Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies
edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly
Published by Raw Junior/HarperCollins
66 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Comics For Kids?
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Although popular belief in North America has it that comics are for kids, there are in fact few American comics aimed at children. In its unsuccessful campaign to alter the aforementioned misconception, the comics industry seems to have forgotten that the passion for comics is most often acquired quite young and that, unless there are comics to stimulate the interest and imaginations of today's children, they won't grow up to read comics as teenagers or as adults. And, as is the case now, the readership will remain an ever-shrinking, ever-aging core audience, mostly made up of fans who like their comics just the way they are.
It was therefore with considerable excitement that I flipped open the beautifully designed Little Lit, a new hardcover comics anthology of fairy tales ostensibly aimed at kids and sporting an enchanting cover illustration by contributor and coeditor Art Spiegelman. A quick browse revealed gorgeous and varied interior art, well presented on generously oversized pages. Many of the contributors were culled from the ranks of today's most revered and edgy cartoonists. I was primed for something special. Instead I got a pretentious collection of misplaced nostalgia.
Everything about Little Lit announces itself as a momentous event. From the lavish oversized format to Spiegelman's explicit involvement. And, certainly, there lies some of the problem. Announcing the anthology's goal of reclaiming the medium of comics for children is the ironic phrase emblazoned on the back cover: "COMICS -- They're not just for grown-ups anymore!" And the blurb, also from the back cover, emphasizes the editor's intentions:
A treasure and a treasury! Innovative cartoonists and renowned children's book artists from around the world have gathered to bring you the magic of fairy tales through the wonder of comics. The stories in this 64 page, hardcover book range from old favorites to new discoveries, from the profound to the silly. A treat for all ages, these picture stories unlock the enchanted door into the pleasures of books and reading!
I'd love to be able to say that the book lives up to its own self-generated hype. I know I wanted it to. But, the truth is, I can't imagine children enjoying this anthology. While presented in a context that boldly states that what kids need and want are old-fashioned fairy tales (i.e., ignoring what fascinates today's kids), most of the stories read more like they're making fun of anyone who does enjoy this kind of tale. The book is imbued with both a cheap nostalgia for Norman Rockwell's America and a postmodern disdain for its own material. In other words, you're stupid if you like these stories and you're stupid if you don't. Now there's an appealing double-bind to foist on unsuspecting kids! That'll really make them love reading and comics.
Most of the stories feel dishonest and restrained, as if the cartoonists were intent on reminding the reader that they knew they were doing "only" kids' stuff (or "only" comics). In fact, the contributors are either creators of adult comics (i.e, "not kids' stuff") or children's book illustrators ("not comics"). Where are the children's cartoonists?
Not here. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly have assembled their like-minded friends, not looking further afield to see if there were other contributors with the talent to satisfy their stated but unfulfilled premise. The result is condescending, childish and entirely devoid of charm or excitement for readers of any age.
Is there no hope? Are there no good comics for kids? Actually, yes, there are, and for anyone reading this review because they're looking for good children's comics I'd like to mention a few. Larry Marder's Tales of the Beanworld is a spectacularly imaginative ecological fable. Jeff Smith's Bone is a wonderfully unusual quest fantasy filled with charmingly quirky characters. Steven Weissman's Yikes! recounts the mischievous high jinks of a bunch of kid monsters. Bernie Mireault's Dr. Robot is uplifting, goofy and naive, in all the best ways. Patrick McDonnell's syndicated strip, Mutts, is a beacon of humor and compassion. The gorgeously illustrated Leave It to Chance by James Robinson and Paul Smith tells the adventures of an intrepid young girl and her dragon friend in a modern city besieged by supernatural menaces. Any of these will enchant youthful readers of all ages and genders. Little Lit, on the other hand, will condescendingly sneer at them for not being as sophisticated as Art Spiegelman and his friends. | November 2000
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.