We’re going to have a roundtable next week on kids comics (featuring a special guest post by the multi-talented Brigid Alverson if all goes well.) To get you in the mood I thought I’d reprint this effort from Culture 11. So here goes.
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For lots of small children, “funny” equals slapstick — and by that standard, the funnies just aren’t all that funny anymore. Kinetic pratfalls, fisticuffs, explosions, characters bouncing about like demented sugared-up toddlers — to draw those things you space which just doesn’t exist anymore on the funnies page. The full-page nuttiness of strips like the Katzenjammer Kids or Popeye are, of course, long, long, gone. But even the four-panel efforts of my youth have shrunk and dwindled. If you get three tiny panels on a daily, you’re pretty darn lucky — and that means that physicality has been mostly replaced by verbal humor and the occasional static silly drawing. Strips like Dilbert (or even the online Achewood) are almost completely paralyzed; clip-art friezes whose inert perfection is unsullied by motion line or sound effect.

Not to despair, though. Non-sedentary funnies still exist. They’ve just hopped, scurried, and rolled off newsprint, and into the children’s section of your local bookstore. Little, little ones can find cartoon hippos and penguins and moose cavorting with the requisite flurry through any number of Sandra Boynton books — most especially the appropriately named Hippos Go Berserk! And for slightly older kids, there’s Mo Willems, whose Elephant &Piggie series is one of our households all-time favorites…possibly edged out by Willems’ series of Pigeon books.

Part of what makes Willems’ books so enjoyable is that his background is not in the funnies, but in television — he wrote for Sesame Street, and was involved in a number of Nickelodeon animated series. Obviously, animation and comic strips have a long history together, but over the years they’ve largely gone their separate ways. Animation has retained its commitment to wacky physical hijinks and the funnies pages — well, as we said, not so much.

This isn’t to say that Willems’ stories are violent. On the contrary, even by children’s publishing standards, these are extraordinarily gentle books. The plots involve straightforward, resolutely unfrightening conflicts; in “There Is a Bird on Your Head!” Elephant Gerald must deal with a bird building a nest on his head; in “I Am Invited to a Party!” Piggie gets a party invitation, and she must figure out (with Gerald’s help) what she should wear. Even something like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, the title of which at least suggests the possibility of car chases and crashes, in the event involves nothing more hair-raising than a small bird throwing a tantrum.

It is quite a tantrum, though. The pigeon really, really wants to drive the bus. After begging and pleading with the reader to give him a chance (“My cousin Herb drives a bus almost every day!” “How ‘bout I give you five bucks?”) the insistent bird has a full-page fit, hopping up and down, shouting to the sky, and flipping over onto its back in an explosion of motion lines that culminates with it’s head turned around three-hundred sixty degrees, it’s eye inflamed and bulging red, and it’s wings flapping in a multiplied blur, shedding feathers like drops of sweat.

Though Willems simple character outlines and neutral backgrounds are obviously derived from animation, the grainy quality of his chalky lines, their feeling of dashed-off imperfection, gives the drawings a tactile oomph. That sense of contained movement on a static surface, of personality within the line, is one of the great joys of comic-strip cartooning, and Willems’ mastery of it is, I think, part of the reason his books have been so popular with both kids and parents. For instance, in the Elephant & Piggie book, Today I Will Fly!, Piggie is determined to get herself airborne. Willems illustrates her hapless hopping with energetic thick dotted lines, which trace her tergiversations from right to left across the layout, then back from left to right on the next page — and ultimately, through a short hop and uuuuuuup in a flying leap onto poor Gerald’s much-colonized head. Those dashes are, literally, a physical delight: my son likes nothing more than to trace every single one of them with his finger. If I forget and turn the page before he gets a chance to do so, I’ve got something very like a pigeon tantrum on my hands.

Willems makes use of his luxurious space not only in terms of elbow-room on the page, but also in terms of story length. These narratives may not be especially extended, but compared to a daily comic strip, they might as well be novels. With that extra room, Willems reinjects visual cartooning with some of the rhythms of animation. His narratives have the spiraling escalating silliness of good vaudeville. In I Am Invited to a Party! Gerard and Piggie decide first that the party must be fancy dress…then that it must be a pool party…then that it must be a costume party…until at the end Piggie is wearing an evening dress with flippers and a snorkel and a giant cowboy hat. Each costume change is preceded by the same schtick, as Gerald proclaims, “We must be ready! I know parties!” (To which Piggie responds, “He knows parties!” ) The repetition and variation is like a sublime schematic of how humor works. It also makes it easy to anticipate and then memorize the dialogue, which is exactly what four and five-year-olds want from their reading experience.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the greatest advantage Willems has over his newsprint peers is not space, but time. Between Elephant &Piggie, the Pigeon series, and other projects, Willems seems to be churning out somewhere between four and five books a year. That’s quite a pace — but it’s nothing compared to the brutal grind of a daily strip. The truth is, given all the constrictions placed on them, it’s no wonder that the funnies have had to abandon many of the medium’s traditional resources. Perhaps, as newspapers complete their death spiral and content is forced online, the funnies will rediscover some of the possibilities they’ve lost — though goodness knows strips like PvP certainly don’t give one much hope. In the meantime, if I start hankering for more cartoony goodness, I won’t have to look too far. Writing this article has alerted me to the fact that Willems has yet another Elephant & Piggie book out: Are You Ready to Play Outside? As Gerald might say, “We must have it!”
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As a kind of update, we did get “Are You Ready to Play Outside?”, which is maybe the best of the series. It certainly has one of the stand out lines: “I am not a happy pig!” It’s amazing the number of situations for which that quote is the ideal. — indeed, perhaps the only — appropriate response.