In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly created, edited and contributed to several editions of RAW, an anthology of post-modern comics (or "co-mix," as Spiegelman insisted) that did much to reshape alternative comics. By culling work from a clique of cutting-edge New York and European cartoonists and publishing them in quality, coffee table-friendly editions, RAW put a gloss on the world of nonsuperhero comics that was previously associated with the grungy, drug-addled free associations of R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. RAW presented comics as high art and introduced readers to cartoonists Charles Burns and Mark Breyer, European dessinateurs such as Kamagurka and Seele, and the first installments of Spiegelman's own chef d'oeuvre, the Holocaust opus "Maus." The RAW anthologies not only influenced alternative cartoonists, but publishers of alternative cartoonists such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly continue to present alternative comics with reverence in classy, lush formats. Twenty years later, Spiegelman is married to Mouly, and the two have children. So the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist has recently begun directing high-brow material toward the younger set. Two years ago, the Spiegelman authored the children's book "Open Me... I'm a Dog!," and now he and Mouly have released a "RAW Junior Book" titled "Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies."
As an anthology of short children's stories, "Little Lit" benefits from its pedigree of top-flight talent, drawn from the world of alternative comics and children's books. RAW alumni Burns and Kaz have returned as contributors, and also joining the mix are premiere children's book illustrator William Joyce ("Dinosaur Bob") and European children's book author Claude Ponti. Also contributing pieces are an elite assortment of young sophisticated cartoonists who have benefited from the path paved by the original RAW collections, including Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware and David Mazzucchelli.
Like most comic book anthologies, half the fun is the juxtaposition of different styles butted side by side. And like the RAW books, "Little Lit" offers a few conceptual novelties within its pages: a "Fairy Tale Road Rage" board game; a "What's Wrong With This Picture?" centered around the Rapunzel tale. The late Walt ("Pogo") Kelly's "The Gingerbread Man" really sings, and Kaz's cartoony "The Hungry Horse" is fun to look at. Mazzucchelli's "The Fisherman and the Sea Princess" is a standout, both in illustration and in story, which, like Clowes' "The Sleeping Beauty," does not hinge on a happy ending. Nor should they, as the fairy tales of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen often conveyed a darker side. Spiegelman himself opens the book with his rendition of the Chassidic parable "Prince Rooster."
Since the book treads on the high-minded side and the dramatic stylistic change-ups might prove too visually inconsistent for younger readers, one wonders reading "Little Lit" whether the volume is sincerely aimed at children, adults, or, ultimately, the artists themselves. Nevertheless, for parents and comic book aficionados, it's a unique project worth owning.
Art Spiegelman will appear at Storyopolis on Fri., Nov. 3, from 6-8 p.m. For more information or to make a reservation, call the children's book store at (310) 358-2512. Also, visit www.little-lit.com.