Used to be that a kid who “didn’t like to read” could be found perusing the newspaper every Sunday for the colored comic pages come rain or shine. Now thanks to a host of different factors the comics page is no longer the go to place for kids to get their comic fixes. That honor now belongs to the world of webcomics, where kids can find all their favorite funnies in one easy-to-locate spot. The golden age of the funny pages has passed, but comics will always be there for kids in one format or another.
Thinking about all of this got me to considering those comic strips souls who over the years have tried their hands at picture books. Though I would have thought the transition from one to another would be intuitive, oddly few folks have ever gone for it. So out of curiosity I thought I might try to round up those cartoonists who have made bold stabs at also conquering the world of small fry book publishing to (as you shall see) various degrees of success.
Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County, Outland, Opus)
Of all the author/illustrators on this list, Breathed seems the most dedicated to trying a wide variety of children’s fare. Rather than limit himself to picture books, he has also gone so far as to pen the occasional novel for kids as well (Flawed Dogs). The problem is . . . well . . . doggone it, I love the man. I do. I consider early Bloom County to be a stroke of genius that twisted my young reader self in the perverse woman I am today. But the simple fact of the matter is that he’s not particularly good at children’s books. There are far worse writers than him out there. Of course there are. But when all is said and done his books don’t wind up on that many Best of the Year lists for a very good reason. Even when they’re turned into films (Mars Needs Moms) they flop. Though, to be fair, Hollywood credited that flop to the fact that folks don’t want to see films with the word “Mars” in the title.
Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse)
There are two ways for a cartoonist to make a picture book. The first is to come up with original ideas and characters. The second is to take already existing beloved characters and just give them more space. Breathed has done both (his characters from his strips have appeared in the books Goodnight, Opus, The Last Bassalope, and A Wish for Wings That Work). Johnston, to the best of my knowledge, has only written one picture book so far called Farley Follows His Nose. Starring characters from For Better or For Worse it’s actually not half bad. Were it not for its prominent creator, of course, the book would not stand out in any particular way, but it’s a nice extension of her talents.
Walt Kelly (Pogo)
Oh ho! Yes, it’s by no means a new idea having cartoonists illustrate books for kids. Though I’ve never found evidence that Al Capp or Milton Caniff trod that sod, I do know that Walt Kelly had at least one such book to his name, and possibly many others. Hard to tell. The Complete Nursery Song Book (circa 1967) by Inez Bertail McClintoc, illustrated by Kelly, is a little beauty, I can attest. How could it not be with Kelly’s art on hand to spice things up a bit?
Gary Larson (The Far Side)
While it saddens me to report that Bill Watterson never extended Calvin & Hobbes into other realms, at least Gary Larson (the other great Quit-While-You’re-Ahead cartoonist of the 80s) extended himself a tad. There’s a Hair in My Dirt! is a strange one, as you might expect, but I remember picking it off the shelf when I was a kid in the hopes that it would be just as twisted as his comic fare. And it was . . . sorta. I mean, it ends with a nice dead body, and that’s something to celebrate, but Larson clearly suffered from having to fill more than one panel with a continuous storyline. The final product just didn’t have quite the same feel.
Patrick McDonnell (MUTTS)
The most prolific artist amongst all of these, McDonnell also appears to be the best (Kelly excluded). That is because at this point the man has, so to speak, committed to the bit. At first he did the usual thing of just putting his Mutts characters in the occasional book now and then. This year, though, he went the extra mile and wrote a work of picture book nonfiction (Me . . . Jane). No other cartoonist I can name has thrown his or herself into the world of books for kids in such a manner. So, in a sense, McDonnell wins this round.
Surely there are more, but these are the only folks that come immediately to mind. It’s interesting who makes the switchover. From a general standpoint it seems to me that a New Yorker cartoonist is far more likely to pen a decent picture book than a comic strip artist. Is this a question of time then? Does the 7-day-a-week job of your poor comic book creator suck the life out of them, leaving them no desire to tell longer tales? And what causes one book to work while another flounders? Maybe some artistic style lend themselves better than others. Maybe some care more than others. Tricky to say.
So who did I miss?