“Encore! Encore! Recent Comics Reprints!” / The Walrus / Sean Rogers / September 28, 2009

Four-Colour Words returns from a Toronto International Film Festival–induced hiatus — if you can, catch up with Face and Trash Humpers, both of them brassy, unabashed image-making of the first rank — to examine a few important comics that have resurfaced lately. Newspaper pages have shrunk and pamphlets have retrenched to the point of insignificance during the years since these works were published. With slim-to-no chance of them reappearing in their original contexts, these comics have instead been scanned, compiled and stitched into book spines. What does it mean for them to revive now? In what new contexts do readers experience these strips thanks to this moment in publishing history? Read on, and we’ll discover the answers together.

Like many big mid-century cartoonists — Kirby, Barks, Kurtzman — John Stanley’s comic books were so quintessentially comic booky that it’s strange to imagine them, and slightly odd to encounter them, in any other format. Melvin Monster Volume One, the first in a series of texts devoted to Stanley’s late career, compiles a mere three issues from his short run on the title, preserving the quick and compact experience of the original comics. (The next volume in the series, collecting some of Stanley’s work with Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, has just arrived on stands.) Drawn and Quarterly’s repackaging also nudges the material into the more traditional territory of children’s picture books, where Stanley’s sensibilities seem perfectly at home.

As with some of Stanley’s other humour comics, Melvin Monster indulges in the sort of light-hearted fright-mongering that kids adore. The stories in this collection describe a rotund, green-skinned misfit who is terrible at being a monster. Melvin wants to go to school, hates playing with his pet alligator, and dares to call his elders “kind-looking,” much to the chagrin of his Mummy and Baddy. He fits in no better in the land of “human beans,” where his nicest qualities only throw humankind’s monstrous behaviour into ugly relief. All the while, Stanley relates Melvin’s adventures in his instantly identifiable fashion, filling them with misunderstandings, silly running jokes, and quick reversals of fortune scored with cries of “Yow!”

From Stanley’s career-defining work with the licenced Little Lulu character to “Jigger,” an odd little contribution to the new, eye-opening TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, the cartoonist’s tales move along with such pleasing economy that it sometimes seems less likely his stories were ever consciously created than that they already just existed somehow. Melvin Monster, one of the few titles to which he provided both art and script, urges us to reconsider his capability with images too.

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