Graphic novels for young readers
By Douglas Wolk,
There are comics for every age, even the very youngest readers. Agnes Rosenstiehl’s “Silly Lilly” books, about a playful little girl observing her environment, are brief, simple, incredibly sweet and thoroughly in line with the sensibilities of 3-year-olds for whom recognizing every word in a word balloon is a real accomplishment. What Will I Be Today? (Toon, $12.95) finds Lilly experimenting, over the course of a week, with roles she might assume someday. On Tuesday, for instance, she’s a city planner: She finds a couple of concrete beams with some bugs on them, sets them upright and puts them together. “Here!” she declares. “Now we have a bug city.”
The great kids’ cartoonist John Stanley wrote (and sometimes drew) hundreds of comics from the 1940s to the ’60s, most of which remained frustratingly out of print for decades. In the past couple of years, though, dozens of volumes of his work on “Little Lulu,” “Melvin Monster” and other titles have appeared — sometimes even in competing editions. Little Lulu’s Pal Tubby: The Runaway Statue and Other Stories (Dark Horse; paperback, $15.99) collects frequently hilarious 1954-55 Stanley stories about a stout little boy with a sailor hat, his fantasy life (tiny men in a flying saucer lure him into adventures), and the social tensions that anticipate what he’ll face later in life (the wealthy, spoiled Wilbur Van Snobbe is always making time with the little blonde girl Tubby likes). Tubby (Drawn and Quarterly, $29.95) is a pricier, more elegantly designed hardcover that includes about two-thirds of the same material; it omits a piece involving ethnic stereotypes that has aged poorly, but duplicates the best stories from “The Runaway Statue,” including a magnificently surreal farce in which Tubby wakes up with a moustache one morning and ends up in deep trouble because of it.
Before the Smurfs appeared in their familiar TV cartoon show (or their forthcoming movie), the little blue homunculi were the stars of a series of comics by the Belgian cartoonists Yvan Delporte and Peyo. The Smurf King (Papercutz; paperback, $5.99) is one of the earliest Smurf books, originally published in 1965: a sneaky, dryly nutty political satire. When Papa Smurf leaves town on business, the other Smurfs hold an election to figure out who’s in charge. The winner, an ambitious fellow by the name of Smurf, sweeps into office on the strength of duplicitous campaign promises. He promptly crowns himself king. What follows is the inevitable progression of dictatorships: forced labor, the concentration of capital, extralegal imprisonments, revolutionary plots, counterrevolutionary crackdowns and ultimately “a horrible scene of smurficidal struggle,” largely conducted via thrown tomatoes. Delporte and Peyo were writing for two audiences at once: Kids may see only the giddy adventure story, but their parents will catch the stinging wit beneath it.
A variety show about puppets isn’t the most likely source material for great comics, but Roger Langridge is the rare cartoonist with a knack for both vaudeville-style gags and Jim Henson’s signature character comedy. The latest collection of Langridge’s work on the Muppet Show Comic Book: Muppet Mash (Boom Kids!; paperback, $9.99), is his riff on horror-movie cliches, and it’s so dead-on it’s like having another four great episodes of the old TV series. In one chapter, the perfectly named guest star Howlin’ Jack Talbot displays disturbing lupine characteristics; in another, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew decides to transplant his assistant Beaker’s brain into a giant robot. Mostly, though, these stories are an excuse for Langridge to fire off a barrage of sight gags, Borscht Belt puns and daffy sketches starring characters we almost never see from the waist down. He’s got the Muppets’ voices down perfectly, too. Here’s the Swedish Chef on what to do about Gonzo, who everyone suspects has become a vampire: “Viggle vaggle in der faische mit der goeurlic broed! Mmm-hmm.”
Nick Bertozzi’s Lewis & Clark (First Second; paperback, $16.99) is a treat for history-obsessed high schoolers: a roaring, knotty, digressive account of the 1804-06 expedition to the Pacific Coast that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took at Thomas Jefferson’s behest. Bertozzi’s version downplays the idea of the Lewis & Clark expedition as a great adventure, despite a few jolting moments of danger (a couple of encounters with bears, a death-defying plunge down rapids). Instead, he suggests, their trip was a perpetual battle of attrition against nature, culture clashes, human frailty, ignorance and Lewis’s personal demons. This is a gorgeous book, rendered in vivid, slashing black-and-white brush strokes, with imagery that relies on vivid swaths of negative space as much as on Bertozzi’s gift for caricature and page design. It takes a bit of effort to piece together its barrage of incidents, but that’s what exploration is all about.
Douglas Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.“