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Nursery Rhyme Comics

Nursery Rhyme Comics hasn’t Sendak’s sharp teeth. Indeed at times it shrinks from controversy. Though some pieces mock authority with a nearly Caldecott-like spirit—say, Eleanor Davis’s “The Queen of Hearts,” or Aaron Renier’s “The Lion and the Unicorn”—and others attain a very Caldecott-like verbal/visual irony—Sakai’s “Hector Protector,” or Drew Weing’s “Baa-Baa, Black Sheep”—in most cases the rhymes’ possible implications, or even outright assaults, are soft-pedaled. Lucy Knisley’s “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” for instance, reinterprets the severity of the rhyme—

She gave them some broth without any bread
Then whipped them all soundly
And put them to bed

—in an innocuous fashion, turning the old woman into a benevolent aging rock ’n’ roller and the “whipping” into a musical frolic:

Lucy Knisley's Old Woman

This is clever, as a way of solving a difficult editorial problem, but robs the rhyme of its provoking bluntness. Similarly, Raina Telgemeier’s “Georgie Porgie”—you know, the one about the boy who “kissed the girls and made them cry”—locates the story in an adult-supervised (well, almost supervised) birthday party, where young Georgie’s indiscretion is only a minor outbreak of the carnivalesque within an eminently safe context. Georgie’s face, you see, is smeared with pie, and so he gets a girl messy, hence the upset. Telgemeier stays away from other kinds of inferences that might have been drawn from the poem’s gendered antics. Ditto Vanessa Davis’s “Cindereller,” with its lines about the title girl “kiss[ing] a snake,” getting a “bellyache,” and requiring the help of “doctors,” all of which Davis literalizes, without plumbing the level of insinuation that seems so invitingly there in the rhyme:

Vanessa Davis's Cindereller

(See by contrast Thomas’s reading of “Miss Lucy had a steamboat” in Poetry’s Playground, a veritable minefield of Freudian suggestions!)

There are a number of pieces in NRC that interpret the rhymes with this kind of blank-faced literalism. In other words, some of the comics in NRC are less inventive, or less engaged, than I would like.

Yet NRC does belong to the same tradition as Caldecott, and at its best plays the same game. Some of its contributors play it quite well, that is, creatively, dreaming up unexpected and witty elaborations. If the book doesn’t burn consistently bright, its highlights are high enough, offering startling back-stories and, comparable to Caldecott, finding ways to use the rhythmic resources of the medium—in this case comics—to reinforce the rhythms of the verse. Whereas Caldecott capitalized on the rhythms of quickly-turned picture book pages, the best pieces in NRC capitalize on the potential of the comics page (or in some cases the two-page spread) as structure. The effect is a beguiling kind of visual translation: one rhythm to another.

Davis’s “Queen of Hearts,” for instance, uses elaborate split panels, continuous action, and diagrammatic captions to develop a full story in two pages, one in which characters, plot, and even moral point of view are well realized. Elaborating with aplomb, Davis makes the thieving Knave of Hearts a sympathetic, Robin Hood-like figure out to rebalance an oppressive social hierarchy (in this she is very Caldecott-like):

Eleanor Davis's The Queen of Hearts

Davis manages, in a tight space, to build a dense yet highly readable comic. She exploits a particular color scheme and multiple layers of text, most prominently the original rhyme, to guide the eye, also to win our sympathies and set up a delicious implied resolution (you’ll have to see the second page for yourself). This is a smart comic—as good as I’d expect from the author of the super-ingenious Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook.

A similar formalism, with regular panel grids and regular rhythms, marks several other pieces in the book. For example, Marc Rosenthal’s take on “My Name is Yon Yonson” (an infinite looping rhyme rather like the infamous “Song That Never Ends”) uses uniform horizontal strips across the two-page spread, along with bleeds at the top left and bottom right, to imply that the rhyme will go on forever, endlessly cycling through the spread. In a very different vein, Craig Thompson’s sexy (!) adaptation of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” mixes his usual voluptuous brushwork with a consistent yet fluidly organic design in which ocean waves and other horizontals divide the metapanel that is the page, and bullseye panels visually rhyme with one another as well as with the round shapes evoked in the poem (the wedding ring, the moon):

