Friday, September 26, 2008

Creepy Archives vol. 1

Creepy Archives, vol. 1
Dark Horse Comics 2008

Garrett Martin: Remember when we talked about David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Plague (um, not you, Hillary, but our "readers")? How it was about EC and their horror comics from the '50's and how the comics industry basically drove 'em out of business with the Comics Code? No? Then go read that post again, buddy, and head back here when you're done.

Alright. So in the '60's a company called Warren Publishing decided to fill the hole left in the market by the death of EC's crime and horror comics. The Code prevented them from putting out anything in standard comic form, so they turned to oversized black-and-white magazines, like EC did with Mad. Warren round up a gaggle of former EC artists, handed the writing and editorial reins off to a young Archie Goodwin, and named the final product Creepy. Dark Horse recently collected the first five issues of Creepy in one highly impressive hardcover, allowing relative young'uns like us to see just how well the magazine stacked up to its hallowed inspiration. I'm tempted to say "not very", but, honestly, what little EC I've read isn't that especially great, either. Like EC's somewhat overrated line, Creepy's strength lies in the art, more than the writing, and that's a bit of a problem when you're trying to scare anybody over the age of 10. How many stories about vampires, werewolves, and Frankensteins can one magazine run, anyway?

Hillary Brown: So many! I guess I definitely have a fondness for this stuff, but you're right that it rarely transcends its silly origins. Even Tales from the Crypt in its TV form rarely did, although it certainly incorporated a lot more blood and guts. Creepy strikes me as a strange project, built on a kind of overpowering nostalgia for EC's horror books. You'd think, for example, that the form would have evolved some in the approximately ten years that passed between the dissolution of EC and the formation of Warren Publishing, especially considering the speed at which pop culture directed at teenagers tends to cannibalize itself in interesting ways, but the only big difference I can see between EC's stuff and Creepy is that Creepy seems to have fewer social messages built in (although still some). It is big on the twist endings, to the extent that nearly every story has one and to the point that even the twist is sometimes visible in the first panel of a six-page story. Okay, so it's goofy-ass shit, but the art really is a pleasure to look at. I wish Jack Davis had a bit more to do in these first five issues (the cover of #1 and, I believe, Uncle Creepy a fair amount), and it would be nice if Frank Frazetta had done more than one story (he also does four covers), but, even with the occasional sloppy panel, this is the kind of stuff that makes me really happy, and the devotion to black and white on the interior, while doubtfully an artistic decision, does indeed heighten the things one can do with shading and hatching. It's a pretty nicely produced anthology, too, with some of the original ads appearing throughout (Boris Karloff records, collections of monster books, hilarious iron-ons, plastic giant flies, etc.--just picture anything vaguely horror-related that you ever saw advertised in a comic and wanted) and the letters page from each issue, but the decision to incorporate some of this stuff makes one really want all of it. Would it just have been filler? Or did you, too, notice that each issue was a hair under 50 pages?

GM: Yeah, I do wish they ran more of the ads and other assorted material. That stuff provided a surprisingly significant portion of my enjoyment of the book. It doesn't make or break the collection, but miscellaneous bits of business like that definitely give a book extra value. So yeah, more of that, plus greater variety of what they did run, would've been good. Plus, did you notice Bernie Wrightson's name in one of the letter columns? I don't know why, but I love seeing future professionals' names in old lettercols.

I don't want to sound too down on Creepy; the art is pretty uniformly great, and the stories are almost never less than competent. Y'know, it's Perfectly Acceptable Comic-bookery, which is fine but kind of disappointing. Still, they're quick, easy to read, and always a pleasure to look at. It's slightly frustrating that they hardly deviate from the EC playbook, though, and maybe even more so that they dumb that formula down a bit; sure, EC's jokes were corny and the twist endings often telegraphed or nonsensical, but they were usually wittier, more subversive, and even more playful despite being more savage and nihilistic. A lot of it's got to do with Creepy's fixation on supernatural monsters over the more human sort and their crimes.

