TERRY GROSS, host:
Our critic Milo Miles, who usually reviews music, also loves comic books. He has a review of a new collection called "The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics." The book is edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, who co-founded the avant-garde comic series "Raw." Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for "Maus," a memoir in the form of a comic. Mouly is the art editor of The New Yorker.
MILO MILES: Heartfelt thanks to Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly for bringing back a nearly forgotten popular artform with their "Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics." The superhero mode has so dominated - you want to say deformed - comic books for so long that few folks younger than 50 can remember the wonderful diverse subject matter of comics' early days.
As Spiegelman and Mouly point out, the '40s and early '50s were the boom years for comics, with hundred of titles and millions in sales. That's a lot of dimes. However, cartoons on TV, rising prices, and the sense that only superheroes were cool in the '60s, led kid comics into a permanent decline.
"The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics" offers a potent argument that this was a loss for family entertainment. Spiegelman and Mouly do this by selecting only humorous stories — true funny books — and by avoiding any dated stereotypes. This means, unfortunately, that there are no black characters in this book. Paging through mountainous piles of comics, the editors selected more material by four artist-writers than any others, all but one of them unknown to the general public.
Walt Kelly is still kind of famous because of his "Pogo" newspaper comic. Carl Barks, the creator of "Uncle Scrooge," and the finest of the Walt Disney comic artists, is a giant in Europe but a cult figure here. You have to be a comic book fan to know that Little Lulu was written by John Stanley, or even that "Little Lulu" was a marvelous comic. And finally, only the hardcore now remember Sheldon Mayer, who did "Sugar and Spike" and many other titles. Mayer made his mark when he insisted his bosses include a much-rejected work in the first issue of Action Comics. You may have heard of it — something called "Superman."
Mayer was a master of gentle humor with a slapstick twist. Didn't matter if it was Sugar and Spike, his wised-up babies who were all for each other in a world of adults they couldn't understand, or the goofy blowhard J. Rufus Lion. Kelly does a dollop of Pogo, but his equally droll treatment of fairy tale conventions is a revelation. John Stanley made Little Lulu one of the most confident female characters in comics, stuck with grownup fools and stuck-up boys in an absurd world. And Carl Barks is one of the most deft and inventive American humorists and storytellers in any field. The man makes you crazy about talking ducks, whether they are taking pratfalls or facing down great danger. Barks inspired Indiana Jones, but he's better.
Not everything by other artists works. No incarnation of "Dennis the Menace" or "Archie" has ever done much for me. And an old lesson holds true: The more overtly didactic a story, the less funny, which damages characters like intellectual Amos. However, the overall lack of ironic humor is refreshing, and it's interesting how many comics expected an audience thoroughly familiar with classic fairy tales and at least a bit familiar with life on a farm. Spiegelman and Mouly were also correct that wit outlasts thrills, in comics at least.
There were a couple vintage superheroes with a sense of humor, Jack Cole's Plasticman and C. C. Beck's Captain Marvel, and both artist-writers are represented in "The Toon Treasury." Truth is, however, most of the comic book westerns and crime tales and superhero sagas of the '40s and '50s don't hold up well today. The nostalgic glow soon fades into tedium. But "Sugar and Spike," "Little Lulu" and "Tubby," and "Donald Duck" and "Uncle Scrooge" remain as vibrant and timeless as the fairies and knights and genies that so much inspired them.
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed "The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics," edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. You can download podcasts of show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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