Archive for Mark Newgarden

The Purple Crayon’s Legacy, Part II: Picture Books

In the 58 years since its publication, Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon has appeared in 14 languages, and inspired many artists.  This blog (which takes its name from a line in the book) presented The Purple Crayon’s Legacy, Part I: Comics & Cartoons… nearly three years ago.  It is at last time for Part II: Picture Books.

Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)

Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)

As Harold does, Bear goes for a walk. As Harold does, Bear carries something to write with (a pencil instead of a crayon). And, as is the case with Harold, what Bear draws becomes real.  It’s true that, graphically, this is a very different book. Browne’s jungle scenes — all in color — recalls those of Henri Rousseau. Also, where Harold both creates and solves his problems, Bear’s problems — two hunters who want to shoot him — are not imagined. Fortunately, his pencil proves more powerful than their guns. I’m tempted to say that, in the book, the power to imagine a better reality trumps the power to kill. However, Browne handles this story with such a light touch that, while it may suggest such morals, that’s not the focus.

Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988)

Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau

Felix Clousseau’s art looks ordinary, but it’s not.  His painting of a duck actually quacks. However, “that was only half of it,” observes Agee’s narrator as the duck leaves the painting.  This is one of the book’s sly jokes (if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…), which include comic names of rival painters (such as Felicien CaffayOllay), several Magritte references, and the pun on the final page. No, I won’t give away the ending. Read it yourself.

Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)

Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)

In his Caldecott acceptance speech for Jumanji (1981), Chris Van Allsburg actually thanked “Harold, and his purple crayon.” He has elsewhere spoken of the book as the one he “remember[s] most clearly” from his childhood. Van Allsburg loved its theme of “the ability to create things with your imagination,” which, he says, is “a fairly elusive idea, but [the book] presents it so succinctly through these simple drawings that it registers very clearly.”

May of Van Allsburg’s books traverse (or blur) the line between imaginary and real, but Bad Day at Riverbend seems the most explicit homage to Johnson’s book. Rendered in coloring-book style, the people of Riverbend face a “greasy slime” that sticks aggressively to whatever it assaults. We readers recognize the “slime” as crayon scribbles, which (spoiler alert!) the book’s ending reveals to be true.  The townspeople are … the victims of a child with a crayon.

Thacher Hurd, Art Dog (1996)

Thacher Hurd, Art Dog (1996)

As Harold does, Art Dog creates art that changes physical realities. He also has his artistic adventures at night, beneath the moonlight. On one of the pages, he paints a somewhat goofy purple (with green spots) bird who reminds me of Harold’s drawings. Above the bird, on the wall, he has painted falling stars reminiscent of the one that Harold rides home in Harold’s Trip to the Sky (1957).

Some years ago, I wrote to Thacher Hurd to ask whether he or his parents (Clement Hurd and Edith Thacher Hurd) had known Johnson or Ruth Krauss. He said that they may have, though he had no memories of them. During our very brief email correspondence, I said “I’ve often thought that Harold would get along very well with Art Dog.” He responded, “Yes, I did put in a subtle aside to Harold and the Purple Crayon in Art Dog. I love that book, and loved it as a kid.”

Régis Faller, Voyage de Polo (2002: English translation: The Adventures of Polo, 2006) and its many sequels

Régis Faller, Le voyage de Polo (2002)

Wordless (save for the occasional sound effect), Faller’s Polo books have an associative narrative logic that’s evocative of the Harold stories’ structure.  In Voyage de Polo (The Adventures of Polo), he opens the door of his island tree home, walks over to a tightrope, and then starts carefully to make his way along it — shades of Harold’s tightrope act in Harold’s Circus (1959). The tightrope suddenly becomes stairs, which Polo then climbs — reminiscent of the stairs in Harold’s Fairy Tale (1957).  Beyond those direct visual allusions (or, at least, they feel like allusions), the story’s art manages to link each panel to the next, and then to the next.  You don’t quite know where Polo is going, but he’s traveling with a purpose, and fun to accompany for the duration of his journey.  More than anything else, the chain of associations most strongly reminds me of Harold’s stories.