HB: It's true. Creepy really has no interest in horrible humanity, only in the aforementioned vampires, werewolves, etc., which is pretty funny, but ultimately limiting. They could at least delve into some weirder monsters (wendigos, banshees, the Loch Ness Monster; the cat people story was one of my favorites, partially for its sheer weirdness and partially because it was something a little different), and perhaps they did later, or maybe it's just that making it obvious that none of this stuff was real was a way around the vigilant anti-horror comics folks. After all, wasn't it the supposed realism of the crime stories that started to attract attention in the first place?

GM: Right, I didn't consider that. And shit, there's nothing inherently wrong with just doing monsters; it's good to have a clear-cut purpose. It just makes the magazine really damn goofy. Not as goofy as Herbie's frequent use of Dracula and Frankenstein (I am seriously gonna mail that to you, btw), but still pretty damn silly. That silliness does keep Creepy away from EC's more gruesome and realistic extremes.

Do kids today still give a shit about Frankenstein?

HB: That's a good question. My friend Lauren would probably say yes, as she was telling me about a children's book she read called Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (which really is about what its title suggests). So I guess Frankenstein is still pretty cool. I don't know about werewolves though. There certainly seems to be plenty of silly-ass supernatural shit in our culture, but it's less directed at the age group Creepy was marketed to. The last thing I remember being for that demographic was Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon, which was probably twelve or so years ago. The Twilight series seems more serious. Harry Potter is operating in a different realm entirely. But the great desire pre-teens and early teens feel to be scared (and I'm sure there are great theories out there about why that age group seems especially attracted to Christopher Pike books--something to do with approaching adulthood, perhaps) is probably fairly continual, from at least I Was a Teenage Werewolf onward. Do you think Creepy has any pretense at being actually scary? Or is it just a goof?

GM: Oh yeah, and Goosebumps. Does that still exist?

There is a lot of youth interest in the supernatural, true. Most of it seems to be about how cool it is to have supernatural powers, though. And I guess that's always been a large part of the appeal; yeah, Dracula was scary when I was a kid, but I still thought it would be awesome to turn into a bat and live in a castle and keep a harem of sexy undead chicks.

I think the creators of Creepy had a pretty low opinion of their audience's intelligence and maturity level if they actually thought any of these stories would scare anybody.

HB: So I figured. It's more "vampires are awesome" than "vampires are really scary." Maybe the required presence of a "twist" precludes scariness, although you'd think that surprise and fear are pretty connected. Anyway, I should stop trying to create a nice theory that wraps it all up. Creepy: flawed but still kinda fun?

GM: Yeah, it's fun stuff, despite how many times it made me sigh and wearily mutter "oh, Archie." I might flip through the next volume to see if things progressed any.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Great Outdoor Fight

The Great Outdoor Fight
by Chris Onstad
Dark Horse Comics, 2008

Hillary Brown: So, while it's a smart move to publish some of Chris Onstad's webcomic Achewood in physical, printed format as far as broadening audiences and providing an archive for future generations and so on (not to mention that it's more likely to get results if you just hand your buddy a book and say "read this" than if you send him or her a link, even in this day and age), finding the right thing with which to do that is difficult. Achewood isn't like The Perry Bible Fellowship, which is a series of unconnected, one-page strips, sometimes only a single panel long. But it isn't exactly a serial either, like Dick Tracy (weird example). If I had to compare it to anything, it's like a briefer and yet larger Love and Rockets, in that Onstad creates an entire world, and sometimes there's a long, long story, that goes on for days, and sometimes (this being less Hernandez-y) there's a one-off, like a silly flowchart. The thing is, even the one-offs rely on an elaborate structure of jokes, many built over years, and while there's plenty to amuse without getting it all, it mostly works like The Simpsons, in that the equation is: the more you know, the funnier it gets. Did I mention that many of the characters also have blogs? They do. Anyway, Dark Horse or Onstad or someone figured out a particular storyline that would work well published on its lonesome, with no introduction about what the strip is. Instead, The Great Outdoor Fight begins with a few pages about the history of the fight itself, and it's a beautiful illustration (as is the back matter, with recipes, history of contestants, glossary, etc.) of one of Onstad's strengths as a writer, which is a faux-historical, faux-serious tone. This then contrasts nicely with the extremely dude-slangy way in which his characters talk, and he's absolutely excellent at mixing the two, sometimes within a single strip. And make no mistake, the dude is a writer. The art is fine, but never more than that. It's simple and it serves its purpose and it's a step up from David Rees, but this thing is about the writing. Okay, enough introduction. How often do you read the online strip, and for how long? How does this compare? Did you read any of this when it appeared online? And what, in the end, do you think?

