Stockings Hung From the Top Shelf With Care

by John Holbo on December 13, 2008

I link to Top Shelf Comics whenever they have one of their $3 sales. Because their stuff is great. Because you should support your independent small publishers. (Well, that is what I have always assumed, and I see no reason to change my mind.)

They have another sale, until tomorrow – December 14 – offering you free shipping on new release orders over $40, plus on orders from that $3 bin that is still pretty full.

You know. Think about how this goes.

Stockings always get stuffed with care with cheap stuff that seems sort of funny for a moment but isn’t actually that interesting. Think how much more baffled your family members will be by mysteriously Santa-provided copies of “Magic Boy and Robot Elf”, not to mention two of my favorite comics that would fit into a stocking: Dan James’ “The Octopi and the Ocean” and “Mosquito”. It makes me sad that these two titles continue to languish in the remainder bin. (Go ahead. Check out the previews.)

New stuff that looks good: Veeps, a comic book people’s history of the all those who were a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Kids will love Owly and the Korgi books. Alex Robinson’s new one is supposed to be good. (I like his old stuff. Haven’t tried the new yet.) There’s a new volume of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County series. (Possibly these names mean very little to you. Perhaps you should amend that situation.)

OK, something fun to talk about. The last time I snagged a bunch of Top Shelf $3 stuff I was lucky enough to get Scott Morse’s [that’s his blog] The Barefoot Serpent [check out the preview]. Which I vaguely thought was a comics bio of Kurosawa, which turns out to be half-right. That’s the outer frame, around a Kurosawa-spirited story that was just great. “A heartwarming story of a young girl befriended by an extraordinary boy, as her family recovers from a tragedy while on vacation in Hawaii.” Well, that sucks, as blurbs go. Anyway, the interesting thing about the book, apart from the fact that it’s great, is that it’s drawn as if it’s a comic for little kids. And the language is very simple. But the story-telling and framing and themes are a bit too subtle for a smart 7-year old. (I have verified this empirically.) There are too many lateral shifts and smart cinematic jumps. She liked it, but she sort of got lost. It’s very adult, but about a child.

This is something I’ve been thinking about recently. We are all familiar with the category of kids books that ‘work on two levels’. Adults like them, too, that is. (They aren’t like Barney.) But there’s another category of kids books: books that work for kids but actually work a lot better for adults. Can you think of examples? Here’s mine. My favorite book of 2007 was Sean Tan’s The Arrival [amazon]. I talk about it here. The picture book format works perfectly to capture the very adult anxieties of the immigrant experience – a state of being linguistically-challenged without being a child. Then I checked out some more Shaun Tan titles and, although I liked them, I don’t think they worked quite as well. He wants to create picture books about adult themes – that is, books that might actually be too subtle for their apparent audience, but great for people who appear to be too old for them, strictly. Examples, anyone?

UPDATE: Before I’m misunderstood, I should clarify. It’s not exactly a new thought that comics – sequential visual images, whatever – are interesting to adults. What is new is the thought that there’s a certain sort of subgenre, the childrens book, that might actually be aimed primary (rather than secondarily) at adults. It tends to have few words and a picture or so a page (to pick a rather canonic form). There isn’t any particular reason why books with few words and picture or so a page couldn’t be aimed at adults. And, in fact, I think they are more often than we notice. I’m thinking about Scott McCloud’s resistance to classifying childrens books as ‘comics’, even though they may technically meet his definition. I get the source of the resistance. It’s needless linguistic violence to call a picture book for children a ‘comic’. But it’s interesting to think about cases in which the form has been used to deal with adult themes. I’m thinking about Edward Gorey, for example.



Mike 12.13.08 at 4:49 pm

Some Calvin and Hobbes strips.


rm 12.13.08 at 6:40 pm

In actual comics, Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams did not work for my kids. It has no dialogue at all, only environmental words (print, signs). The 9yo was insulted by the presumption that she was a baby who reads wordless books, and the 12yo breezed through it and didn’t think it was very profound. But to an adult, the story is pretty subtle and profound.


roy belmont 12.13.08 at 6:43 pm

Lynd Ward, Gods’ Man,and Mad Man’s Drum.


J Thomas 12.13.08 at 6:47 pm

One children’s book with few pictures and lots of words that works better for adults is Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

It’s a completely different book read at thirty compared to ten.

For example, at one point Deja Thoris is about to marry the crown prince of Zodanga. She can end the war, create a grand alliance, greatly reduce the depradations of the green hordes, etc. And do pretty well for herself, too.

But the chaos creature John Carter intervenes and by the end of the book Zodanga is in ruins, the Green Hordes have giant new pastures, Carter has announced an alliance between her city Helium and the green men which will make it even harder to cull their numbers, and Carter (with the skin color of the lowest caste anywhere and no particular indication that he’s her species or even from an egglaying species at all) is going to marry her and she can’t say no. Her father meets Carter and breaks down in tears and Carter interprets it as crying for joy.

Little details like that are easy to miss when you’re ten. Also the masterful way he blackmails the green leader. Green men can’t lie because they’re such good telepaths, but Carter has a metal plate in his head or something that keeps anybody from reading his mind. So he picks a green girl who’s been sent away and he tells this story he claims she told him, about how Tars Tarkas seduced a green woman and helped her avoid the breeding laws; she kept her egg separate from the rest and incubated it herself and mixed her child in with the rest at the last moment. Tars Tarkas has a choice, he can fight Carter to the death and probably lose, or he can fight the jeddak of jeddaks and then lead the united green men into slaughter attacking Zodanga. He has no third choice. He cries in despair which Carter interprets as laughter, and gives in. Carter interprets it as a simple romantic story and Tars Tarkas is fighting for the memory of his lost love.

Once you realise that Carter consistently lies about his own intentions and everybody else’s, it all makes sense. Lots of things get cleared up that didn’t even make sense with the ten-year reading.


hapax 12.13.08 at 7:43 pm

D.B. Johnson’s “Henry” series of picture books. Accessible to kids, but astonishing, moving, and inspiring to adults. (or at least to this one)

A lot of “children’s books” written by the celebrities du jour are actually aimed at their grandparents.


ben wolfson 12.14.08 at 12:19 am

books that might actually be too subtle for their apparent audience, but great for people who appear to be too old for them, strictly. Examples, anyone?

Early MAD. Not books, admittedly.


Charles S 12.14.08 at 1:40 am

The first line of this post may be a conceptual link to Top Shelf Comics, but I couldn’t actually find an actual link.


John Holbo 12.14.08 at 2:00 am

Silly me. Missing link fixed.


Doug M. 12.14.08 at 8:32 pm

“Magic Boy and Robot Elf” didn’t work for me, and I /like/ Kochalka. It’s early stuff, and just not that good.

“Corgi” is also IMO overrated — lovely art, yes, but you’re not getting all that much meat otherwise. I’d love to see him illustrating some other writer’s work.

“Owly”, OTOH, is awesome. As is “Johnny Boo”. Both of these are very good, and highly recommended if you have kids in the 3-7 range.

Alex Robinson’s “Lower Regions” is basically a comic-book walkthrough of a good night spent playing D&D. That doesn’t really convey how awesome “Lower Regions” is. Umm, try this :

If that amused you, “Lower Regions” is similar but three times as long, much more violent, funnier and better. It’s a must-buy if you were an RPG nerd. Otherwise, okay, probably not.

Doug M.

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