer yelling about ice cream to a more pure surrealism, you should probably pick up Johnny Boo instead, but both books are amusing and smart.

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