The funnies go back to their roots among the children

Review Comics

December 24, 2006|By David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin,Los Angeles Times

Big Fat Little Lit

Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, editors

Puffin Books / 144 pages / $14.99 (paper)

Who says comics aren't for kids any more? Not Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. Between 2000 and 2003, the husband-and-wife team - he, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of Maus; she, the art editor of The New Yorker - reimagined children's comics with Little Lit: three oversized hardcover anthologies geared toward younger readers and featuring strips by some of the most accomplished talents in the field. Together, these books represent a child's-eye version of Raw, the "commix" journal Spiegelman and Mouly edited from 1980 to 1991. Even a number of the contributors (Charles Burns, Kaz, Kim Deitch) are the same.

In case you missed Little Lit the first time around, Spiegelman and Mouly have just compiled Big Fat Little Lit, a sampler that distills much of the material from the original three books and makes it available in paperback. Featuring 36 pieces by artists such as Spiegelman, Jules Feiffer, Maurice Sendak and William Joyce, the collection is delightfully eclectic, a hodgepodge of visual and narrative styles.

Particularly interesting are the writer-illustrator collaborations: David Sedaris and Ian Falconer, Lemony Snicket and Richard Sala, Neil Gaiman and Gahan Wilson. Here, we see artists stretch out and try something unexpected, spinning stories in new forms. It's hardly surprising that a lot of the book has a fairy-tale sensibility - as in Barbara McClintock's exquisite retelling of "The Princess and the Pea" or Harry Bliss' darkly vivid "The Baker's Daughter," in which a mean little girl is transformed into an owl. More unexpected is how seamlessly it all fits together, the adaptations and the original work, which at its most compelling has a timeless feel.

As was often the case with Raw, the finest stuff here is the most direct, the stories where action is not overwhelmed by form. Bliss' piece is a perfect example, as is Daniel Clowes' "The Sleeping Beauty," with its gently skeptical take on "ever after," and Spiegelman's "The Several Selves of Selby Sheldrake," in which a boy disgruntled with his mother realizes that she's more like him than he ever knew. There are also notable rediscoveries, including Basil Wolverton's gleefully surreal "Jumpin' Jupiter" (1952) and Crockett Johnson's understated 1940s-era "Barnaby."

Best of all is David Mazzucchelli's "The Fisherman and the Sea Princess," the saga of a Japanese fisherman who finds happiness with the daughter of the Sea King, only to throw it away in a moment of distrust. Elegantly written and deftly rendered, this is an example not only of comics art but also of children's storytelling at its most profound and moving: a fable that addresses universal concerns.

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times.

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