Some of the greatest authors ever to write for children have a telling trait in common: They do not sugarcoat childhood. Rather, childhood is a wild thing to be stripped of saccharine sentiment and told plain and straight and laced with pain.
Charles M. Schulz famously plumbed the cruelty among children from the get-go in "Peanuts," with the first strip's line: "Good ol' Charlie Brown...how I hate him!" Ted Geisel wrote of all manner of unvarnished affairs in his "Dr. Seuss" books, from corporate greed to "big brother" McCarthyism to even the falsely robed confidence men who weren't to be trusted by Who-ville's bright-eyed tots.
In the company of such brilliant straight-talkers (and with a debt to the Brothers Grimm) firmly belongs Maurice Sendak, who in the new HBO documentary "Tell Them Anything You Want" says: "I don't believe in children. I don't believe in childhood." To Sendak, those are false demarcations that lead, among other things, to overprotecting our tykes. The famed children's book author adds, in the passage that inspires the title: "Tell them anything you want. Just tell 'em if it's true."
At 81, Sendak is not an avuncular Mister Rogers figure. One of the world's great book illustrators refuses to paint himself in rosy tones. And he may have a new film out this weekend -- the Spike Jonze-directed and -adapted version of Sendak's 1963 classic "Where the Wild Things Are" -- but he does not seem to beam sweetly over its release, except to appreciate that Jonze captured his work's "peculiar" nature. His own curmudgeonly personality, in other words, lacks that same sugar coat.
Perhaps that's one of the true secrets of Sendak's six decades of popularity and success: His works -- like the better works of Schulz and Seuss -- capture the creator's best attempt at personal honesty. Late each year, for example, Linus Van Pelt gives his impassioned "that's what Christmas is all about" soliloquy, quoting from the Book of Luke as Schulz himself might have to puncture commercialization. Each year, innocents combat a Grinch and a Kangaroo and those Wickersham Brothers, revealing social critiques that were also reflected in Geisel's political cartoons. And Sendak -- whose book "In the Kitchen" references the Holocaust -- wanted children to be exposed to a true sense of danger, in all its toothy, hairy, snarling reality.
And for that, the wild rumpus springs eternal.
Today, Comic Riffs pays tribute to this spirit of Sendak with some of our favorite clips:
THE CGI EXPERIMENT: A good decade before John Lasseter would unveil "Toy Story" to the world, the future Pixar founder was experimenting on a version of "Where the Wild Things Are" while with Disney. What's telling and compelling here is how Lasseter and crew were attempting this: By rendering the backgrounds in early CGI but picturing the characters in classic rounded-feature Disney style. (Note: At about the 1:25 mark in this clip, you see how the early '80s test footage came together visually.)
IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN: The great Sendak tale that (as we said earlier) references the Holocausts -- from the mustaches to the ovens -- is beautifully told in animation.
A TALE TO MOVE US: Here's an animated version of "Wild Things," though what's gained in simple movement arguably also forfeits some of the book's charm. Still, great to see another thoughtful incarnation of the tale.
OLD SCHOOL: This crude college Claymation is still a treat to sample, harking back to an era of Rankin-Bass animation.
"THEY ROARED THEIR TERRIBLE ROARS": And last but not least, a narrated video adaptation of the 1963 book that still roars as mightily today.
SO LET IT BE READ: My newsroom neighbor, the esteemed and always entertaining Henry Allen, and I have spent lo these past two weeks often discussing R, CRUMB and his ever-earthy take on Genesis. So it's with true enthusiasm that I point you toward his stellar critique of Crumb's "Genesis Illustrated" in this Sunday's Style & Arts. Enjoy.
QUOTE O' THE DAY:
WILLIAM SHATNER (no stranger to interstellar sexual innuendo), hammily promoting his latest comic book -- based on his "TekWar" sci-fi novels -- at this weekend's Big Apple Comic-Con:
"It's not your grandfather's comic book anymore. It's filled with lust and licentiousness, it's filled with sexual innuendo -- absolutely! It's a mature thing."