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Stories for Kids--Not Pinheads

Edgy cartoonist Art Spiegelman thinks children's books don't need Disney treatment.

November 01, 2000|PATRICK PACHECO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — As a photographer prepares to shoot a portrait of Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly in their art-crammed SoHo studio, Mouly nudges her husband to put out his cigarette, thinking the picture is for a children's magazine.

Though Spiegelman is assured that it is not, he puts out the cigarette anyway and pops a piece of gum into his mouth. "I have a feeling I'm going to be chewing a lot of gum," he says with a sigh.

It's hard to think of Spiegelman, the nicotine-stained counterculture cartoonist, going bubble gum. This is the guy, after all, who has made a career on the premise that comics are an art form suitable for adults. He won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his adult comic book "Maus," a Holocaust memoir in which Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as cats and Poles as pigs. He raised hackles by drawing a Valentine's Day cover for the New Yorker magazine showing a Hasidic Jew passionately kissing an African American woman just months after an outbreak of violence between Jews and blacks in the Crown Heights neighborhood of New York--both sides were offended. And, with Mouly, he created Raw, the hip, edgy adult "comix" magazine of the 1980s that provided a subversive commentary on the Reagan-Bush years.

But now the pair has turned to kids' books: Their latest collaboration is "Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies," a large-format hardcover children's storybook created comic-style by many of the same artists who worked on Raw, along with some New Yorker cartoonists as well. Published by Joanna Cotler, an imprint of HarperCollins, it is planned as first in a series, and an exhibition of the work is on view at Storyopolis in Los Angeles through Nov. 30, where the pair will appear Friday at 6 p.m. "Little Lit" is not Spiegelman's first foray into children's books; three years ago he wrote and illustrated "Open Me--I'm a Dog" a story of a puppy transformed into a book, also published by Joanna Cotler.

In person, the couple are a contrast in styles. Spiegelman, at 52, is the classic New York intellectual dressed in rumpled clothing and wearing thick glasses; voluble and mordantly wry, he is cheerfully unpretentious. Mouly, 45, is a native of France who came to the United States at 19 as an architecture student. Speaking with charmingly accented English, she displays a European mix of casual stylishness and piercing intelligence.

Comics That Will Grab a Child's Interest

Spiegelman believes most children's literature is "condescending," marketed to a consumer "somewhere between a chimpanzee and a pinhead." Only half joking, he claims that he and Mouly set out to prove that "comics are not just for grown-ups anymore." They developed "Little Lit" by challenging artists to make works that would grab and hold a child's interest.

More than just a collection of stories, "Little Lit" also includes quizzes, puzzles and games. But the majority of the book is devoted to fairy tales. Among the reinterpretations of well-known classics are "The Sleeping Beauty," interpreted here by Daniel Clowes, which picks up the story after the "happily ever after;" "The Princess and the Pea," here by Barbara McClintock with animal protagonists; and a fairly straightforward, if wisecracking, "Jack and the Beanstalk," by David Macaulay.

Others have somewhat obscure origins. Spiegelman turned to an old Hasidic fable for "Prince Rooster," the story of a neurotic young royal who thinks he's a cock. Cartoonist Kaz recreated "The Hungry Horse"--a quirky, brutal anthropomorphic folk tale from Estonia--which he claims was told to him by a one-armed gypsy horse doctor at the racetrack.

"Many of the artists on Raw started out with safety pins in their ears and were now using those pins on diapers," says Spiegelman. "It was a question of going from sheer self-expression to making something worthy of a kid that would amuse, divert, entertain. That's not the same as letting it all hang out."

Although Spiegelman's interest in comics is wide-ranging--he currently is working on a book about Jack Cole, a legendary cartoonist from the 1940s and '50s, as well as a music-theater piece about the rise and fall of American comics--the idea for "Little Lit" was Mouly's. Initially, Spiegelman says he had to be "dragged, kicking and screaming" into the project, but Mouly persuaded him despite the fact that he wasn't crazy about editing again. Mouly has been art editor at the New Yorker since 1993, and she remembers well the French comic books of her youth, which were designed around solid storytelling rather than the superheroes of American comic books.

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