Rowr! Craig Thompson's Owl and Pussycat

Likewise ingenious is Jordan Crane’s crazed vaudevillean take on “Old Mother Hubbard,” which builds on a classical six-panel grid and repeating color scheme to emphasize the rhyme’s deadpan absurdism. Naturally, the dog steals the show:

Jordan Crane's Mother Hubbard

Most delicious in this regard is Cyril Pedrosa’s “This Little Piggy,” in which his lively, hilarious cartooning is laid out as a series of discrete one- and two-tier strips with uniformly sized panels, each devoted to a single line from the poem:

Cyril Pedrosa's This Little Piggy

The total effect is one of patterning and repetition but also comic surprise (again, you’ll have to read the whole thing for yourself).

Besides clever formalism, NRC brims with delightful cartooning, from Stephanie Yue’s quick, agile mouse in “Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” through Mignola’s eerie “Solomon Grundy,” very much in recognizable Hellboy territory yet absolutely right for the poem, to Laura Park’s “‘Croak,’ Said the Toad,” with its gluttonous, self-indulgent toad and frog. I laughed at many of the entries, and gazed wonderingly at some too. One of my favorites, Mo Oh’s “Hush, Little Baby,” unites formalism and peppy cartooning, translating the back-and-forth, question-and-answer form of the poem into a cascading series of small panels that tumble down the page, giving voice to the child’s challenges and the papa’s reassuring replies:

Mo Oh's Hush, Little Baby

That Nursery Rhyme Comics welcomes among its contributors such relative newcomers as Oh, and that these artists contribute some of the best comics in it, makes the book doubly impressive. Diversity in style, outlook, and genre of origin distinguishes NRC’s artistic roster, and enlivens the book, overcoming the occasional timidity of its editorial choices. However, I do wish there were more diversity in the cultural origins of the rhymes themselves. One thing I try to get my students to do when discussing nursery rhymes is identifying ones in languages and traditions other than the Anglo-American, for example in Spanish, Armenian, Thai, or French, because of course there are many such rhymes around the world, and I do have students who know some of them. It’s just that they tend not to think of these rhymes as “nursery rhymes,” because their understanding of the genre has been boxed in by the Mother Goose tradition. While NRC gestures toward greater inclusiveness in its images, most of its chosen rhymes are decidedly English. The inclusion of verse from other languages, with or without complete translation, would only have enhanced the diversity of the project.

Apart from that, Nursery Rhyme Comics is terrific. It doesn’t traffic in playground poetry—it’s not as scrappy and aggressive as that—but does impressively extend the rhyming book tradition that reaches back, through Caldecott, to the very roots of the picture book. Most importantly, there are comics in NRC that I will be reading and gazing at again and again, for their verve, ingenuity, and high spirits.


14 Responses to Nursery Rhyme Comics

  1. patrick ford says:

    Charles, Great idea for a regular column and a topic which is of particular interest to me because I have young children.

    What really got me thinking about this was reading to my kids when they were very young. As an adult you will notice right away that children’s literature often deals with the very same themes found in the most challenging adult fiction.

    A book like E.B. White’s Stuart Little can stand along side Salinger.

    And Salinger is a good measure of just how quickly children can learn to appreciate what is seen as adult literature. Kids very quickly form a solid understanding of human nature, and at a very young age they are able to read “difficult” books.

    Just recently my eight year old son was assigned Robinson Crusoe. Not surprisingly the children were assigned an abridged version of the book. Personally I can’t tolerate abridged books, so I had him read the original text. This began with some difficulty due mainly to Defoe’s sentence structure and writing style. To encourage him I read several chapters aloud to him, and sure enough he quickly became engaged by the book, and began reading it on his own.

    You may be aware of the documentary about the success Albert Cullum had teaching Shakespeare to children.
    http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/touchofgreatne

    • Patrick:

      A book like E.B. White’s Stuart Little can stand along side Salinger.

      Oh yeah. I agree completely. Sometimes students are surprised to hear me say things like,

      “So, in conclusion, Charlotte’s Web turns out to be about the power of friendship and most especially of Art to overcome or at least reconcile with the fear of death.”