Garrett Martin: I hardly ever read Achewood on-line. Which sucks, 'cuz it's great. I just don't ever think about it. Also I try to avoid the internet when I'm not at work, and it's hard to hide that you're reading comics at work. If I want to read Tucker Stone or Iroquois Pliskin at work I can just paste the text into a new email and nobody'll know the difference; that thing can not be done with a comic strip. And man, much managerial buzzing of late. It's hard to fit my daily internet routine into the standard eight hours these days. So this book is very handy; I read it straight through on a bus ride the other day, and were it not for this collection I'd probably never actually read the entire storyline.

I might've read a random GOF-related strip on-line at some point; I first read Achewood in the summer of '06, and isn't that when this story ran? I don't remember, though. I remember thinking it wasn't very funny, until I went back and read a lot of the earlier strips. That's a common observation with Achewood because it is so true; as you say, the humor relies in large part on knowledge of the characters and familiarity with Onstad's style. I know a guy who is not possessed of much free time, a schoolteacher with a two-year-old who spends most weekends out of town playing rock music, who still spent seven or so hours reading the entirety of Achewood on the Sunday he first learned of it. It is addictive, it rewards regular long-term reading, and thanks to all the ancillary business there's enough new material going on-line to justify repeated daily visits. Onstad's good at stoking the obsession.

Anyway, yes, Achewood is fantastic. I love how thoroughly yet affectionately Onstad mocks lunkheaded concepts of masculinity and "dude culture", or whatever. The Great Outdoor Fight, itself, is such a perfect idea, ridiculous enough to act as parody of bad-ass / tough guy convention, but still completely plausible and believable (up to a point.) And yes, it's something I'd totally be into were it real. Of course it feels so possible due to the detailed history Onstad provides for the fight, its cultural impact, and the lives of former champions. As you point out, this highlights one of his greatest strengths, his writing ability, and especially his talent for writing in a variety of styles and voices. It's just kinda weird, and a big indictment of the traditional newspaper side of the medium, that a frequently vulgar on-line comic starring a cat in a thong is one of the more layered and nuanced comic strips of the last several decades.

HB: Yet another reason books are pretty superior technology... I've been having my own internet difficulties of late, what with me having to mooch off some neighbor's weak, unsecured wireless network because AT&T hasn't delivered my DSL modem yet, but the Google Reader is really ideal for something like Achewood, which doesn't quite post every day and is better read in chunks, where the jokes become clearer and the narrative hangs together. (And parenthetically here, what's our house style on online comics? Italics? No italics? This is an issue the Chicago Manual of Style has yet to address.)

I think you're right in zeroing in on the "dude culture" aspect of the strip. Really, I'm not sure who's writing better about the contemporary definition of being a man than Onstad. Sure, Esquire tries, and Details sort of tries, and occasionally ESPN: The Magazine ventures into similar territory, but they're all very concerned with making you buy things, and not that consumerism isn't part of contemporary masculinity, but Onstad isn't trying to sell you anything other than his strip. I don't think The Great Outdoor Fight is perfect (the ending is too abrupt, for one thing), but it's a very smart meditation on violence, adulthood, family, relationships, strategy, friendship, and what rules one has to or can't break. I hadn't really thought, prior to this discussion, about the strange layer of seriousness that's behind almost everything Onstad writes, but it's certainly there, and yet without toning down the funny.