Delphine Durand, Bob & Cie., (2004; English translation: Bob & Co., 2006)

Durand, Bob & Cie (2004): cover

A small book that begins with “a blank page” and then waits for “the story” to get underway, Durand’s Bob & Cie. (Bob & Co.) pursues the metaphysical implications of Harold’s predicament. Except, in this story, it’s Bob’s predicament. It’s hard to summarize. By turns whimsical and profound, Durand’s absurdist metafiction is about faith, narrative, the universe, beginnings and endings. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. Someday, I’d like to write (a blog post? an essay?) about Durand’s work.  Her sensibility and sense of humor appeal to me.

Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)

The creator of the comic strip Mutts creates a story about a boy named Art who creates lots of art.  This conceit inspires many puns on the name, and, well, lots of art (and Art).  About a third of the way in, the book moves explicitly to Harold’s territory, when Art draws a house and then stands on the doorway in order to draw the roof.

from Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)

Deborah Freedman, Scribble (2007)

Deborah Freedman, Scribble (2007)

When Emma insults her younger sister Lucie’s drawing of a kitty (“It looks like a scribble”), Lucie defends herself: “It’s a special scribble-kitty!” In retaliation, she scribbles all over Emma’s drawing of the Princess Aurora. Emma storms off.  Then Scribble, Lucie, and the sisters’ real cat step into the drawings — which is the moment that the book enters Harold’s realm. It’s telling that only the younger sister crosses the boundary from real to imaginary worlds. Perhaps Freedman is suggesting that only the youngest children — Lucie, Harold — can make that leap, and fully believe it.  Freedman’s second book, Blue Chicken (2011), also plays with the boundary between art and life.  But, this time, a chicken is the artist.

Allan Ahlberg & Bruce Ingman, The Pencil (2008)

Ahlberg and Ingman, The PencilA pencil (which appears itself to have been rendered in pencil) draws a boy, a dog, a cat, a house, a road, and a park.  As in Harold and the Purple Crayon, all things the pencil draws are real. The book departs from Johnson’s book when the pencil draws a paintbrush, who in turn colors everything the pencil draws. The decision to add color bends the narrative logic (how can a grey pencil draw color?), as does the decision to add an eraser (how can an eraser remove watercolors?). But the eraser proves a valuable antagonist. Just as the pencil draws enthusiastically, so the eraser embraces his function — threatening the world that pencil and paintbrush have created.  I wonder: what would have Harold done with an eraser?  He does cross things out (the witch in Harold’s Fairy Tale, the whole picture in A Picture for Harold’s Room), but he never erases.

Matteo Pericoli, Tommaso and the Missing Line (2008)

Pericoli, Tommaso and the Missing Line (2008)The line of the hill disappears from Tommaso’s drawing, which shows “a house on a hill, / a tall tree and some mountains. / And two people — / him and his grandma.”  So, of course, he goes off in search of it. On the right-hand page, Pericoli uses black ink for everything, except his character’s drawing and specific lines that Tommasso finds — those are all in orange. On the left-hand page, Pericoli places white text on an orange background. The orange at left makes each orange line at right “pop” out of the picture. Visually, it’s very effective.

Sure, Tommaso is also an artist, but, you ask, is there a more particular connection to Harold and the Purple Crayon?  There are several, first of which is that Tommaso does find his line — “as real as he always remembered it” — out in the world. So, as in Johnson’s book, art can become real.  Also, though Pericoli’s line is not as tight as Johnson’s, the pen-and-ink drawings on white pages evoke Johnson’s aesthetic sensibility.  Just as Harold’s purple line does, Tommaso’s orange line has as powerful a visual presence.

Any obvious (or not-so-obvious) books I’ve missed? I realize there are many other metafictional books (Scieszka and Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man, Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book, to name but two) or aesthetically comparable books (Lehman, again, Newgarden and Cash’s Bow Wow series) or books about artists (Lionni’s Frederick, McClintock’s The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle). My list may be too narrow, but its idiosyncrasies will I hope inspire discussion.  So, let the discussion begin!

Related Posts:

(And, yes, I do plan further parts in this series — with luck, they’ll appear more swiftly than Part II!  Indeed, the blog has been quieter for this past month because, this summer, I’ve foolishly taken on more writing than I can cope with.  I’m struggling to keep my head [nearly] above water.)

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Clear Lines and Comics Luminaries: A Report from SPX

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby and the American Clear Line School. Left to right: Mark Newgarden, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel. Photo by Paul Karasik.

