The Comics Journal #302: Toon Treasury Think Tank! Excerpt


CHRIS DUFFY: Like Art said in a follow-up to Paul’s comment about Superman, etc, there’s a world of difference between a 7-year-old and a 12-year-old. I work on a magazine that tries to hit that range every month — and I wonder how seriously I should take the challenge of making this book appeal to all of them. The reason I ask, is that today’s 12-year-old ... well, you know. The smart ones will be able to appreciate a great Tubby story, but I was wondering if you wanted to try to draw in the ones who would need a little convincing, maybe with material like Herbie (almost underground downer fantasy humor), Cole’s Plastic Man, and 1960s (non Li’l) Archie comics. I do wonder why Archie is only represented by the “Li’l” Archie stories? Isn’t Archie notoriously aimed at kids under 10? Bob Montana Archie comic strips are hands down the most popular “classic” comics we’ve EVER run in Nick Magazine. I’m guessing that the intent of the book is to be reflective of work created with kids “in mind” or that feels more in the “kid’s lit Tradition.” Am I right? Because to create a book of classic comics that draws in readers from 7 to 12 is a sort of different task. Sorry if I seem to be splitting hairs!

ART SPIEGELMAN: “THE GOLDEN AGE of comics is TEN!” You’re absolutely right about calling my glib all-inclusive reading age into further question, Chris. Thanks. I’ve just changed the welcome-page mission statement to read “300 very best pages of American ‘kid comics’ for the six to TEN set produced between around 1940 and 1960.” It may just be too big a stretch for the same book to include Mickey Rodent as well as a Walt Kelly fairy tale. The core mission is to appeal to the PRE-pre-adolescent kid (before they enter Middle School), their sense of wonder & “innocence” (both sexually and in terms of their media savvy/irony quotient) still sort-of intact. One might argue that this image of childhood has been permanently smashed to smithereens by a self-reflective media culture that “treats adults like kids and kids like adults,” and turns tots into targeted consumers, etc. Mad and even my Wacky Pack/GPK Topps stickers probably helped set the sensibility that turned the nursery into a Spin Room and hastened the end of childhood, but it may still be useful to maintain the fantasy of childhood when making a children’s book. I’m totally ambivalent, natch, since many of the old comics I love best are the transgressive ones by Cole, Kurtzman, etc. and the best I can hope for — short of banning ’em from the anthology — would be finding accidentally age-appropriate high-quality examples, like a few stray “Hey Look!” pages and the rather charming Dick Briefer Frankenstein story we found. (When Françoise and I put together Little Lit, we were able to “sneak” Barnaby in only by selecting a very specific bit of continuity — most of Crockett Johnson’s strip seemed way too adult.) The Treasury section called “Weird and Wacky” was intended to reach toward the upper-age limit of what might somehow be included.

JEET HEER: About the age-appropriateness question, I also think that it’s important to be sensitive to what ages are going to read this book. And 6-10 makes more sense than 6-12. Having said that, some subversive material is fine, as long as it has a 6-10 sensibility. For that reason, I think Wolverton and Briefer are OK, but Cole’s Plastic Man and Kurtzman’s Hey Look! seem a little too mature (in the sense of requiring a fairly ironic sensibility) to work. I hope that makes sense.

This panel from “Plastic Man Products” in Plastic Man #17 (May 1949) was written by Joe Millard and drawn by Jack Cole. It is reprinted in DC Special #15 (November–December 1971). ©1971 National Periodical Publications, Inc.

SPIEGELMAN: I’m reluctantly reconciled to agree that the HK Mad sensibility is exactly on the other side of the divide we’re striving for.

PAUL LEVITZ: I think a Mad selection is in order — it’s the most successful humor comic in its enduring effect on the culture (Barks reached more people worldwide, but seems to have been far less capable of influencing the vernacular). Maybe “Mickey Rodent!” from #19, with [Will] Elder’s art, as an example of how Mad was subversively going at an ultimate children’s icon?

SPIEGELMAN: My deep allegiance to Mad runs to the bone, and I often cite “Mickey Rodent!” as my single biggest influence. Still, Harvey’s Mad stories specifically traffic in the LOSS of innocence and sense of wonder that the other selections all, so far, embrace. I’m still interested in at least a token representation of HK’s self-reflexivity and found a few Hey Look! pages that I think are funny for ALL ages and could sit comfortably in the mix. Whaddya think? I’m not quite as sure about one of Cole’s funnier Plas stories, namely “Plastic Man Products” in Plastic Man #17 (May ’49), for the “Wacky and Weird” section alongside Briefer and Wolverton.

PAUL KARASIK: Agreed: Kurtzman Mad stories are too cynical. Cole’s Plastic Man stories are plenty funny, but I think their biggest problem is that they are simply too long-winded for our demographic. Agreed: Everyone on board here loves (to some degree) Kurtzman and Cole. Solution: Sprinkle Hey Look! and Cole one-pagers: Windy Breeze, Wun Cloo (I’ve got a nice collection of these) throughout the book. They are both jazzy, funny and absolutely representative of the strength of both artists.

DUFFY: I’m with Paul K. on Hey Look! and sprinkling Cole one-pagers. (I even suggested it elsewhere, proving that I’m as smart as Paul! I wish!) I’ve seen 10-year-olds go crazy for the Hey Look! book without me even forcing it on them. (Which I have also done.) I think the egg one is super-perfect for the book’s needs. I’d also suggest the “krinkle” comic in the movie theater. Is Wun Cloo gonna get us in trouble though? Not through Wun Cloo’s actions, but his portrayal, which is that awful all-yellow, ponytailed, buck-toothed Chinaman stereotype. Don’t forget Burp the Twerp! Also, there’s that short Cole comic on the list called “Odd Jobs” — I’ve seen the splash in the Focus on Cole book. Is it a good yarn, Art?

SPIEGELMAN: You bet, I’m totally on with the Hey Look!s ... and a handful of Burp the Twerps too (a totally bizarre series of one-pagers that cumulatively become unforgettable!) and maybe a couple of Windy Breezes and/or Slap Happy Pappys? ... But Wun Cloo really won’t do (just ask Gene Yang). The “Odd Jobs” story is quite nice, but no easier or harder to get into for the younger set than “Plastic Man Products,” a superior piece of goods, I think.

KARASIK: I’m persuaded on the cynical/innocent divide in Harvey’s work. That’s a very fair basis to sort by, and outweighs the audience size/age argument. Kibbitz retracted.