REVIEWS

Melvin Monster: Volume 3

The third volume of John Stanley’s Melvin Monster is the last, and prints the final issues of the original series. As with all of the volumes in the Seth-designed John Stanley Library, it’s aimed primarily at children, and packaged with them in mind. As such, it’s designed to flow like a series of stories for anyone to enjoy, rather than acting to preserve a specific set of reprints. That has annoyed a number of collectors, particularly because of the publisher’s decision to omit the original covers. Those same collectors will be pleased to know that all of the series’ original covers are reprinted in the back of this volume, though eight of the nine covers are reprinted four to a page. While not ideal, Stanley’s line is simple enough to convey each cover’s gag quite adequately.

The main attraction of this series is Stanley’s artwork. The beautiful simplicity of his character design makes each one a walking gag machine. Young Melvin, the kid monster who is a disgrace because he’s nice and doesn’t get up to mischief like all the other monsters, not only has a pointy head, but that pointy head is integral to any number of jokes. (The best is Melvin shooting himself at an animated totem pole.) A lot of the humor is driven by funny drawings, like a giant monster baby kept in a “crib” that is a cage with a huge padlock on it. When Melvin gets away from him, he’s alarmed to discover that the crib has wheels. Another great repeated gag sees his friendly enemy Little Horror turning him into a series of part-boy, part-frog hybrids.

Stanley the writer isn’t featured quite as prominently in this volume. Stanley’s at his best when he takes a simple premise and is able to craft a complicated plot around it, throwing in gag after gag while escalating the circumstances of the story to hysterical levels before resolving it with a topper gag. Stanley even manages to keep a continued storyline going through a series of shorter stories, each with its own closing gag. You can see this in the fantastic Thirteen (Going On Eighteen), Tubby, and of course his classic Little Lulu comics. Those comics are far less high-concept than the Munsters/Addams Family style of humor found in Melvin Monster, but their stories flow out of the rock-solid characterization developed in each.

In earlier volumes, Stanley tried to develop longer and more complicated storylines surrounding Melvin’s status as an outcast in his monster society. His journey to “Human Bean Land” in particular was a highlight, stacking gags as noted earlier. In this installment, Stanley stops attempting this type of story, sticking instead to a stock series of set-ups. Those involve the family’s pet crocodile Cleopatra trying to eat Melvin, Melvin trying to enroll in the local school against the wishes of the teacher, and Melvin getting up to shenanigans with Little Horror. Stanley is quite adept at coming up with variations on a gag, but what’s disappointing is that he isn’t able to evolve the comic’s stable of characters nor its stock set-ups over the course of the series. The stories get shorter and the gags get simpler in the last few issues of the original series.

The highlight of the volume is “Supermonster”, a story that plays on the weird tension between Melvin and  “Baddy,” his father. In any other kind of story, the abuse and neglect Baddy heaps on Melvin would cast him as a villain; here, he’s mostly just a buffoon doing what everyone else does. That said, Melvin is quite aware that his dad doesn’t have his best interests at heart. In this story, Baddy prefers to put his son in harm’s way of an all-devouring monster about to wake up from a long sleep rather than confront it himself. Indeed, he hopes to become famous as the father of the little monster who puts Supermonster to sleep! When Melvin enters the monster’s cave, Stanley utilizes a series of enormous sound effects to get across the size of the monster and the peril he puts Melvin into. Stanley stacks the action of this strip’s gags with a topper gag involving a “stretcher bird’s” egg which, after Melvin confuses it for a sleeping pill, winds up attacking Baddy’s nose.

The final gag of the series sees Melvin using a chemistry set to turn himself into an ordinary human boy (to his great delight) and then reversing the effect when he hears his father about to walk by. It’s a gag that sums up the series. Melvin is a Candide-type innocent, a straight man in a crazy world who desires a normal life but is given nothing but chaos. I think Drawn & Quarterly was wise to market this so directly to children. The figures are simple, direct, and easy to understand. The colors are bright and border on garish (especially the backgrounds, which fill up negative space with non-naturalistic pastels). It features monsters doing silly things and mixes laughter and violence in a way that children always find funny. It’s not the sort of series that generates the sort of affection for a character the way Little Lulu does, but it still features a cartoonist in Stanley who understands a trend and how to put his own stamp on it.

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12 Responses to Melvin Monster: Volume 3

  1. chris says:

    re: melvin gag from monster to normal boy and back again….

    new yorker dec 28 1946 [pg 68-69] world of chas addams

  2. Nicholas Gazin says:

    These are all pretty well made points. Melvin Monster is one of mavorite things.

  3. DiamondDulius says:

    I love these reprints, but D&Q really fumbled the ball in not reprinting the covers… I can certainly understand wanting children to read comics, but is D&Q really naive enough to think children (instead of adults) are actually who’s buying these books? Besides, how in the world would the covers alienate kids who would be likely to read them… good books, good reprint series, but could have been much better…

  4. PW says:

    They did reprint the covers. All the covers to Melvin Monster are in the back of Vol. 3.

  5. DiamondDulius says:

    Yeah, four to a page… that’s really half-assed!! What’s particularly frustrating is the fact that they have pages separating the issues, but instead of the covers, they just have a Seth-designed page… besides, I didn’t pick up vol. 3 because I was frustrated with the previous 2… these are nice books, but I’d hesitate to call them definitive…

  6. patrick ford says:

    The ideas expressed for not including the covers don’t make any sense to me. The Title, price, and date, could easily have been cropped off without affecting the look of the cover art.

    The thing is the covers are brilliant. Stanley’s covers for Melvin, Lulu, Tubby, etc. are as good as high quality New Yorker cartoons. Exceptionally good ones which in no way are out of place. Just the opposite they compliment the rest of the contents by showing off the same characters in what are really colour gag panels. What could be better? You would have multi-page stories, one page stories, and panel cartoons, all featuring the same characters.