GM: I don't know how the ending couldn't be abrupt, though, being an on-going strip. Maybe if Onstad drew up a new page or two, I guess. Apparently there are some scenes in the book that never appeared on-line, but I have no idea what those would be.

Maybe Onstad's not trying to sell us anything other than Achewood merch, but the strip couldn't exist without those magazines you mention. They try to define modern manhood in strictly consumerist terms, and Onstad mocks that in ridiculous fashion. Still, though, he doesn't mock camaraderie or friendship, and though the strip can be amazingly cynical and bitter at times, the mood never becomes too oppresive or arrogant. Maybe Onstad picks out the agreeable underpinning to the mountains of bullshit that make up manliness? Yeah, Ray and Roast Beef are absurd caricatures, but Onstad writes them as fundamentally decent people, and utterly likeable despite some pretty unsavory qualities. And of course is completely hilarious about it in the process.

Anyway, my biggest complaint is that the fight itself is way too short. Roast Beef's fists don't crush enough dudes.

HB: It does seem awfully brief after the lengthy set-up, what with the introduction and all that, but the fighting itself is the least interesting part of the piece. And the turkey dinner is the saddest.

GM: Yeah, I don't need to see more fisticuffs, but I wish we were introduced to more fighters. That's always the best part of the illicit fight tournament genre (see Enter the Dragon, The Quick and the Dead, The Immortal Iron Fist, Mortal Kombat 2, etc.)

"The Man With Blood on His Hands" is such a great nickname for a violence-prone American folk hero, isn't it? Better than "the Nature Boy".

HB: The only other thing that I can point out as a potential pitfall with Onstad's stuff is that it can occasionally be hard to differentiate his characters, which may be why he doesn't have more. During the whole wedding story that's consumed the last few months, for example, I was lost on a regular basis (as much my fault as his). So maybe we get fewer introductions and fewer fighters in motion because they are hard to draw? Am I being too down on his visual element? I don't mean to be. I think his art is better than serviceable. It's just, again, not the reason to read.

GM: You are being more charitable than I would when discussing the art. I've pointedly avoid mentioning it because I don't want to say anything bad about such an outstanding piece of work.

Okay, the art's not that bad, and there's one particular scene (can't remember if it's in this book or a strip on-line) where Roast Beef (I think?) is comically excited over something that has one of the greatest facial expressions of any comic I've ever seen. For the most part, though, Achewood looks like clip-art.

And shit, I just realized I meant to say "Ray's fists" above, and not Roast Beef's; I can't even tell 'em apart.

HB: And you don't have face blindness. Point made. Still, people should read this. Props to Dark Horse, although I would have preferred an uncoated to a coated sheet, being a paper snob.

GM: Well, I can only tell them apart based on accessories. One wears googles, the other glasses and a thong.

Oh, we didn't even mention the alt-text. That's often the punchline for the on-line strips. They're not reproduced in The Great Outdoor Fight, so I have to assume we missed a number of good lines, if not anything crucial to the plot or character development. Although shit, I think the alt-text is even vital for that sometimes, too.

HB: Right, it should definitely be mentioned. You really should read Achewood online _unless_ you have people hovering around your desk at work.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Webcomics--We know they exist!

Bear Creek Apartments, by Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O'Malley
The Walk, by Ryan Pequin

Garrett Martin: Okay, yes, there are tons of benefits to putting your comics up on the web, what with the promotion and the infinite canvas and the quick turnaround time, etc. And whatever problems I had with the physical aspect of reading comics on a computer mostly evaporated years ago. Still, though, nothing beats the utility and portability of a damn book (one reason I'm glad that Great Outdoor Fight hardcover now exists, alt-text be damned). I'm more likely to spend time on a page if I'm holding it in my hands, more likely to soak up the details and appreciate the effort put forth by the creators. I just want to rush through webcomics, and in fact hardly ever make it past the first page of one that's split up among multiple webpages. Hell, Bear Creek Apartments and The Walk are the first multi-page webcomics I've ever actually finished. And although neither are bad, per se, I'm pretty glad I didn't pay to read 'em. Are you a big reader of webcomics?

