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Marvels & Tales 15.2 (2001) 237-241
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Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies
Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies. Edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. 64 pp.
Well, let's get the negatives out of the way first. "I can't imagine children enjoying this anthology," wrote Claude Lalumi�re in his November 2000 January Magazine review. His point was that "cheap nostalgia [ . . . ] and a postmodern disdain" get mixed up together in Little Lit, so that "you're stupid if you like these stories and you're stupid if you don't." Hence kids supposedly get caught in a nasty double bind.
In one or the other manifestation, this remains a central issue for many people who believe they can easily determine what children (are supposed to) like. We should not confuse the little ones with metafiction, certainly not in fairy tales, and we should not play games with selfreferential ingenuities, because this, according to the quoted review, condescendingly sneers at kids. Things ought to be charming, mischievous, and upliftingly enchanting.
Maybe so, for some audiences, in any age group. I don't suggest this with a sneer, and I don't like to work with highbrow-lowbrow distinctions. I only want to emphasize that children are as complex and as sophisticated as grownups in [End Page 237] their reactions and pleasures, and that often enough they handle incongruities that would make their parents snap. Beavis and Butthead's "this is cool---this sucks" became a weapon that drove adults up the wall, and at the same time it mercilessly skewered its intermediate-school mouthpieces. Our kids handled it enthusiastically in stride, and I am sure much better than most adults would handle a similarly helpful double perspective if it came from or at our talking heads on the evening news. About a year and a half ago I prowled through a comics section in a bookstore in Germany, next to a few eight- to ten-year-olds. One of them picked up a German edition of The Simpsons and said to his friends, with an absolutely perfect pitch of mock-reverence, "das ist das Buch der Bücher" ("here's Scripture for you!"). Stupid if you like it, and stupid if you don't, and that's the joy of it!
The negative critique I quoted in the beginning has been the exception among the ones I have read. Most reviews have had high praise, if in a frequently potted fashion---as is normally the case, key phrases tend to reappear. But part of the reason is no doubt that the CNN.com.books (19 Dec. 2000) interview with the editors, the husband-wife team Spiegelman/Mouly, has a very authentic ring to it and invites quoting: "This book came out of Francoise and I being parents [ . . . ]. It's not something that was either market-tested or figured out scientifically. [ . . . ] Both our kids learned to read because I was willing to sacrifice a really valuable comic book collection to fatherhood [ . . . ] It was just like, 'Eat them. Go ahead.' "
Little Lit has been rightly praised by everybody whose comments I am familiar with for its beautiful design and its generous layout. It is a joy to look at and to handle. This is especially important for a book that tries to showcase the range of contemporary comics artists---and to lovingly offset, on cream colored pages, a reprint of Pogo-creator Walt Kelly's 1943 Fairy Tale Parade rendition of "The Gingerbread Man." The collection demonstrates the wide range of contemporary comics art, colors, and lines that remain all too little known when they don't belong to the familiar Marvel or DC mass market mainstream. Despite the impressive efforts of publishers such as Fantagraphics, Drawn-and-Quarterly, Slave Labor, or Dennis Kitchen's unhappily deceased Kitchen Sink Press, nontraditional comics have always been a marginal enterprise.
And comics themselves---"sequential art" in the terms of Will Eisner, one of the great comics artists and teachers---work in ways that deserve much more attention. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1993...