In 1844, a Frankfurt physician named Heinrich Hoffman (sometimes known as the “medical man of the lunatic asylum”) went into town to buy a children’s book for his three-year-old son. He found nothing but what he called “stupid stories, beginning and ending with admonitions like ‘the good child must be truthful’.” Irritated by the poor selection, he wrote and illustrated his own collection of children stories called Struwwelpeter (translation: Shockheaded Peter), which he gave to his son for Christmas. They are some of the most horrific, brutal stories ever to be considered juvenilia, and they mark the genesis in a long tradition of unusual art books.
Fantagraphics has just released a new edition of Struwwelpeter, which it is calling “the world’s most nightmarish children’s book.” This edition is illustrated by artist Bob Staake (MAD, Cartoon Network), who remembers, “When I was given the book as a kid I didn’t know if it was a joke or not, but my German parents weren’t laughing.” Staake’s art, which is 100 percent digital, lies somewhere between Pop Art’s sterile cleanliness, South Park’s cut-and-paste characters, and Wassily Kandinsky’s bright color slabs. It has the sort of vibrant, immediate energy that is generally associated with candy wrappers and billboards, yet most of the imagery involves bloody, dying children. This edition of Struwwelpeter is one of the first in a new line of books called the Blab! Storybooks, a series that caters to a strain of bizarre illustrated literature that eschews the formats of accepted genres (art book, comic book, graphic novel, children’s book) and explores new, hybridized forms. The series includes new work by gallery artists, illustrators, and cartoonists such as Camille Rose Garcia, Drew Friedman, and David Sandlin.
Struwwelpeter is a collection of short poems about children who are violently punished for disobedience. Little Pauline plays with matches, sets herself on fire, and burns to death as her cats watch. Augustus, a finicky eater, refuses to eat his soup and very quickly dies of debilitating starvation. A thumb-sucking child’s thumb is amputated by someone called the Scissorman; young boys drown; racist white children are dipped in black ink, and an evil, animal-abusing child called “Cruel Frederick” is mauled by his pet dog. Most slasher films would be more appropriate entertainment for the average child. This is the beauty of Struwwelpeter: it is a book completely ill-suited to its own audience. Even the Lemony Snicket books, as dark as they are, shoot for an older, slightly less impressionable readership, while Struwwelpeter works at the Dr. Seuss reading level:
So she was burnt with all her clothes,
Her arms, her hands, her eyes, her nose,
Until she had no more to lose,
Except her little scarlet shoes.
It would seem that only a gothic cult audience would be able to appreciate this combination of black humor, sophisticated art, and childlike storytelling, but Fantagraphics is a company known for turning niche art into popular art. The graphic novel once suffered this same quandary—serious comic books?—and Fantagraphics has been fundamental to the form’s accept- ance into the realm of literature and gallery art. Since 1976, it has published comics from the heavy hitters— Mark Ryden, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and R. Crumb—while also publishing titles from the golden age of comics and the seminal underground comix movement of the late sixties. Now, as commercial publishing houses have begun releasing graphic novels to larger audiences, Fantagraphics is continuing to test the limits of art-and-text-based books with the Blab! storybooks.
To inaugurate the series, Fantagraphics has also created a new term: “Picto-Novellete,” which it includes on the front page of every Blab! book. Just as the term alternative music has lost its ability to refer to anything “alternative,” the term graphic novel has come to refer to a particular type of art book. Picto-Novellete, however, suggests only that 1) the book has words, 2) the book is short, and 3) the book contains some variety of picture. I can’t imagine any more specific way to define this diverse collection of books.
For example, Sheep of Fools, a completely different sort of Blab! book, is a polemic against the conditions of animal farming. Sue Coe, the author and artist, has been a frontline social commentator in the graphic novel world since the ’80s. Her previous books, Porkopolis and Pit’s Letter, tell the stories of abandoned animals, the conditions of the meat industry, and the sickening state of animal transportation. Sheep of Fools is a continuation of these ideas, documenting the history of the wool industry through a “song cycle in five voices… sung a capella by a chorus of sheep.” Songs about the Middle Ages tell stories of England’s wool- dependent economy, while other songs explore the modern-day methods for butchery, transportation, breeding, and mulesing (a process of cutting off excess fat folds from the sheep’s rear). Phrases such as “The skins of preborn embryos bring twice the price of newborn” are exemplary of the book’s attention to nauseating detail. In fact, after every song there is short factual paragraph (cheekily called a “Hoof Note”) exploring sheep farming: “The nursery rhyme ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ is thought to represent the collection of revenue from people of all levels of society. Wool was equivalent to money; Richard I’s ransom was paid in wool.”
Surprisingly, the power of the book’s historical horrors is timid in comparison to the devastating images on every page. Paintings of impaled, gutted, and skinned sheep convey a deep anguish somewhere between Max Ernst’s convoluted dream aesthetic and Bosch’s nightmarish landscapes. Coe’s imagery is evocative in all the right ways, filling in the intensity where the text cannot, masterfully showing the unique power of combining text and art.
A third book in the Blab! series, Darling Cheri, by Walter Minus (known for his French illustrations of female nudes), has almost nothing in common with the previous two. If I had to create a subgenre for this particular book, it would be something like: “cartoon erotica/very long, depressing hallmark-card.” The story is written as a sort of “Dear John” letter, from a woman to a man, announcing the end of their relationship with sentences like: “The roll we had yesterday evening was our last. It made me realize I don’t want you anymore.”
The text is accompanied by thirty-two centerfold-style illustrations of a woman, scantily clad, in a variety of positions, some of which are seemingly impossible. After reading the first half of the letter and gawking at the illustrations, it becomes clear that the images on the page are not just shameless pornography, but images in the mind of the man reading the letter, as jealousy, anger, and loss tear away at him. In every one of her postures, the cold, vicious words she writes grate against the inviting lust in her eyes, creating a confused fabric of emotions rare to a genre like cartoon erotica.
After feeling deeply disturbed by two Blab! books, it was no surprise that the third title evoked lecherous, seedy feelings. Still, each of these books, in its own way, establishes the complete unpredictability of any publication in the series.We can only wait to see if the Blab! experiment will result in a mainstreaming of this subversive form, perhaps inspiring completely new connotations for the young genre of the Picto-Novelette.