Heartfelt thanks to Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly for bringing back a nearly forgotten popular art form with their groundbreaking new collection The TOON Treasury of Classic Children's Comics. The superhero mode has so dominated — you almost want to say "deformed" — comic books for so long that few folks younger than 50 can remember the wonderfully diverse subject matter of the comic's early days.
As Spiegelman and Mouly point out, the 1940s and early 1950s were the boom years for comics, with hundreds of titles and millions in sales. That's a lot of dimes. However, cartoons on TV, rising prices and the sense that only superheroes were cool in the 1960s led kid comics into a permanent decline.
The TOON Treasury of Classic Children's Comics offers a potent argument that this was a loss for family entertainment. Spiegelman and Mouly do this by selecting only humorous stories — true funny books — and by avoiding any dated stereotypes. That means, unfortunately, that there are no black characters in this book.
Paging through mountainous piles of comics, the editors selected more material by four artist-writers than any others, all but one of them unknown to the general public.
Walt Kelly is still kind of famous because of his Pogo newspaper comic. Carl Barks, the creator of Uncle Scrooge and the finest of the Walt Disney comic artists, is a giant in Europe but a cult figure here. You have to be a comic-book fan to know that Little Lulu was written by John Stanley, or even that Little Lulu was a marvelous comic. And finally, only the hard-core now remember Sheldon Mayer, who did Sugar and Spike and many other titles. Mayer made his mark when he insisted that his bosses include a much-rejected work in the first issue of Action Comics. You may have heard of it — something called Superman.
Mayer was a master of gentle humor with a slapstick twist. It didn't matter whether it was Sugar and Spike, his wised-up babies who were all for each other in a world of adults they couldn't understand, or the goofy blowhard J. Rufus Lion. Kelly does a dollop of Pogo, but his equally droll treatment of fairy tale conventions is a revelation. Stanley made Little Lulu one of the most confident female characters in comics, stuck with grown-up fools and stuck-up boys in an absurd world. And Barks is one of the most deft and inventive American humorists and storytellers in any field. The man makes you crazy. Still, an old lesson holds true: The more overtly didactic a story, the less funny, which damages characters like intellectual Amos. However, the overall lack of ironic humor is refreshing, and it's interesting how many comics expected an audience that was thoroughly familiar with classic fairy tales and at least a bit familiar with life on a farm. Spiegelman and Mouly were also correct that wit outlasts thrills, in comics at least.
There were a couple of vintage superheros with a sense of humor: Jack Cole's Plastic Man and C. C. Beck's Captain Marvel, and both artist-writers are represented in the TOON Treasury.
The truth is, most of the comic-book Westerns and crime tales and superhero sagas of the 1940s and 1950s don't hold up well today. The nostalgic glow soon fades into tedium. But Sugar and Spike, Little Lulu and Tubby, and Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge remain as vibrant and timeless as the fairies and knights and genies that so much inspired them.