      But when I say such things I stand by them. :)

      Glad you enjoyed the first installment, Patrick!

    • AJA says:

      I hate abridged books too. I thought I read The Time Machine in fourth grade, but when I picked it up again in ninth, realized that I read the abridged version.

      • patrick ford says:

        AJA, Speaking of Wells, The War of the Worlds is another my son has just read. There is enough plot in the whole book for a shorty story. The bulk of it is all descriptive. The description is not just empty decoration though, it’s key to the points Wells is trying to make about man. The amazing amount of time Wells spends describing the roiling hordes fleeing the Martians is needed to put across the message. Welles is telling us, “Look how easily man, who thinks he is far removed from other animals, is reduced to a basic animal state.”

        If you reduce Crusoe, or War of the Worlds down to an adventure story, and a science fiction story you strip them of their value.

  2. Serhend Sirkecioglu says:

    Rly good review. I’m definitely going to check this out, this looks like a good gateway comic for ages 2-4 or 5 and we need more of those. If this gets off the ground(adapted nusery ryhmes, fables and fairy tail comic anthologies for kids) this could be a good way for a young cartoonist to hone their storytelling chops. I’m wondering if D&Q would be going in this direction in the future since some of their artists are or becoming parents?

    • Thanks, Serhend, for the encouraging words. I do think we’re in the midst of a renascence in children’s comics (hence the column), so I can only echo your hopes.

      Re: gateway comics for the very young, TOON Books has made notable strides in that area, though I’m not entirely convinced by every TOON title. More on that in future installments, I think. :)

  3. Perry Nodelman says:

    If the words of “Cindereller” can insinuate something beyond the literal, then I’m wondering if a literal visual illustration of those words wouldn’t insinuate the same things. And isn’t the pleasure in the insinuation as opposed to coming out in the open with it? Might not a picture that revealed what the text insinuates undermine the apparently intended effect? Or maybe spoil some of the fun? You’re raising some interesting questions here about the relationship between words on their own meaning more than they say and how pictures can add to or change the meanings of the words.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, all!

    Perry, you raise a very good point here:

    I’m wondering if a literal visual illustration of those words wouldn’t insinuate the same things. And isn’t the pleasure in the insinuation as opposed to coming out in the open with it? Might not a picture that revealed what the text insinuates undermine the apparently intended effect?

    Of course there’s never complete redundancy between words and pictures, not even in cases where the image seems neutrally “faithful” to the text. The two media are different, and their combination never produces a mere redundancy (a point well made in Schwarcz’s Ways of the Illustrator and your own Words about Pictures). In any case, even a faithful “unpacking” of implicit meanings does not merely confirm or make obvious; its adds something, a layering, a depth or complexity, to the experience.

    In any case, I was a bit hard on Vanessa Davis’s contribution to NRC, since in general I think she’s a terrific cartoonist (I’ve reviewed her Make Me a Woman, which is excellent). The pieces in NRC that interest me most engage the rhythm of the rhymes in ways that are specific to the rhythmic possibilities of comics design—which is probably why Eleanor Davis’s “The Queen of Hearts” really stands out in my memory. That “Cindereller” doesn’t get smutty enough is perhaps a side issue. :)

    • PS @ Perry: It occurs to me that my interest in rhythmic interplay of text and image is precisely anticipated by the chapter “The Rhythms of Picture-Book Narrative” in your Words about Pictures. But what I’m really digging about NRC is its particular use of the rhythms of the comics page.

      Readers, check here for a preview of Perry’s book if you’re unfamiliar with it!

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  6. Rob Clough says:

    Charles, love the column and this review in particular. I’m one of the few comics critics that also reviews a lot of comics aimed at kids, and there have been a lot of really good ones of late (glad to see you name The Secret Science Alliance, which was an oustanding book).

    I assume one of your upcoming columns will cover the Toon Books line? The Eleanor Davis book Stinky is excellent, but just as good are the books by Geoffrey Hayes (Rory Hayes’ older brother).

    I’ll be curious to hear your take on Raina Telgemeier, as well.

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