Sunday, February 3, 2008

Fables and Rhymes, Pictured 2


Picking up where we left off yesterday.

Narrative construction relies a great deal on selection and exclusion.

A horse walks into a bar. Goes up to the bar to order a drink. Bartender says, “So why the long face?”

I love this joke (though I am in the minority). Note that all extra words are eliminated. The sequence of sentences is like a linguistic cruise missile, boring in on the punch line. The “long face” is implicit in our unspoken but shared knowledge of how a horse’s head looks. Thus it does not have to be spelled out. The quick unexpected leap is funny. But the connection is based on the single step jump from horse to long face. So the horse in the joke is not a Palomino, or a mustang, or a Lipizzaner. Any other word choice than the simple direct horse, the joke does not work.

Narrative picture-making works the same way.

Two indispensable examples for our purposes are Ezra Jack Keats’ classic children’s book The Snowy Day (1963), and Robert Lawson’s illustrations for The Story of Ferdinand (text by Munro Leaf; 1938). Both illustrators use restricted means to achieve narrative focus—shape (via collage) for Keats and pen and ink for Lawson.



Lawson’s landmark book illustrations first. The elimination of all extraneous visual material heightens our awareness of the clarity of his drawing. We see what we need to see, and no more.

The episode in which Ferdinand sits on a bumblebee ought to be required reading for anyone interested in making sequential pictures.



The gravity of the event is visited upon the bee, who contemplates his own squashing in the moments before plunging his stinger into Ferdinand’s behind, offscreen, in frame 2.


That plush, regal, lazy cloud! It so beautifully captures the languid moment just before Everything Changes. (In a radically different tonality, it’s analogous to that moment in Saving Private Ryan when the squad lingers on the street listening to the Edith Piaf song just before the Germans come and most of them die.) In the comic universe of Ferdinand, that cloud sets up the moment of sensation/realization which literally seems to descend from it. (It also works like a thought bubble of sorts via association.) And of course the bee sting sets in motion—literally—the action which eventually lands the docile Ferdinand in the bullring in Madrid. Below, we see the first moments of what Aristotle calls “the inciting action.”


Incite, indeed.


Ezra Jack Keats introduced an African American city kid, Peter, in The Snowy Day (and subsequent volumes), as well as an urban aesthetic to kids books. (I suspect that the Brooklynish brownstone sensibility of Sesame Street owes something to Keats. The show debuted in 1969, six years after the book appeared.)

Peter is introduced as he awakens to discover a fresh blanket of snow.


There are many wonderful visual and textual moments in the story, which is in fact a fabulous case study in said interplay, attributable to Keats’ striking talent and dual role as author and illustrator.


Here is a simple sequence that communicates much about the quietude, wonder and slapstickery of a child’s independent forays into the world.

Snowman walks into a bar

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Images. Below find the complete list of works cited in the class session on this material. This list includes the images posted in the first part of this discussion, minus the Maxfield Parrishes. See prior post for Parrish citations.

Mother Goose: Popular Volland Edition. Rearranged and edited by Eulalie Osgood Grover and illustrated by Frederick Richardson. Chicago, Illinois: M.A. Donohue & Co. 1915.

Treasure Island. Written by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. New York: Scribner’s and Sons. 1911. The first of 25 Scribner’s illustrated classics Wyeth would go on to illustrate, and the most influential.

When We Were Very Young. Written by A.A. Milne, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. UK edition, London: Methuen. 1924. Subsequently, New York: E.P. Dutton, Publishers. Many of the poems were first published in the British humor magazine Punch.

The Story of Babar. Written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff. French edition 1931, English edition (UK and US) 1933. The first of seven books about Babar and his neo-colonialist adventures in France and Africa.

Potted Peter. Written and illustrated by Wilhelm Busch. Bilderbogen (or illustrated pamphlet) published in German. Munich. 1864. (Busch also known for Max and Moritz [1865], a clear antecedent for German immigrant Rudolf Dirks’ 1897 comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids, which ran in the New York Journal.)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Written and illustrated by Hergé. Originally appeared in serialized form in Le Soir, 1942-43; issued as a compilation by Casterman in 1943.

Goodnight, Moon. Written by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. 1947. Goodnight, Moon was in the news recently, when astute readers recognized that the photograph of Clement Hurd on the back cover of the 60th anniversary edition had been digitally modified. Editors removed Hurd’s cigarette from the image, causing some controversy.

The Rainbow Dictionary. Written by Wendell W. Wright, assisted by Helene Laird, illustrated by Joseph Low. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company. 1947.

The Snowy Day. Written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. New York: Viking. 1962. Caldecott winning book that introduced the character of Peter, an African-American city kid who appears in a string of books by Keats as he grows.

The Story of Ferdinand. Written by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. New York: The Viking Press. 1936.

Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe. By J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, illustrated by J. Otto Seibold. New York: Viking Juvenile. 1994.

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