  7. PW says:

    D&Q made design choices. Choices are always debatable. Obviously, you can never please everyone.

  8. DiamondDulius says:

    @patrick ford: I couldn’t have put it better myself! The covers were integral to Stanley’s art!! His simple, subtle covers on all his series were works of art! D&Q, being a company that has championed the artistic merit of comics over and over, shouldn’t have made such a mistake… they know better!!

    @PW: The thing is, I don’t know ANYONE who is pleased with this choice!! “Thank goodness D&Q did away with all those covers getting in the way!” These books could have been done so much better!! From another publisher I might be a little bit more forgiving, but D&Q set such a high standard with much of their other books… a major fumble on their part. There should also be a bit more bio material, historical perspective, etc… in these books. The “Thirteen…” book has been the best of the lot, not only because of superior material, but because of Seth’s intro, which places the comics in the historical perspective they should. Also, the entire “Melvin” series should have been one book instead of three small ones… D&Q’s choices on this series have really been inexplicable so far…

  9. Rob Clough says:

    Omitting the covers has indeed been a controversial choice for D&Q. In my review of the previous volume, I said that doing so was a deliberate design choice because of the audience they had in mind: children. They specifically did NOT want bio material, history etc for Melvin Monster/Nancy/Tubby because this is something adults are interested in, not kids. They also felt that including the covers with the narrative would have detracted from the flow of the stories. Whether or not one agrees with this decision, it was obviously not random. (Hence the decision to have three smaller, easier-to-hold Melvin books, not one larger volume–easier for kids to hold.). I think one can legitimately criticize D&Q for not making “definitive” volumes–but that’s not **at all** what they are going for in the John Stanley Library series. Seth is going for a series that children can read and enjoy with a very particular aesthetic on his part.

  10. DiamondDulius says:

    But the “Thirteen…” book is also in the same JSL series… why would they make one for adults and the others for kids? And why would the covers detract from the narrative flow, while chapter-separating pages (placed specifically between issues) doesn’t? Also, why include the covers in the third volume, four to a page? And the pricing for these books has no consistency, either… the first “Melvin” is $20, while the second volume (basically the same size) jumps $5… the first Nancy is $25, while the second jumps to $30!! Meanwhile, the “Thirteen…” book (THREE times as big as a single “Melvin” volume) is priced at $25! To me, it just looks like they didn’t plan these books as well as they should have. And, really… as I stated before, does anyone honestly think more children are reading these as opposed to adults?

  11. Rob Clough says:

    Let me take your points one at a time.

    1. With Thirteen, the extra material was added and the book was larger because the material wasn’t strictly for little kids.

    2. With regard to the covers, I’m guessing that they thought the chapter breaks (which didn’t always neatly correspond to issue breaks–check the page counts) would be obviously decorative, as opposed to the covers (especially if they included text). I’m guessing they threw in the covers to throw a bone to everyone who was complaining about their absence, though putting them four to a page, I will agree, was not an optimal solution. I’m guessing they didn’t have enough room to put all of them in at full size.

    3. I didn’t talk to anyone about the prices, but I’m guessing they felt they had to bump things up to make money–and perhaps didn’t have a great sense of what they needed to charge (at first) to do so.

    4. Hard to answer that question. I can tell you that they are aiming it at children, in much the same way the Moomin books are being aimed at kids. I’m not sure how easy it is to measure such a thing (who’s reading it) beyond anecdote.

    The design for these books is personal and idiosyncratic, to be sure. Seth is clearly aiming at a book he wished he had had when he was a kid, something not unlike a Golden Book. It’s not aimed at collectors or purists, which may or may not turn out to be a mistake in terms of sales. I guess we’ll have to see if they continue to crank these out.

    I should note that I don’t necessarily have a dog in this fight. I like the books but understand the objections. I’m simply trying to explain Seth and D&Q’s point of view, as I understand it.

  12. DiamondDulius says:

    Hmm, let’s see…

    1. I don’t know about that… if the “Thirteen…” book was for a different audience, why does it’s designs adhere to earlier books? Why is it part of the same series? Also, if these books are marketed specifically for kids, as you say, why are the pages made to look old and “nostalgic”? That is strictly an attempt to appeal to collectors… kids would run screaming from anything considered “old”… no, I think D&Q simply planned these books poorly.

    2. Again, poor planning… I have yet to see anyone state that leaving the covers out (particularly in favor of the decorative pages Seth designed) is a good move or improves the overall product. And I still have yet to understand D&Q’s reasoning… why in the world do they think including the covers would alienate children? If anything, the material itself would not be to today’s kids liking.

    3. I certainly agree with your statement about they “didn’t have a great sense of what they needed to charge…”, truth is, their decision making in this instance leads me to believe they really should have planned everything about these books a little more carefully and been more consistent in design and pricing.

    4. Refer to #2… certainly you realize that very few children today are going to care about these books… the material is antiquated and old fashioned. The books are priced to keep them out of kid’s hands… almost as much as a video game! And the characters are basically unknown… in a comic shop full of recognizable characters from Batman to Donald Duck, most children are simply not going to care about Tubby or Melvin. And, although today’s children might be aware of Nancy, I doubt any are fans.

    As far as the covers and overall design of these books go, I have no problem… I’ve bought most of them and will continue to do so, particularly if and when another “Thirteen…” book comes out. I just expected more from D&Q, who have a history of not only quality material, but having their finger on the pulse of their readers. The mistakes in this series are embarrassing for a company with a history like D&Q. If they honestly thought their main audience for these books was going to be little kids, they seriously need to do some more thinking… in the mean time, I hope they get smart and start putting the covers in these books!!!

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