Hillary Brown: I'm not, partially because, as readers may have noticed, I'm a bit of a print nerd, and comics are essentially art books for me, so I probably do prefer the physical product, but it's more because of a bias in its favor than a bias against webcomics. I read a few on a regular basis (Achewood, Cat and Girl, Bellen), but that's because those are short and I can add them to my Google Reader, making it very easy. I'm not opposed to the idea of reading more comics onscreen, though, especially as paper costs continue to rise. If, for example, it increases the output of otherwise much less productive artists and writers whom I like, I'm totally for webcomics, which is kind of how I felt about Bear Creek Apartments. Sure, it's not as absolutely awesome as one would like from the duo of Bryan Lee O'Malley and Hope Larson, but it's at least as strong as their mini-comics, and it's definitely got both their voices. I'm also not as crazy about The Walk as I have been about Ryan Pequin's diary comics and blog (dude can flat out draw), but at least it exists and means more might in the future. To make yet another analogy to another art form, these webcomics are kind of like the equivalent of Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: not the pinnacle of what the creators can achieve but better than just better than nothing. They kind of make you want the real and bigger thing, but they also have their own charms.

GM: True, these comics are better than nothing. But Bear Creek wouldn't make me want to seek more out by Larson and O'Malley if I weren't already familiar with them. I've never read any of their mini-comics, but if the level of quality is similar to this then I may not want to. Now, O'Malley's art is nice, the color (both water and crayon) gives it a warmth lacking in Pilgrim, and (although this is totally irrelevent from a critical standpoint) he remains skilled at drawing girls that are incredibly cute despite cartoonish abstraction. And man, his pack of goats might even be more charming than Spiegelman's ducklings. So Bear Creek looks good. The problem is there's really nothing to Larson's story. Flipping the "manic pixie dream girl" schtick on its head isn't inherently a worthwhile idea for a story, and that's kinda all there is to Bear Creek Apartments, right?

HB: Aww... That's a little harsh. I mean, maybe I was only reading it with half a brain (Google is making us stupid, after all), but I didn't really see it coming. The inclusion of the supernatural--in an earthy way, without too many sparkles--is definitely a hallmark of both their comics, but I guess I wasn't paying attention or thinking about it as a possibility. I just sort of figured there was enough going on what with the break-up and the new apartment without "evil manic pixie dream girl" entering the picture, so it caught me by surprise and, therefore, amused me. And doesn't that silly schtick need to be flipped on its head? Both O'Malley and Larson write female characters who are real, which means they can be evil or weird or dorky or whatever, but maybe I'm moving too quickly into our next topic of discussion. Let it suffice that I think this comic is more interesting than it could have been. Plus, yeah, I love the color. And I wonder if it's going to be a series that centers around the apartments, as the title seems to have no relevance otherwise. I mean, this story isn't about the apartment, so that should mean that Larson and O'Malley have created the apartment complex as the setting for a series of stories, which would be ideal.

GM: Oh, is this going to be a regular series? I didn't know. Is this just a glimpse from a longer book, or the first of an on-going web thing?

I actually had to read BCA twice. After that conclusion I figured I misread that first page, that Paul must've been the one doing the dumping. But nope, he was the one on the wrong end of that transaction. It wouldn't made the comic any better, really, but it would've made more sense if his unfortunate transformation was some kind of punishment. Other than that bit of relationship info at the beginning, though, we know nothing about this character, and so the wood-nymph's actions are just mean-spirited. I guess I fail to see the point?

The Walk can't match up artistically, but at least the story was more coherent, and maybe also kinda slightly poignant. What did you think of it?

