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Marvels & Tales 17.2 (2003) 272-275
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The Big Book of Grimm by the Grimm Brothers as Channeled by Jonathan Vankin & over 50 Top Comic Artists. Paradox Press/DC Comics. New York, 1999. 191 pp.
As we grow up with fairy tales, we simultaneously grow up with pictures, I suppose. If they aren't pictures in comic books and on the screen, then they are the illustrations in books read to us, we play with, or later on read ourselves. Such pictures both become part of and remain detached from the verbal narrative. The narrative, in turn, may or may not develop its own inner pictures for the listener or reader.
A personal example: Attractive books were hard to come by for children when I grew up in post-war Germany, especially books with colorful pictures. An old edition of the Arabian Night tales had, among a few others, a bright, full-page illustration of turbaned Sindbad clinging to the upper branches of a tree, while a huge and most fantastically-colored serpent stretched upward around the trunk, mouth wide open, teeth glaring. I kept turning to this page, obsessively, even after I was old enough to read the stories myself. I see the image before me as I type, more vividly than I can recall the various translations of the tales of Sindbad the Sailor I have read over the decades. I was not afraid of the image, I think: it transported most intensely, just as my favorite tales transported me.
We all have memories of this sort, and they come back as we return to favorite stories. Now, what happens when a selection of Grimm tales--about fifty of them--are transposed into graphic narratives? The texts and introductions are all by one author, Jonathan Vankin, but each story is drawn by a different [End Page 272] comic artist. At the very least the collection demonstrates the striking range, diversity, and competence of contemporary comic art. Together the adaptations provide a good set of possibilities to reflect about text and image.
The Paradox Press "Big Book Library" cheerfully pictures and sensationalizes many, on the whole responsibly-gathered factoids throughout the series. For instance, it's not easy to find a sharper pre-Castro mini-history of Cuba than the one in The Big Book of Vice. But of course this approach gets tricky with a collection of fairy tales. So Vankin "channels" his "original, uncensored bedtime stories in all their grim glory," as the cover promises, with a big blood splash that horrifies Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the central illustration, all nicely edged by a skulls-and-roses border. And he arranges, in exposé fashion with introductions, his sections as "Family Hell," "Prisoners of Childhood," "Nuptial Nightmares," and--rather loosely linked to this triad--"Magical Strangers" and "Lessons Learned--the Hard Way." The sales trick, of course, is to make it appear as if all of this were quite radical and hard to come by, as if bowdlerized versions have been all we have generally been able to get hold of--somewhat similar to the perennial collections of "Forbidden Books of the Bible." Granted, this may up to a point still be true for typical illustrated fairy-tale collections for children, and stories-for-kids is an obvious association for many adults when it comes to comics.
Aside from the hype necessary to sell the book and fit it into the exposé pattern of the series, what about the renditions of the tales? This isn't the place to review arguments about realism and pedagogic value of folktales as re- and devalued in various markets. Grim tales (and of course the pun works better in English!) are part of all cultures, whatever that says about our pleasures and needs. In our time, it seems to me, many of the Grimm tales have had the tough luck to be received between rocks and hard places: worried over and sanitized because of whatever trauma they might cause, or celebrated as Texas chainsaw massacres ahead of their time--"one [... ] makes Jeffrey...