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Friday 30 November 2001

Kidd on Comics and Comics on Kids

by Claude Lalumière

Jack Cole and Plastic Man by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd
(Chronicle Books, 2001)
Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz, edited and designed by Chip Kidd
(Pantheon, 2001)
"Don't Call Me Stupid!" by Steven Weissman
(Fantagraphics, 2001)
Dan and Larry in Don't Do That! by Dave Cooper
(Fantagraphics, 2001)

Having designed three superlatively handsome volumes detailing the histories of DC Comics' most iconic characters (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), Chip Kidd now teams up with Art Spiegelman on Jack Cole and Plastic Man. This book is not part of the same series as the aforementioned triad, although it does hail from the same publisher (Chronicle Books) and Kidd — at least for the interior — has followed a similar graphic template.

That said, Kidd subtly twists this template to make it contribute to the narrative of the book even more organically that in his previous books. Kidd surrounds Art Spiegelman's text (expanded from his New Yorker article "Forms Stretched to Their Limits") with a dense and frenetic display of his design virtuosity. The head-spinning and outrageous visuals of the book are a perfect match for the pliable perversity of its subject: Jack Cole's imagination.

Situating Jack Cole's Plastic Man in its proper place in comics history — it is the too-often ignored missing link between Will Eisner's The Spirit and Harvey Kurtzman's Mad — Spiegelman and Kidd treat readers to a smorgasbord of information and art from this most important stage of Cole's career, a career that also included being Playboy's lead cartoonist and creating a successful syndicated comic strip, Betsy and Me. Not that these, and other, aspects of his career are ignored — far from it — but they are not allowed to overshadow Cole's most significant contribution to culture: Plastic Man.

Ironically, in 1958, at the time of his suicide — as clearly stated in a vintage newspaper clipping reporting on the cartoonist's death — Cole was known primarily for the now completely forgotten Betsy and Me; secondly, for his Playboy work, now mostly valued by collectors of nostalgic memorabilia; and only thirdly for Plastic Man — the work that is now considered not only one of the most sophisticated comics of its day and but also an early example of a comics artist developing a unique vision (especially from an era when comics were considered, more than at any other time, disposable trash) and an essential stepping stone in the development of the storytelling grammar of comics.

This section of the book — detailing Cole's suicide — is exemplary of Kidd's skillful narrative use of design. Kidd uses art from a panoply of Cole's works to create an impression of an out-of-control imagination being straightjacketed to death. Meanwhile, Spiegelman explains that each successive stage of Cole's career (from Plastic Man to Playboy to Betsy and Me) — although outwardly signifying increasing commercial success public recognition — actually boxed Cole into ever more restrictive mediums that forced him to stifle his exuberantly perverse imagination. Whether or not this contributed to his suicide, as Spiegelman implies, I have no idea, but the case is well made that as Cole's star rose, his creativity fell.

For me, there are only two false notes in Spiegelman's text. The first, especially present in the early pages, is a whiff of snootiness as he feels the need the justify, and not just celebrate, his love for Cole and Plastic Man — a whiff that, to my mind, pays too much lip service to the general cultural disdain for comics, emphasizing that it's okay to like Cole because he is an exception and smugly raising both Spiegelman and Cole above "mere" comic books. I have little patience or tolerance for such pretentious posturing. The other is the overestimation of Cole's dramatic comics.

While Plastic Man — a zany pastiche of the superhero, detective, and pulp science fiction genres oozing with polymorphous perversity — was a great showcase for his talents, when applied to drama Cole's style degenerated into hysterical melodrama and begged for the script to morph into a parody. The reprint of the all-too serious and irritatingly maudlin "Murder, Morphine and Me!" from True Crime Comics succeeds only in undermining Spiegelman's praise for Cole's drama work and in proving that Cole's genius truly lay elsewhere, in Plastic Man.

Perfectly rounding out this eye-catching labour of love is a bunch of reprinted Plastic Man stories, and those truly show off Cole's timeless artistry. Decades later, they're still great fun to read.


Chip Kidd has carved out a niche for himself as the man for the job for illustrated histories of comics. It is then no surprise to find him as editor and designer of Pantheon Books' Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz.

An exquisite work of art in and of itself, Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz functions as a kind of hand-held museum exhibit. It focuses on the early years of Peanuts, but spans Schulz's entire career, including glimpses at rarely seen pre-Peanuts work. Faithful to Kidd's well-known passion for memorabilia, it also includes photographs of Peanuts toys and merchandising.

It reproduces many Peanuts comics strips, featuring defining moments for many of the characters and a few delirious fantasy scenes with Snoopy. And the light text, which offers illuminating tidbits, never distracts from the showpiece: the art of the most influential cartoonist of the twentieth century.


