Fuse #8

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Review of the Day: Big Fat Little Lit

Big Fat Little Lit. Edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. Puffin Books. $14.99

Let’s say that you’ve heard of the “Little Lit” books, edited by Art Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly, but that you’ve never actually gone so far as to pick one up. Let us also say, while we are at it, that you are aware of the massive loads of talent that have gone into the series, but that this was still not quite enough to draw you in. Well, my lovelies, I have an answer for you. Like yourself, I somehow managed to catch a snatch of a comic strip here or a lovingly drawn panel there without actually sitting down and reading the "Little Lit" books cover to cover. Then, out of the bright blue sky, “Big Fat Little Lit” falls into my lap. So I read it through with not a little skepticism. Truth be told, I’ve always suspected that the books were written for adults rather than children. You can cast a book in a childish shell and claim your artists are working with the younger set in mind but will kids actually read what you create? Slowly I’ve come to the conclusion that yes, there is definitely an audience for this series that is under the age of 21. Still, if you’re gonna hand them a “Little Lit” collection, better to go for the best. Give them a compendium of selected past works. Give them “Big Fat Little Lit”, the best of the best, and save yourself some time.

Behold before you thirty-six comics created by thirty-three “of the world’s most beloved authors and artists”, or so says the backflap. Compiled from parts of the three “Little Lit” collections already in existence (with some extra goodies for spice) “Big Fat Little Lit” has it all. Ghouls and fools and fables both traditional and with a twist all working together to fill this 144 page beauty. You’ll find old classics like Crockett Johnson’s, “Barnaby” alongside all new tales by people as varied as Daniel Clowes or David Macaulay. The result is eye-popping jaw-dropping assortment of stories of varying styles and macabre natures. Puzzles too pop up between comics that can range anywhere between one to nine pages.

The sheer weight of celebrity is both a boon and an drag on enterprises like “Little Lit”. On the one hand, adults like me are bound to go gaga over the luminaries who’ve worked on this puppy. Where else can you find David Sedaris working with Ian Falconer (outside of The New Yorker, of course)? Neil Gaiman and Gahan Wilson? Heck, forget the pairings. They have two William Joyce offerings, Maurice Sendak unleashed, Jules Feiffer, and God knows who else. Illustrators that work primarily in the realm of children’s books like Barbara McClintok pair with kid-only authors like Lemony Snicket (as opposed to Daniel Handler, of course). Most impressive to my eyes (and proof that I never examined the original collection it appeared in closely enough) is a Walt Kelly piece. Publishers out there might do very well if they were to republish Kelly’s non-Pogo related fairy tales in a compendium, seeing as how they work so nicely here and all. So that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s sometimes hard not to get the feeling that child readers sometimes come across as a secondary concern. Since Spiegelman and Mouly founded “RAW”, the alternative comics magazine, is it fair to think of this as a slightly watered down version of that magazine’s material? Or is it its own separate beastie? I can answer the question of whether or not any kid is reading this collection, but nothing's simple.

I once worked in a Greenwich Village library where I would proudly display the first collection of “Little Lit” on the top of my bookshelves where it was easy to pluck and check out. No takers. That book sat solitary and untouched for weeks on end. At the time I blamed the publication itself. Then I moved to a different library branch. In my new location I created a Graphic Novel shelf and put the exact same publication there, visible for all to see. Within mere minutes that puppy flew off the shelf. What I deduce from all of this (aside from the average Greenwich Village native’s reluctance to disturb book displays) is that if you put “Little Lit” out there without any explanation, the viewing public isn’t going to know what to do with it. They’ve slowly been acclimated to the idea of what a graphic novel is, sure. But thrust something with pages the size of dinner mats in their face and they go all to pieces. Is it a picture book? A comic book? Fairy tales? So my advice to you is to make it crystal clear to people that this is a beastie like no other. No, it’s not really a graphic novel. But if you put it under that heading then at least people will have some kind of a context to work with.

But do CHILDREN read it? I direct you, in this case, to a conversation I had just today. I spoke to a homeschooler and her mother who were recently in my library, and the subject of graphic novels came up. When I mentioned “Little Lit” in passing, the two lit up. Apparently the girl was given the first collection when she was two and has been read them ever since at bedtime. Hearing this I was, to put it mildly, stunned. Then a co-worker informed me that her son likes the books because he likes fairy tales and he likes comics. Apparently the only way he can justify reading the one is if it is combined with the other. It bears some thought. I think that another reason that “Big Fat Little Lit” succeeds where its predecessors merely did okay is that due to the sheer volume of twisted puzzles, games, and I Spy-like ventures, this book can sit down and seriously court fans of “Highlights” everywhere.

The collection doesn’t contain all the past “Little Lit” ventures, which is logical. I was very very sad, however, to see that Chris Ware didn’t make the cut. His “Fairy Tale Road Rage” board game is not included, much to the chagrin of my Ware-lovin’ heart. Still, I was able to come to terms with his disappearance. Then I was perturbed by the reduced size of the individual comics in this book. Overall I think it was a very wise choice to reduce the size of “Little Lit”. The large size of the earlier collections, while they evoke the comic pages of our youth, are bulky and hard to fit on personal and public bookshelves. Unfortunately with this new size we now face a problem that comic artists face nationwide whenever a newspaper wants to fit in more copy. Small panels can sometimes crush otherwise perfectly nice reading matter rendering it difficult to see. In general this isn’t a noticeable problem until you come to Barbara McClintock’s, “The Princess and the Pea”. McClintock’s delicate lines and meticulous details have been scrunched and shrunken down so far in this book that the reader definitely loses something in the process. Ah well.

Now if your child/neice/nephew/grandchild/what-have-you already owns one of the “Little Lit” collections (or all of them, for that matter) then perhaps this gift might come across as a tad repetitive. Then again, there is new material to be found here that you could not locate elsewhere. Did I mention to you that the talents of Martin Handford are utilized here? Don’t know who Handforth is? Does the name “Where’s Waldo” mean anything to you? Aw yeah, baby. He’s here and he is, as the blurb on the back of this book states in general, "in top form". By and large, I’m a skeptic when it comes to this many sophisticates pooling their talents to bring small children joy. All that aside, this is undoubtedly my favorite “Little Lit” of the lot and is undoubtedly THE best way to enjoy the series. If you’re gonna give a kid some comics, make ‘em read “Big Fat Little Lit”. I seriously doubt it’ll take much prodding.

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