Of course it’s a new riff on old stuff, with at times a deliberately anachronistic feel. Nursery rhymes, like many pastimes rooted in oral tradition, are both conservative, preserving the words and reference points of earlier cultures, and dynamic, changing with the changing times. Their sources are many, including popular songs, games, and literary as well as anonymous traditional verse (for a go-to source on the subject, you still can’t beat Iona and Peter Opie’s Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, first published in 1951, revised in 1997). In some ways they’re a marginal genre, occupying the corners, crannies, and interstices of culture—and yet they are practically an inescapable part of childhood as we know it, and many children’s first entryway to poetry (this is almost certainly why NRC came about in the first place). Interestingly, they inhabit a cultural space that adjoins the rude directness of children’s folk rhymes, that is, playground poetry, as well as the more adult-approved, hence publishable, genre that scholar Joseph Thomas calls “domesticated” playground poetry, or (following John Rowe Townsend) urchin poetry.
Thomas, in his important study Poetry’s Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children’s Poetry (2007), posits playground poetry as a rich poetic tradition in itself, typically rough, antiauthoritarian, and coarse, sometimes even brutally scatological, but often formally ingenious, phonologically and metrically playful, and insanely catchy, hence perfect for accompanying social and physical activities such as games. Such verse is by nature unsentimental, carnivalesque, and hyper-aware of the body, both as subject matter and as the very instrument of the poet’s performance (40-46). It sometimes alarms adults who overhear it. Urchin poetry, by comparison, is tame, or tamer anyway, yet linked to playground poetry’s mocking spirit, its habits of flyting and invective, its rejection of lyricism, and its flouting of social if not poetic convention (61-62). An accepted commercial genre, urchin verse domesticates the rebellious nastiness of the playground, harkening back to Mother Goose rhymes but also tapping into various literary sources, notably mid-20th century children’s verse by all-around poets like John Ciardi and Theodore Roethke. Urchin verse now includes canonical children’s writers like Michael Rosen, Roald Dahl, and, most especially these days, the commercial titans Jack Prelutsky and (the late but still prolific!) Shel Silverstein. All these poets channel the nursery rhyme tradition in that their work strives for musicality, playfulness, and, often, contained naughtiness and teasing mockery.
If nursery rhymes no longer seem “naughty” to us—and it’s true that Nursery Rhyme Comics is not very naughty—that’s because, first of all, the canon of widely known and accepted nursery rhymes is very selective; second, we’re removed from the historical origins of the most famous rhymes, by which I mean the language and customs of the people who spoke them when they were new (or newer); and, third, other kinds of playground verse—for example, riffs on popular song—have stolen the spotlight from the old rhymes, consigning Mother Goose & Co. to adult-mediated spheres like libraries and schools, thus giving them the whiff of official Culture rather than joyous outlawry. NRC, naturally, treats both Mother Goose and comics as outlets of official Culture, though in it I can still see, faintly, traces of the old rhymes’ nose-thumbing impudence.
It’s not easy to make interesting comics out of nursery rhymes. Visually interpreting them is a challenge because of their fundamental evasiveness, which belies their assumed simplicity. For texts so often credited with transparency, they turn out to be, very often, maddeningly opaque. As Marcus observes, though the rhymes may sound “emphatically clear about themselves,” in fact they’re in the habit of “leaving almost everything to our imagination” (1). If we approach them narratively, in search of character, plot, conflict, or moral, we are bound to be frustrated. Basically, nursery rhymes are occasions for wordplay, for informal spoken art—less a matter of grounded storytelling than, as John Ciardi says, “the child’s pleasure of tasting the syllables on the tongue” (qtd. in Thomas 70). The miniature stories that they propose, if indeed they qualify as stories at all—often they consist of little more than a couple of striking images—may be simply warrants for playing with sound. In some cases those stories end in midair. In many cases their possible meanings, though not necessarily cloaked in euphemism, are historically obscure; nothing is unpacked, nothing glossed. Some rhymes are simply, gleefully, nonsensical. Therefore artists who seek to interpret them must indulge in what Marcus calls “back-story elaboration” (2)—literally, drawing inferences about what the rhymes might mean.
Such rhymes short-circuit Alexander Pope’s old saw about sound needing to echo sense—that textbook truism—by asserting an antic soundfulness at the expense of paraphrasable plot. Sense comes second to play. After all, nursery rhymes, rooted as they are in folk poetry and social pastime, are the manipulables of language play: the Play-Doh or building blocks of spoken art. They invite saying or singing aloud, and embodied, interactive goofing around (London Bridge, anyone? Red Rover?). It’s a fallacy to assume that we outgrow them; often we’re compelled to revisit and try to make sense out of them—a fool’s game, I’m tempted to say, but it’s one that Nursery Rhyme Comics has to play.
In any case, it’s a venerable tradition, for some of the earliest and most influential children’s picture books took their texts from folk rhymes or other preexisting verse, embroidering on the words with suggestive images. From mid-eighteen century chapbooks to the clever, insinuating toy books of the nineteenth-century Randolph Caldecott and beyond, nursery rhyme books were, are, staples of children’s reading. They provide excuses for unconstrained pictorial invention while invoking the familiar comforts of custom. Maurice Sendak’s expert appreciation of Caldecott, in his collection of essays Caldecott & Co. (1988), spotlights two things that earned Caldecott his notoriety: one, the subversive “counterpoint” Caldecott devised between word and image, a move crucial to the development of modern picture books because it made obvious that illustration is never merely that, i.e., never merely a slavish visualization of the text; two, the intense musical rhythms of Caldecott’s art, meaning its way of spreading snippets of text and accompanying sketches across multiple page openings in order to impart a nonstop rhythmic energy. (For more info, see the Randolph Caldecott Society UK webpage, or approximations of some of his books at Project Gutenberg.) Caldecott is the granddaddy of the contemporary picture book based on nursery rhymes, the one who most forcefully showed how a skilled visual/verbal artist could bring new forms of provocation and irony to a prior text. Sendak, probably the most committed student of Caldecott to ever win a Caldecott Medal, has pursued these insights in all manner of books, but most obviously in two with traditional nursery rhyme texts, Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water (1965) and We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), the latter a withering depiction of poverty in the shadow of rampant capitalism. This is back-story elaboration with a vengeance.