It’s hard to put into words what it means to spend over a dozen years on a book, and then be able to talk about it with smart, talented people whose work I admire.  Saturday’s panel at the Small Press Expo — featuring Daniel Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, and myself — was exactly that.  Titled “Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and the American Clear Line School,” the panel aimed (among other things) to spread the word about Fantagraphics’ Complete Barnaby: Eric and I are co-editing, Dan is designing, Chris wrote an intro for Volume 1.  Since that book isn’t out yet (currently expecting a February ’13 pub date), it also enabled me to draw upon my dozen years of research for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (which is just out, and features a cover by Chris).

For 50 minutes, we had an illuminating conversation about Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, and how comics work.  Few people understand comics as well as Mark, Dan, and Chris do.  If you’ve ever heard Chris Ware speak or read an interview with him, you’ll know that he is one of a very few comics creators who can articulate, clearly & with precision, how particular comics work — and do this all without notes, speaking in what sound like perfectly punctuated paragraphs.  He was just as sharp, the following day, on the Building Stories conversation between him and Dave Ball.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby and the American Clear Line School. Left to right: Mark Newgarden, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel. Photo by Paul Karasik.

It’s also fascinating to me that three quite different cartoonists are drawn to Barnaby. With the exception of Ice Haven (my favorite Clowes book, incidentally), Daniel Clowes’ works have the fewest visual similarities to Johnson’s style. Chris Ware’s precise line recalls Johnson’s, though he favors more detailed pages than Johnson does. Mark Newgarden’s line is thicker and looser than Johnson’s, though his aesthetic is closer to Johnson’s succinct minimalism.  What all four share in common is a sharpness, a precision that gives their work a vital presence on the page.  All four understand the visual grammar of cartoons; they are fluent in the language of images.

Commercially, SPX was a success, also. Fantagraphics kindly sold copies of my biography (we sold all of them), and set up signings for me at their booth — the first of which found me sitting next to Dan.  Chris very generously signed the prints of his cover, for my Johnson-Krauss bio., and I sold about a dozen of those, too.

Daniel Clowes and Philip Nel signing books at the Fantagraphics booth. Photo by Alvin Buenaventura.

But, for me, what made it special was getting to hang out with so many great artists, writers, editors, & scholars. I never thought I’d find myself at dinner with Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine, and Françoise Mouly. When I told Mike Deforge (an up-and-coming comics creator who was also at that dinner) that I felt like I’d been invited to the grown-ups’ table and wondered how the heck I got there, he admitted that he felt the same way.  So, a hearty thanks to Alvin Buenaventura for inviting us! (On that note, check out Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, edited by Alvin & with an essay by Chris.)

There are many other highlights — hanging out with Mark N. & Megan Montague Cash, getting to show them original Barnaby strips at the Smithsonian, meeting fellow Crockett Johnson fans, other comics scholars, seeing Warren Bernard’s astonishing personal collection of comics (at his house), discovering a group of comics artists engaged in an ongoing alphabet project, and so much more.  And the Barnaby panel was a career highlight.

Thanks again to Dan, Mark, Chris, and Eric for making it happen.  Thanks to Bill Kartalopoulos for including us in his great program.  And thanks to everyone I met for a fantastic SPX.

Photos by Paul Karasik (top two) and Alvin Buenaventura (lower one). Thanks, fellas!  Enjoyed seeing you, too!

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Cushlamochree! Barnaby, the Small Press Expo, & more

Chris Ware, poster for Small Press Expo 2012

Do you like comics? Any chance you’ll be in the vicinity of Bethesda, MD this weekend?  If so, then come to the Small Press Expo!  On Saturday the 15th, you can hear Daniel Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, & me talk about Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby.  Here’s the panel description:

Barnaby advertisement, 19 April 1942Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and the American Clear Line School

12:00 pm | White Flint Auditorium

In a canny mix of fantasy and satire, amplified by the clean minimalism of Crockett Johnson’s line, Barnaby (1942-1952) expanded our sense of what comics can do. Though it never had a mass following, this tale of a five-year-old boy and his endearing con-artist of a fairy godfather influenced many. To mark the launch of The Complete Barnaby,Dan ClowesMark NewgardenChris Ware, and the book’s two co-editors — Fantagraphics’ Eric Reynolds and Crockett Johnson biographer Philip Nel — discuss the wit, the art, and the genius of Barnaby.

