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.

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