Charles Schulz's influence has reached beyond his chosen medium, the comic strip. Steven Weissman's comic-book series Yikes is only one of many such examples — not that Schulz's Peanuts is the only influence informing Weissman's offbeat creation. Also thrown into the mix are Harvey Comics (Richie Rich et al.), Bram Stoker's Dracula, Dennis the Menace, The Family Circus, Chester Brown's Ed the Happy Clown, Greek mythology, Pipi Longstocking, movie serials, pulp magazines, horror movies, old comic-book ads, folktales, southern US fiction, gothic literature, and ... well, you get the idea.

"Don't Call Me Stupid!" collects, in slightly different form, most of the material from Weissman's three 1997-98 releases from Alternative Press. Most of Weissman's work — including all of the material in this collection — contributes to mapping the world of his series, Yikes.

Yikes is a strange, mythologized look at the world of children. Yikes is not narrated as we have learned to organize the world as adults. Stories begin and end in (seemingly) awkward places. Space and time don't follow expected rules — and neither do life and death. What Weissman has achieved is to create a childlike world of wonder, terror, and hijinks that utterly refuses to conform to the consensus, adult interpretation of reality and storytelling. In the world of Yikes, cruel violence is juxtaposed with the games of childhood, and the mundane is more inexplicable than the secrets of immortality.

Weissman's cast includes, among others, Li'l Bloody (a young, one-toothed vampire), Dead Boy and Pullapart Boy (the reanimated "sons" of Professor Boy), Kid Medusa (whose friends turn to stone if they look at her), X-Ray Spence (the boy with the x-ray glasses), and the reanimated dog, Elzie Crisler. In "Don't Call Me Stupid!" the Yikes kids square off against the manipulative bully, Chubby Cheeks; try to learn the identity of the serial killer behind the murder of a number of local children; smoke cigarettes in the rain; and protect Li'l Bloody from his old enemy, the "notoriously heavy sleeper" Rip Van Helsing.

Most notably, "Don't Call Me Stupid!" reprints Weissman's most heart-wrenching tale, "Back in the Day ..." This 7-page gem features the dog Elzie Crisler dreaming of the dreadful circumstances that lead to her death, before being resurrected to a better life by Professor Boy. "Back in the Day ..." evocatively contrasts brutality and tenderness while painting with great empathy a picture of heartless disregard.

The stories in this Fantagraphics collection, like all Yikes comics, are filled with the kinds of mysteries that actively involve readers in the creative process. Weissman respects and exalts the intelligence and imagination of children. Yikes is a children's comics series that lacks even the slightest hint of condescension. "Don't Call Me Stupid!" is an entertaining reading experience for those who have not forgotten the alienating clash of childhood dreams with the dull conformity of adult reality — and a beacon of hope for any still caught in that struggle.


Dave Cooper's Dan and Larry in Don't Do That! is another Fantagraphics comics album that deals with the clash between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. Dubbed by the author "a surreal mixture of dreams & memories," Dan and Larry is a much darker take on the whole thing than Weissman's mischievous Yikes.

In Dan and Larry, Cooper once again tackles his trademark obsessions: the violence, cruelty, and hatred that result from the repression and commercialized distortions of sexuality. Here, he overlays these themes on a semi-autobiographical tale of a twelve-year-old duck, Dan, who is troubled by his emerging sexuality and by the incomprehensible sexualities of adult life.

In the world Cooper has imagined for Dan and Larry, anthropomorphic animals, humans, cyborgs, and bizarre animals coexist. Disturbing technologies evoking bodily functions permeate everyday life. Cooper's resonant use of anatomical imagery emphasizes Dan's nightmarish plight.

Dan is best friends with the older Larry, a sexually confusing cyborg. Dan inks Larry's self-published comics — describing the adventures of naked, sword-wielding boys. Is Larry sexually abusing Dan? What is Larry's role in Dan's sexual imagination? These are difficult questions. Cooper deals with them in a surreal manner that intensifies their disturbing nature, that leave readers to ponder the implications of Cooper's candid disclosures.

Dan and Larry is a harsh book that surrenders no easy answers, a disturbing surreal journey into early adolescence. With Dan and Larry, Cooper continues to build on his uncompromising body of work, an oeuvre of fantastic surrealism that takes on sexual taboos with unabashed frankness and daring ambiguity.

Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, January Magazine, Montreal Review of Books, Blue Coupe, and Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. He is the editor of the upcoming anthology Telling Stories: New English Fiction from Québec (Spring 2002). His published criticism can be found through his website.

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