Later that day, I’m chairing a panel on “Comics as Children’s Literature,” featuring Françoise Mouly, Renée French, and Brian Ralph:

Comics as Children’s Literature
5:00 pm | White Flint Auditorium

Comics’ fraught historical legacy as children’s literature and children’s comics’ status as an expanding category of contemporary publishing will be discussed by cartoonist and picture book author Renée FrenchFrançoise Mouly, founder of the TOON Books imprint and co-editor of The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s ComicsMark Newgarden, co-author of the “Bow-Wow” children’s comics and picture book series; and Brian Ralph, author of the all-ages graphic novel Cave-In. Children’s literature scholar Philip Nel will lead the conversation.

I’m honored to be in such august company.

But there’s more!  Perhaps you would like to buy a 20″ x 39″ print of Chris Ware’s beautiful cover for my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss?

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

I will be selling prints specially designed by Mr. Ware.  (He’s removed all of the text except the title and my name.)  Find me at the Fantagraphics booth (tables W40-44), where we’ll also be selling (and I’ll be signing) copies of the biography itself:

  • Saturday, September 15, 1:00 – 2:00 PM    Daniel Clowes // Philip Nel
  • Sunday, September 16, 2:00 – 3:00 PM    Philip Nel // Rich Tommaso

Both items will be available while supplies last.  You can see a full signing schedule on Fantagraphics’ website.

There’s much more.  Artists Gilbert & Jamie Hernandez, Paul Karasik, Adrian Tomine,… plus a full panel each devoted to Ware & to Clowes, footage of cartoonists screened by Mark Newgarden,… comics scholars David Ball, Sara Duke, Ken Parille,… and, oh, go read the conference schedule.

Hope to see you there!

(And… here ends my commercial announcement.)

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10 “Bests” from 2010

1. Best novel that I missed when it came out: Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything (Scholastic, 2006).  Narrated by a nine-year-old, this is an all-ages book about love, faith, and growing up.  It has a sense of humor, too.  I devoted a post to this book earlier in the month.

Dessa, A Badly Broken Code2. Album of the Year: Dessa’s A Badly Broken CodeDessa is a poet who raps and sings.  Consider this excerpt from the chorus to “Children’s Work:” “But some nights I still can’t sleep. / The past rolls back / And I can see us still. / You’ve learned how to hold your own / How to stack your stones / But the history’s thick. / Children aren’t as simple / As we might think.”  And now listen to her perform it:

Children’s Work Dessa

Mesmerizing.  There are also quieter pieces, like “Poor Atlas” or the concluding song “Into the Spin.”  And compelling, moving narratives about relationships, like “Mineshaft II” and “Go Home.”  I had never heard of Dessa before listening to this album (she has one earlier EP), but I’ll definitely keep an eye out for anything else she does.

Suzy Lee, Shadow: cover3. Picture Book of the Year: Suzy Lee’s Shadow.  There were many great picture books this year, but this is one I’d like to see get more attention.  I loved Lee’s debut, Wave (2008), a wordless story of a girl, some gulls, and a wave.  Shadow shows that Lee is here to stay.  You hold the book so that the binding is horizontal, and then lift the pages up.  Above the gutter, a little girl plays in her basement; below it, the shadows convey what she imagines… or do they?  As in Where the Wild Things Are, this beautifully designed book knows that the imagination can have a life of its own.

Thompson, Shapes and Colors4. Best Comic Strip of 2010: Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac.  To read Cul de Sac is to watch a classic being written. I’m reminded of reading Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes as it was being published. I look forward to each day’s strip, and am impressed by the fact Thompson’s invention never seems to flag.  Even more impressive is that the humor isn’t scattershot like Pearls Before Swine: Stephan Patsis’ strip is funny, but I always get the impression that there’s no gag he wouldn’t try.  There are gags Thompson wouldn’t try.  His humor almost always develops from the characters themselves.  If you’ve not read this strip yet, you can read it on Go Comics, or buy any of the four collections — Shapes and Colors is the latest.

Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library No. 205. Best Graphic Novel of 2010: Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library No. 20 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010).  With a modernist’s eye for detail, Ware tells the life story of Jordan Lint, a bully who used to pick on Rusty Brown (featured in Acme Novelty Library Nos. 16 & 17).  The scenes of Jordan’s childhood are worth the price of admission alone: shown from Jordan’s perspective, Ware beaks down the universe into the shapes and objects that a baby sees.  Flattening perspective and labeling each item (tree, car, ant, momma, dad) as if it were a children’s book, one two-page spread shows Jordan witnessing his father hitting his mother.  The layout is bright and beautiful, like a Mondrian painting, but the content is dark — and foreshadows later, troubling developments in Jordan’s personality. Ware’s dense pages that require re-reading, his panels that can be read in more than one sequence, and his extraordinary sensitivity to space, sound, light, time … tend to slip by all but the sharpest students when I teach his work.  But connoisseurs of comics, and my best students, know they’re reading the work of a master.  He’s the James Joyce or Virginia Woolf of the graphic novel.  And Acme Novelty Library No. 20 is one of his best.

6. Best person to follow on Twitter: Steve Martin (SteveMartinToGo).  Wry and consistently funny.  Earlier today (New Year’s Eve), he posted:

4…3…2…1…HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

7. Most interesting person to follow on Facebook: Mark NewgardenMark uses Facebook like others use Twitter — he post links to curiosities, most of them on YouTube.  Recurring subjects include rare animation, and silent films.  I have no idea where he finds all of this stuff.

8. Best Literary Criticism: Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 101 27.4 (Winter 2009): 67-94. This article is actually from 2009, but I didn’t encounter it until this year.  It’s thoughtful, theoretical, historicized — and all rendered in lucid prose.  To answer the question “how do people dance with things to construct race?” Bernstein brings together photography, toys, children’s literature, cultural history, and — with apparent effortlessness — writes with insight and clarity.  For example, to think about script behavior, Bernstein brings in (a) Frances Hodgson Burnett’s childhood re-enactment of scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and (b) E. W. Kemble’s racist A Coon Alphabet (1898).  She writes:

We have contextualizing information in the history of alphabet books, but we have no corroborating archival evidence — no journal entry, no letter, no photograph or film clip, no eyewitness account — to tell us how living children interacted with Kemble’s book. These disparities do not necessarily mean, however, that we can make more reliable inferences regarding performances involving Burnett’s doll than regarding Kemble’s book. To the contrary, we can make more reliable inferences about the latter, because it is possible that Burnett misremembered, distorted, or flat-out lied in her memoir, but it is not possible that no child ever turned the pages of Kemble’s alphabet book. By reading things’ scripts within historically located traditions of performance, we can make well-supported claims about normative aggregate behavior: in the 1890s, competent performers turned pages of picture books. (76)

I like, here, the inversion of expectations: you think that actually having a reaction (Burnett’s) might be the more reliable gauge of how contemporary children reacted, but Bernstein deftly challenges that assumption.  Her book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights is due out from NYU Press in 2011.  You can bet I’ll be buying a copy.

9. Best TV Show: Mad Men.  Confession: I watch very little (in fact, almost no) TV.  I just started watching Mad Men this year (on DVD), and have just finished season 2.  So, I’m unequipped to comment on the latest season.  But what I enjoy about the show is the uneasy juxtaposition of nostalgia for the style of the early 1960s with the lack of nostalgia for the prejudice, sexism, disregard for the environment, etc.  It’s the close proximity of a longing for the look of the time coupled with a distaste for the attendant social mores — that makes the show work.  I also enjoy the fact that it does not editorialize: it simply presents homophobia, sexism, racism, with the knowledge that its viewers will find the behavior repellent.  It helps, of course, that sympathetic characters (Don, Peggy) are more tolerant of difference and more sympathetic to people on the margins of society.  But I find the blunt presentation of ugliness in such a lovingly recreated setting to be very compelling viewing.

Mad Men, Season 2: cast photo on stairs at Sterling Cooper

10. Best App: Angry Birds.  As is true of the above comment, I’m rather unequipped to be claiming what’s “best” here: I don’t spend much time playing games on the iPhone.  Furthermore, I have not played video games of any kind in over 25 years. In fact, this is the only game I play at all. Anyway, Angry Birds has a delightful mix of cuteness and aggression, whimsy and competitiveness.  I also like that it’s not addictive.  It’s enormously fun to play, but then I can put it down for days (weeks!) and do other work.

Angry Birds

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