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Two From Children's Books
posted December 18, 2008
Title: Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
Marc Tyler Nobleman, Ross MacDonald
Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 36 pages, 2008, $16.99
It's hard to say anything negative about a project that celebrates the act of creation as fundamentally as this one does. Nobleman and MacDonald use a standard children's book template to give readers the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young dreamers that seek to distinguish themselves and their lives by creating a successful character fit to stand alongside the great icons of the pulps. I don't know enough about how Superman was created to know if it's accurate history, but I do know that the story feels fairly bland and extremely limited in scope as presented here. There's nothing that distinguishes the writing from an almost completely unadorned presentation of the narrative, while the art tends to favor the human figure and dropped backgrounds when some atmospheric detail might have made the story come alive. I don't think either gentleman lacks control over those elements, but rather made specific choices to ensure this basic style. It's also worth noting that the controversial aspects of Superman's creation are left to a three-page written summary at the end of the book. You may get a feeling reading it where you're both glad it's there and sad that more of this stuff couldn't be included in the words and picture narrative you've just completed. I guess it's nice to be reminded in any way of an industry's unlikely start, the act of nerdly genius that started it all. I can't imagine what kid would enjoy reading this, but I'm very, very far removed from being a kid.
Title: The Devil You Know
Self-Published, mini-comic, 32 pages, 2008
Mo Willems is a super-successful children's book artist and author that dabbles in cartoon and comics creation with various side projects. One such was the cartoon travelogue You Can Never Find A Rickshaw When It Monsoons
; another is this series of sketchbooks I'm guessing he does each year as a Christmas giveaway. It's hard after reading The Devil You Know
not to wish that Willems had more of a chance to act as a straight-up cartoonist. Many of the gags are taken from his Radio Cartoons gig at NPR, others are not; they're almost all at least pretty good. Willems puts on display a sneaky versatility with his art, the ability to make one cartoon with animals dancing pop merely from the expressive line involved and others where the gag vibrates up against the straitjacket of a standard, more restrictive mainstream style. He tends to favor explicit drawings of manufactured subject matter, words both descriptive and phrased, but there are also a few classic Arno-style creations where the words twist the meaning of what's being shown and the pictures give life to the words in a way that both tells you what you're seeing and why it's funny. I hope someone out there is keeping track of all this Willems work so that one day we might get to read this book, too.