Mr. Twee Deedle: Raggedy Ann’s Sprightly Cousin – The Forgotten Fantasy Masterpieces of Johnny Gruelle
Edited by Rick Marschall
Thanks to Junie B. Jones and other books still carrying the torch, children today are quite familiar with Raggedy Ann and Andy, even if they know nothing about their history or the man who created them. For that matter, there probably aren’t many adults who know that the famous dolls were created by Johnny Gruelle, who had a whole other career as a newspaper cartoonist. That’s why we have to forgive the unwieldy title of Rick Marschall’s tribute to and collection of early Gruelle works. Except for the rag dolls, most of Gruelle’s legacy falls into the category of “forgotten masterpieces.” But forgotten though they may be, they are also masterpieces and worth being reminded about, for children and adults alike.
Marschall’s book is as much a celebration of Gruelle’s comic strips as it is an archive of them. The first half of the book is an historical perspective on the trends in art and culture that gave birth to Mr. Twee Deedle, Gruelle’s sweet, idyllic strip about a couple of young children and the little faerie creature who takes them on adventures. It’s fascinating context for grown ups, but kids will want to skip straight to the second half of the book and the cartoons themselves.
At 14” x 18”, the book is gloriously oversized to make the most not only of Gruelle’s art, but of the beautiful, painted coloring that enhances it. It’s unwieldy to hold and makes for difficult cuddling at story time, but seeing the images so large (and being able to read the relatively small text in the word balloons) is worth the awkwardness. I can’t imagine trying to enjoy these comics at a reduced size. The book’s immenseness makes reading it an event. It’s exciting just to pick it up.
It’s not a perfect collection. For one thing, it’s incomplete. I don’t know if that’s because the rest of the strips are unavailable, or if Marschall and/or Fantagraphics don’t think there’s a market for a complete archive, but this is a representative compilation and some of the strips refer to events that don’t appear in this volume. That’s especially true in the last quarter of the book, which collects strips from later in the comic’s run.
Mr. Twee Deedle had been moved from its prestigious, full-page, full-color spot in the newspaper funnies to a place where it was in black-and-white (or occasionally two-color) and reduced in size to fit with other strips on a single page. With the change in production values, there was also a change in format, so that the strip was less a comic and more like a picture book, with serialized adventures and descriptive text below the panels instead of word balloons in them.
But though the book ends with a sad reminder that the downsizing of comics isn’t a recent phenomenon, that doesn’t detract from the immersive beauty of the earlier pages. Like Raggedy Ann, Mr. Twee Deedle transports its readers to a simpler time. Not because the world was actually simpler in 1911, but because it’s pure childhood; all innocence, playtime, and wonder at the world.
I used the word “idyllic” earlier and that doesn’t just mean that these comics are peacefully picturesque, though they are that too. They’re also idyllic in the formal sense of being about rustic, natural themes. Each ends with a moral message, either about how we should treat nature or drawing lessons from nature about how we should behave. Twee Deedle may teach Dickie and Dolly not to tease animals, but he’s just as likely to use them to teach the kids not to be obnoxious at the dinner table. The focus on our relationship with nature and the environment makes Mr. Twee Deedle wonderfully timely.
There’s plenty for children to enjoy in the collection, but parents and educators will be even more rewarded. Not only by the history and context that Marschall provides, but by the sheer sweetness and transportive beauty of the illustrations as well. Each of the full-page, full-color strips is something not only to linger over, but to revisit often. That makes the $75 price tag not just an investment, but a bargain.