One of the great things about reading comics today is that we’re well past the point in the medium ‘s history where they were all for kids, and finally getting past the point where so many of their adult readers felt compelled to reflexively, defensively declare that comics most definitely are not for kids anymore.
Melvin Monster, a ten-issue series Dell published in 1965, was most assuredly a kids comic. It wasn’t all-ages, or a comic for teenagers or young adults like Marvel’s comics of the period, but for children.
But Melvin Monster Vol. 1, the first collection in Drawn and Quarterly’s John Stanley Library line, is for both children and adults, addressing both audiences in different ways simultaneously. I think that, in itself, is pretty cool. As cool as it might have been to be nine-years-old in the mid-‘60s and buy an issue of the series off the spinner rack in the drugstore, it’s even cooler to have this gorgeous, hardcover objet d’art in my hands as a grown man, and be able to appreciate it as a member of whichever audience I feel like reading it as, or to be able to hand it over to one of my nieces (provided her hands are clean) or a friend whose as interested in art and illustration and know either one of them are really going to dig it.
John Stanely is, of course, the influential (and ingenious) cartoonist responsible for Dell’s Little Lulu comics (which Dark Horse has been pumping out in delightful black and white digests), and, during his 20 years in the medium, working on characters lik Nancy and Sluggo, Woody Woodpecker, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Krazy Kat and more.
Melvin Monster was a kids humor series similar in tone and aesthetic to Little Lulu, although it was much less grounded in the real world.
Melvin was a little monster boy who lived with his Mummy, a face-less, fully-bandaged mummy wearing a dress, apron and a fashionable head of red hair, and his Baddy, a hulking, ape-like monster with huge sloping shoulders and arms made for strangling. Melvin was a very good little boy which, of course, made him a very bad little monster, and his insistence on going to school, doing homework and practicing good deeds infuriated his father, teacher and most everyone else in his home town of Monsterville.
Not even Melvin’s pet crocodile Cleopatara liked him; she spent all her time trying to devour him.
Despite his put-upon, outsider status, Melvin remained cheerful, and Stanley mined humor out of the simple inversions of human society and monster society, and the clash between Melvin’s goodness and his community’s badness.
This book features the first half of the comics run, in which Melvin tries to go to school despite his teacher’s attempts to keep him out of Monsterville’s little black school house, a couple of trips to the human world, some pretty painful playing in the backyard, an encounter with some particularly fierce mice in the pantry and several situations in which our hero needs help from his incompetent guardian demon.
These stories are pretty timeless—more timeless than the Little Lulu ones, given the more fantastic and foreign setting make them harder to place—and I imagine they would be as perfect for a kid in 2009 as they would have been in 1965 or 1985.
The large, hardcover format, however, makes the book seem geared towards an adult audience, and while adults might not enjoy the stories in quite the same way a child might, they’re quite charmingl, and the book has a great deal of value as a historical record and an example of some flat-out amazing cartooning.
The stories are a ton of fun to read, but, if you’re interested in things like the mechanics or comics or character design, you can literally flip to any page at random and just stare at Stanley’s accomplishments, and try to disassemble them in your mind.
And Drawn and Quarterly certainly paid attention to the book-as-three-dimensional-piece-of-art aspect. It’s designed by John Stanley fan Seth, and has a smooth, leather-esque feel to the cover (Sorry, I don’t know enough about book design and production to know what material it actually is; I just know I like touching it). It’s all green and black, like Melvin, with a close-up image of the little monster boy on it, and raised, silver type on the title. The inside covers feature a check-pattern in which squares of Melvin making a variety of expressions alternate with squares of the John Stanely Library logo, and there are several pages of Seth playing with the contrast between white eyes and dark figures in a cartoonish monster in the dark setting. It’s really just a gorgeous looking book.
The stories themselves bear the slightly yellowed, pulpy look of old comics, so that the end result is a little like someone simply bound some of the old Dell books, and Seth illuminated the pages before and after them. Which I guess is kind of what happened.
It certainly bodes quite well for future John Stanley Library collections.