The Dragon Slayer

There's no question that Françoise Mouly's publishing company, Toon Books, has had a direct hand in revolutionizing the children's book market. It has done so partly just by being successful: In addition to earning over eighty awards and nominations, the line has been expanded, adding a "Toon Graphics" category designed to appeal to readers seven and over. In interviews, Mouly has said that she tried to sell these books to a variety of publishers over a decade ago, but no one bit. According to her, Random House wanted to do them as traditional comic books, releasing 36 a year, and Mouly turned it down. Many publishers said they liked the books, but didn't know how they would sell them. Amazingly, no one had thought to introduce a line of comics directly aimed at young readers.

Mouly had co-edited several RAW's "Little Lit" books and had a good grasp on what worked and what didn't. What sets Toon Books apart from other children's books is the attention they lavish on production and design. They are attractive, eye-catching objects that are just the right size for a child to hold. They are reminiscent of Little Golden Books in that regard, almost begging to be opened, read, and then treasured on a shelf. The newest direction for the line is an attempt to increase their appeal to Latinx readers. Argentinian cartoonist Liniers has published a couple of books for Toon that have been translated into Spanish, but it wasn't until Toon approached Jaime Hernandez and asked him to choose some folktales specific to Latin America that a real effort to court Latinx readers began.

Hernandez was a perfect choice, not just because he's one of the best craftsmen in comics, but specifically because he has always excelled at drawing children. That is a real problem for a number of cartoonists, who essentially draw small adults instead of understanding what children look like and especially how they move. At the same time, Hernandez has drawn plenty of genre-related stories, from the early days of Maggie the Mechanic encountering dinosaurs to the outer space adventures of Rocky & Fumble to the more recent superhero shenanigans of the Ti-Girls. This assignment was just a mild "change of pace" from his usual Locas narratives, as he says in the book's bio.

He selected three stories from a larger text to adapt. The first, "The Dragon Slayer", carries the most immediate moral of being kind and generous to everyone without expectation of reward. The youngest of three daughters is kicked out of her house after her jealous older sisters make it seem like she stole money from their father. Walking down a long road, she encounters an odd-looking traveler and shares her lunch with her. The traveler gives her a magic wand that can tell her anything she needs to know. That plot device helps her get a job in the castle, slay a dragon, save the prince with a magic ring, and wind up marrying him. Hernandez's monsters and giants are impressive enough, but the real attraction in this story is the way he uses his characters' eyes to do most of the visual narrative's heavy lifting. Even if the story had been silent, the size and shape of the eyes in each panel would have been sufficient in guiding the reader across the page. Throw in his powerful use of gesture and slightly buffoonish character design given to nearly everyone but the girl and the prince, and one finds that the text is almost an afterthought.

"Martina Martinez and Perez the Mouse" feels like Hernandez dipping his toe in territory more often covered by his brother, Gilbert. This tale of life in a small town feels like a story set in Gilbert's Palomar, with details of the way the houses were built conjuring up a place that feels lived in. Of course, the central narrative involves a beautiful young woman (the titular Martina) rejecting a series of anthropomorphic animals before going out with the titular mouse, leading to their marriage. When the mouse finds himself literally in a stew, she runs out crying, starting a classic fairy tale progression. The birds ask her why she's crying, and then cut off their beaks to show their sorrow. A dove asks them why they cut off their beaks, leading it to cut off its tail. Also involved is a fountain and a girl with her water jug, who tells her mother. The mother asks the reasonable question of who's taking care of the mouse, which leads her to save him. It's a funny punchline, urging one to not waste time on tears when action can be taken.

"Tup and the Ants" is the funniest story and has the most dubious moral ("If you learn how to delegate, you can be lazy"). A lazy guy named Tup is sent out with his industrious but dumb brothers by their father-in-law to plant the cornfields. A note in the afterword mentions that this story was often told as a fun way to explain exactly how farming corn worked to young people. While his brothers work, Tup sleeps, only to find that ants have stolen their food. He threatens the ants to either give him his food back or else do his work for him, so they choose the latter. While his brothers manage to continually mess up (cutting holes in trees instead of cutting them down, for example), Tup makes a deal with the ants every time to do his work while he slept. In the end, Tup is rewarded after having abuse heaped on him in the rest of the story.

What makes the story work is Hernandez's tireless efforts in varying his storytelling just enough to make each page different. In a story that's filled with boring backgrounds like cornfields, Hernandez doubles down on exaggerated character design and facial expressions. Their father-in-law doesn't just yell: he pulls his hat over his head in exasperation, with a single tooth showing and sweat beads flying from his head. The disapproving mother-in-law doesn't just frown: her mouth is an unyielding upside-down parabola. She's actually a dead ringer for the Gilbert Hernandez character Boots, another sly nod to the Palomar stories. Tup isn't merely lazy and sleepy: his massive eyelids are constantly half-closed. The queen of the ants wears a jaunty crown on her head and her subjects are drawn with just enough variety (despite their tiny size) to keep the eye locked in on the page.

