Monday, December 5

Nursery Rhyme Comics

edited by Chris Duffy
introduction by Leonard S. Marcus
First Second  2011


Fifty timeless rhymes! From fifty celebrated cartoonists! At least forty-nine excellent classic nursery rhymes in a cartoon format!

There are a number of ways to approach nursery rhymes. You can either take them at their most surface story level. You can interpret them literally or figuratively or historically. You could also enjoy them strictly for their sound, for the way they roll with linguistic cadences. And with subjects like animals behaving oddly or inanimate objects coming to life or simply reveling in the absurdity of fairy tale-like imagery it is easy to see why nursery rhymes endure: they are wide open to interpretation and imagination.

Mother Goose and other nursery rhyme collections tend toward the cute, or the sweet, or at the very least, non-threatening. Most collections settle for a single image or two that illustrates some element of the story and leaves the rest out. For the truly young the story and the image become linked, forever lodged without explanation or the desire to even understand. It's a marvelous and sometimes bizarre thing to plant in a young mind the image of a Jack and a Jill tumbling head-first down a hill simply for doing their chores.

Enter sequential storytelling.

Sequential visual narratives strive to tell a story not only in the pictures but between the panels. Like picture books, they extend the characters and the narrative from one to the next, each panel like a page unto itself, each transition like a page turn. Structurally, comics and graphic novels make for great transitional narrative for readers as they are dialog driven and tend to build scene upon scene. Add nonsensical nursery rhymes and the interpretation of cartoonists and you've got quite a wild ride.

How many times have you heard or read Humpty Dumpty? How does it end? It ends in tragedy, like Shakespeare, inevitable and unchangeable. Ah, but cartoons have a long history of the punchline, the change-up at the end, a twist that turns everything on its ear. What if the Egg Man fell, cracked open, and out sprang a half dozen smaller versions of himself? This is precisely what Gilbert Hernandez does in his retelling, and in doing so transforms the familiar into the new.

In other rhymes the narrative is subverted for a parallel story not even hinted at in the original. Little Boy Blue remains a farm boy shirking his duties, but here the barnyard animals are the ones who are featured. Bob Flynn has the sheep in meadow throwing Frisbees, and the reason no one is willing to wake him is because the animals have a pretty good poker game going on.

On the historical front, leave it David Macaulay to turn London Bridge into a lesson about all the different architectural forms the bridge has taken in its time. From rickety wood to stone and steel, Macaulay manages to erase the notion that the rhyme is only suited for playground games where some unlucky sod gets caught in the gated arms of classmates (usually some boy trapped between two girls).

The collection of cartoonists involved is fantastic. Personal faves include Jules Feiffer, Eleanor Davis, Craig Thompson, Sara Varon, Marc Rosenthal, Kate Beaton, Tony Millionaire... a collection too numerous to mention. Most I have encountered somewhere along the way, either in alternative comics or picture books or graphic novels, and with the exception of a single artist whose style I just don't care for I find them all to be equally suited to the task.

For most families with children I would say this shouldn't be the first or only collection of nursery rhymes. But for those who might want a second book this might make a great addition for the family with a new reader looking to read nursery rhymes to younger siblings. It'll make them the hip and cool kid who introduces their kid brothers and sisters into the joys of reading, storytelling, and the slightly subversive world of comics.

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