The TOON Book idea was simple. Produce books for early readers in a comic book format, as created by a variety of different author/illustrators. Cat in the Hat with speech bubbles, if you will. The problem? Children’s authors often say that novels are easy and picture books are hard. I’d take that one step further. Picture books are hard but easy books are near impossible. To be truly great you have to reinvent the genre. Seuss did. Mo Willems certainly has with his Elephant and Piggie. And until now the TOON Books have been finding their footing. They’ve hired a lot of artists that haven’t done extensive work in the children’s arena, and the result is that they’re still figuring out the best way to present their material. And then came Bliss. Harry Bliss has been knocking off picture books left and right for a number of years now. He knows how to make an idea succinct. How to synthesize words into their most essential forms. And best of all, how to make it funny. Luke on the Loose may be the best TOON Book to come out so far. Hopping and hip, Bliss takes a simple idea and takes it to its logical extreme.
The first rule of toddler to preschool aged children? You don’t let your eyes wander from them for a second. Not so much as a minute. It is a lesson Luke’s dad is about to learn. While talking to a fellow grown-up in the park, the man fails to note the moment when Luke, entranced by the sheer proximity of pigeons, takes off with a mighty "YAAH!" Through the streets, over people’s heads, around and about and through, Luke is a pigeon-chasing force of nature. While his parents alert every possible authority, the boy crosses from Manhattan into Brooklyn and it isn’t until he falls asleep on a water tower that some nice firefighters can rescue him for once and for all. So the next time Luke’s in the park? His dad has employed a clever solution.
Gotta give the man credit for the concept. When I was a kid, chasing animals was a fine sport. We didn’t have pigeons where I grew up, mind, so I mostly restrained myself to rabbit and squirrel chases (score thus far – Squirrels & Rabbits: 22, Betsy: 0). And kids love tearing off towards a moving goal. If there were any flaw I’d have to say it would be the fact that Luke never actually gets a pigeon. You ever tried to catch a pigeon in New York City? Brother, I would bet you cold hard cash that if I walked outside my home right now I could probably pluck one of those fat, lazy little birds from the street with my bare hands. The pigeons of the city have many charms but speed and agility are not amongst them.
I don’t want to go about speculating about Bliss’s influences (his website is certainly mute on the point). I’m sure that as a New Yorker cartoonist he’d rattle off your usual list of hoity with the toity. He probably has a weakness for the odd 50s horror comic book as well. But one influence I detected in this book, perhaps unconsciously on his part, was a weird ode to Garry Trudeau and Berkeley Breathed. With his New Yorker cartoons Bliss has tended to limit himself a single panel. Faced with the sheer abundance of multiple panels, however, he’s definitely drawn upon the Trudeau/Breathed school of jokes and gaggery. Nowhere is this more evident than in a six panel, two-page sequence where our hero bursts into a restaurant, leaping from patron to patron in his quest for flapping pigeons. The focus of the scene remains on the table of a man proposing to his girlfriend. Though lots of action happens around and about him, our view never shifts. Everything from the old man’s spit take to the shot of the table itself screams weekday comic strip to me generally, and Bloom County / Doonesbury specifically.
The rest of the book spends a lot of time asking the reader to pay attention to what’s going on in the background. In fact, almost more than teaching kids how to read on their own, I see Luke on the Loose as a title that will actually teach kids how to read a comic book. A lot of the story requires the reader to learn how to follow a story from one panel to another. And when you add in background stories as well, then a kid not only is reading the main story, but they’re also backtracking and finding subplots and repeated characters and images to help them make sense of the images before them. I hear a lot of adults who never grew up with comics say that they have a hard time reading them. To them, I would hand Luke on the Loose. It seems to have applications above and beyond the initial intent.
With its fast-paced trip from Manhattan to Brooklyn (a helpful map appears at the end for anyone interested) this is a uniquely New York book, true. And Bliss has filled it with a multi-ethnic cast (even going so far as to include cartoon characters like Olive Oyl . . . oddly). This really does feel like a New York title, but not so much that readers around the country will be turned off. Basically it just boils down to a fun romp, a child fantasy, and a great little easy-to-read comic that everyone can enjoy. Rural and suburban. Big and little.
Really the star of the show here is the art, the layout, and the premise. The text fulfills its purpose but it’s not the main draw. As a whole Luke on the Loose is a fun book and a worthy addition to the Bliss oeuvre. Worth a gander, certainly.
- Eva’s Book Addiction
- Read About Comics
- Graphic Novel Reporter
- Not Just for Kids
- The Forbidden Planet International Blog Log
- Nerds With Kids
- Robot 6
- the center of the johnandjanaverse
Other Online Reviews:
- Reviews of this book have mentioned many of the hidden details Bliss has put in his pictures. Theories regarding these characters say that he has included Tintin, Olive Oyle, a wanted poster for The Hulk, and even Harold from Harold and the Purple Crayon (which I can’t find, but you might be able to).
- Good Comics for Kids has an insightful look at this book, comparing it to others in the TOON Books pantheon.
- Most importantly, please take some time to read this amazing profile of Harry Bliss as it appeared on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I agree with his favorite swear word. It might be my favorite as well.