HB: No, you goof, the fact that it's not punishment makes it better! Punishment would be expected. The fact that he's some poor slob who just got dumped makes it much more interesting. Also, she's not mean-spirited. She's, you know, witchy. Witches do stuff like that. It's a fairy tale. I don't know if it really is part of something bigger or not, but I'd like it to be.

I like The Walk, even its slowness, and I agree that it is kind of touching. I also wish I remembered Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse a little better, but I'm not sure it's actually relevant. What makes the story both good and frustrating to me is its focus on the difficulty of communication. It's so obvious what he's trying to say, and, even though his caretaker is good and loving, the fact that one can't understand the other kind of stresses me out. Of course, conflict is the basis of narrative...

GM: All I know about To the Lighthouse is that the lighthouse is actually a penis.

I appreciate how The Walk deals with a potentially maudlin topic like... some form of mental instability without any schmaltz or histrionics. That difficulty in communication, and the non-linearity of memory, are both frustrating, and Pequin easily could've turned The Walk into a big ball of melodrama. Fortunately he avoided that trap, and made a comic that is stressful, like you note, but not really sentimental. And also more enjoyable than Bear Creek Apartments, which is just goofy.

HB: I don't know if I'd say it's more enjoyable, but it's definitely less goofy. Unfortunately, that's not a negative in my book! One more thing that needs mentioning: although these are indeed both webcomics, they seem to be so merely as a method of distribution, and their composition has nothing computery about it. Both are definitely created by hand with old, non-digital methods, which is part of what makes them a pleasure to look at.

GM: Hey, I love goofy more than most, but BCA just isn't my kind of goofy, I guess.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Toon-Book's Fall Releases

Jack and the Box by Art Spiegelman
Stinky by Eleanor Davis
Mo and Jo by Jay Lynch and Dean Haspiel
Toon-Books 2008

Hillary Brown: So, seeing as we did this for Top Shelf's line of kid-oriented comics, we thought we might as well do the same for Raw Junior/Toon Books, the line run by Francoise Mouly with input from her hubby Art Spiegelman (not that that input is necessary! Mouly knows eminently well what she's doing all by herself, and she doesn't get nearly enough appreciation for her sharp editorial eye). One of the things that attracted me to Toon Books is the fact that Eleanor Davis, current Athenian and ridiculously talented young lady, wrote and drew one of them, Stinky, the tale of a smelly, cranky monster who learns about friendship. Their other two fall releases are Jack and the Box, by Spiegelman, and Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever, written by Jay Lynch and drawn by Dean Haspiel. People should know that, if they thought Top Shelf's kiddie books were a little young for adults, they'll definitely think so with these. They're just a bit more "I can read" than driven by narrative, and none is as weird as Yam or Johnny Boo or Corgi, which seem geared more to entertainment than to education. Not that educationally oriented books are bad, and if you're trying to get kids into comics, doing so through school seems like a smart way to hook 'em, but, um, these were a little boring, right?

Garrett Martin: I wouldn't call them boring, especially not Stinky, which charmed the stuffing out of me. Well, okay, I would call Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever boring, if only because we can compare that directly to other kid-targeted superhero books like the Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC lines, and note that it simply isn't as fun or exciting as most of those comics. I wasn't overly impressed with Jack and the Box either, but I wouldn't call it boring, since it aims for a younger audience than the other two, is specifically labeled as a "first comic for beginning readers" (or something), and thus probably should have little to offer adults like us other than overwhelming cuteness. Which it does, what with all the baby ducks and what-not. It's a book for two or three-year-olds, and they'll probably love it.

Stinky, though, was really good, trumping the other two in most aspects. The art was cuter and more detailed than both of the other books, the story slightly deeper and less blatant in its moral than Mo and Jo, and the humor both sweeter and quirkier than the either two. I wouldn't recommend Stinky to teenagers or immature adults, but I think audiences of all ages can find something to appreciate here. Maybe we're biased towards Athenians, or maybe it's because Davis has far more to prove than Spiegelman, Lynch, or Haspiel, but Stinky totally outclasses the other two books.