The fact that Hernandez chose stories that aren't strictly morally instructive, but instead convey other kinds of information, simply make people laugh, or act as shaggy dog stories makes this volume especially enjoyable. Seeing his work in color is a special treat (the colorist is Ala Lee) that likely allowed him to work a little looser here than in his usual Love and Rockets stories. Hernandez has always used women as his protagonists, so it seems natural for two of the three stories to focus on female characters. Throw in the historical context behind each of the stories in the afterword, and you have yet another alternative cartoonist make a smooth jump to the Toon Books line.


5 Responses to The Dragon Slayer

  1. Anonwreqw says:

    ” Hernandez’s tireless efforts in varying his storytelling just enough to make each page different. ”
    It’s easy for him to succeed if the bar is set as low as the reviewer does above.

    hERMANDEZ is an incredibly mediocre artist
    and ineffective storyteller.

    Without words, no one has a clue if those are sequential panels!

    Thanks, underground cartoonists for lowering the bar and making sure comics fade into cultural irrelevance.

  2. Anonwreqw says:

    I meant hERNANDEZ,

    The other Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez admitted that the Alternative Comics scene lowered the bar, at least on the art side. This admission is what has fueled my earlier post.

    Gilbert: That’s what was missing from alternative comics after us: The art got less and less good.

    Jaime: Less and less important.

    Gilbert: It was more about the writing. Eventually people are gonna rebel and say, “Where’s the good drawings?” It’s in Heavy Metal! I think that’s what’s happened – a backlash against blandness.

    Clowes: Yeah, we spawned a lot of guys who just wanted to tell their funny little stories.

    No, what the alternative comics scene, now called “Young Adult” comics has spawned is a bunch of nerds and other social outcasts (many of whom suffer from some form of mental illness) doing these sad pretentious comics that appeal to a narrow niche of people. The Comics Journal evaluates success of a “graphic novel” or whatever on how many awards it wins, and almost no attention is paid to the number of readers. The New York Times Best Sellers List is the only thing that comes close to measuring that dreaded word….popularity, but I’ve heard that the minimum number of books sold is “wasn’t easy to come by, that there were many factors that go into the list, ” is not about numbers . It’s entirely possible to get a book with lots of awards, be on the NYT Bestsellers list for weeks, and have less than a million readers, because success can be defined largely by critical reception. I’m not sure how critical reception will help comics and other forms of print stop bleeding readers with changing demographics, especially if the current critics are oblivious to the strengths and weaknesses of what they are reviewing.

  3. Marc Sobel says:

    To claim that Jaime Hernandez is “an incredibly mediocre artist” is an absurd statement that reveals a fundamental lack of understanding about the comic book medium. In fact, Jaime has consistently demonstrated throughout his 40-year career to be a master of the artform. To cite just a small number of examples, he has single-handedly created a large cast of beloved characters with complex inner psychologies and realistic gender/ethnic identities. Regarding his art, even a cursory study of his work shows an artist of unparalleled skill in drawing facial expressions, anatomy, body language, and setting. Rather than “an ineffective storyteller,” Jaime’s stories are highly effective in conveying emotion, drama, and humor. It’s true that in The Dragon Slayer, Jaime intentionally modified his drawings for a younger audience, however, that is not a sign of mediocrity, but rather the opposite. It shows that he has a keen understanding of how the subtleties of visual style resonate with different audiences, and the skill to tailor his stories accordingly.

  4. Anonwreqw says:

    Compared to whom? If we compare the are of the Hernandez to some random romance comic from the 1940s or 1950s it looks pretty bad. The big trend for the last 70 years has been generally decreasing skill among artists in comics.

    One of the Hernandez brothers admits to having a legacy of lowering the bar.

    I’m making my statement

    ” is an incredibly mediocre artist
    and ineffective storyteller.”

    based on all the art I’ve seen from the Hernandez brothers. His work is on the same level as Daniel Clowes and other Alternative Comics critical darlings. The art for these folks is an afterthought or is intentionally kitsch. It’s like these guys internalized what their Art School teachers told them about comics being a medium for unskilled artists. It took me a long time to realize that people like Chis Ware don’t really like comics or making stories that might appeal to a lot of people. It doesn’t surprise me anymore that the Alternative Comics scene is shrinking, along with the general market of comics for “mature readers”…I think that some of the more intelligent readers picked up on the vibe of many of the creators: unhappy people making comics they hope you won’t enjoy.

    Now, I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed the work of mediocre creators. I’ve enjoyed Mike Allred’s art in the past but to call him a master of the artform or “highly effective in conveying emotion, drama, and humor. ” is ridiculous. His work works in certain contexts but is far from being”artist of unparalleled skill in drawing facial expressions, anatomy, body language, and setting.” Same thing with Frank Miller, and other big names. But it’s less true of Alternative Comics which makes crude or amateurish looking art a selling point. The critics reinforce what I am seeing by heaping praise on people like Jeff Lemire and ignoring people with better storytelling chops.

    “he has single-handedly created a large cast of beloved characters with complex inner psychologies and realistic gender/ethnic identities. ”
    He is far from the only one who has done those things among Alternative Comics creators and to be frank, that’s been the expectation for some time now. What else are Alternative Comics really known for except those things?

  5. Joshua says:

    Which artists, or what work, would you say exemplify acceptable or exceptional Alternative Comics art, either in contemporary times or recent past?

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