HB: No, I totally agree. Davis is a rare talent, as is clear from everything else I've read by her. She has a real gift for depicting relationships, especially ones that have ugly aspects, in a way that's realistic and forgiving at the same time, and while Stinky undoubtedly simplifies this approach, it also still has some of its characteristics. The body language of her characters is usually the most revealing thing about them, especially when it comes to emotions like anxiety, and the panel in which Stinky realizes the hat he's chucked into the supposedly bottomless pit is, in fact, the boy's lucky hat is a great example of wordless communication. The book's also got all kinds of subsidiary messages that reinforce the main one of not jumping to conclusions, such as Stinky's discovery that apples, against which he's been prejudiced, are actually delicious. How can you not like a book that suggests kids should try more foods?

On the whole, I'd agree with your ranking. The Spiegelman is totally cute but extremely simple, and the Lynch/Haspiel is the weakest of the three. The art even has aspects that wig me out, like the pouty lips on the little girl, and the writing is annoyingly straightforward. Even if you know where Stinky is going from the beginning, it's less sing-songy and obvious in the way it gets there, while Mo and Jo, despite the entertaining villain, just seems, I dunno, preachy?

GM: Preachy isn't the first word Mo and Jo made me think of, but it does fit. Lynch and Haspiel kind of beat you over the head with the teamwork bit. I expected them to start singing the Wonder Pets song near the end. But it's also too straight-forward, a little too simple, in too much of a rush to get to its obvious conclusion, and just generally not particularly interesting. And I'm normally interested in superhero stuff to an embarrassing degree. I love the design on the villain, Saw-Jaw, but I wish his dialogue and speech pattern were as memorable and unique as his appearance. I don't know, it just seems like there isn't as much effort on display with Mo and Jo as with the other two.

And yes, you're spot-on about Davis's knack for body language and facial expressions. Stinky is such an expressive little guy, and through him and her art Davis wrung some genuine emotion out of me. And she packs the book full of the kind of background details that can make a children's book entertaining for everybody (or at least me), like squirrels reading books and chipmunks wearing top hats and spectacles. Stinky is the only one of the three that makes me want to run out and buy more of the artist's books.

I feel compelled to bring up Jack and the Box again, if only to point out that I don't want to give it short shrift, but there's really not a lot to say about it. It's basically Spiegelman's perfectly cute yet slight take on Dr. Seuss. I appreciate it's timeless appeal, as it easily could have existed twenty to sixty years ago, and little kids should love it. It's not quite distinct enough to become any sort of enduring classic, but it's an entirely solid, acceptable, and minor aside by a true great.

HB: I think that's a very fair assessment of Jack and the Box. I haven't read his previous children's effort, Open Me, I'm a Dog, but I imagine it's similar. The rhyming isn't as over the top as Seuss's, nor is the chaos created, but it's like a good introduction to Seuss, for kids who don't need as much stimulation (with words or action or color), kind of like the way you're not supposed to put salt in your homemade baby food because babies can't even deal with that yet. It seems a little bland, but, in fact, it's correctly calculated for the audience.

We should also mention that these are lovely little books, with a cute endpaper design that's the same in all of them, some nice spot-gloss varnishes on the covers, good solid binding that should hold up to abuse, etc. Some children's books are disposable in their production, but these are not. Like everything else Mouly has produced, they are carefully crafted and they don't skimp on quality. I may be a tiny bit underwhelmed with the first round of three books (considered as a whole), but I'll certainly be curious to see what Toon Books comes out with in the next quarter.

GM: Oh yeah, the books look amazing. I don't know anything about book design or manufacturing, but they've done an esxcellent job with this line, and I can't wait to see what they have in store for the future. Now I just have to decide which group of nieces and nephews will get to keep which books.