First Second Books asked me to be part of a blog tour for their collection Fairy Tale Comics, which goes on sale September 24, 2013. There's no way I could refuse an offer like that, especially since First Second publicist Gina Gagliano asked me to write mainly about the story created by one of my favorite cartoonists, David Mazzucchelli.
We hardcore comics fans know Mazzucchelli primarily from two different sets of projects: first, his groundbreaking work in the 1980s on the classic super-hero graphic novels Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again, and second in the brilliant artcomic graphic novels City of Glass (1994) and Asterios Polyp (2009).
He's had a unique and intriguing career, one of the most exceptional of any creator I can think of. Mazzucchelli's work is so disparate and far-flung creatively that it's hard to find a common denominator in the man's comics other than his intelligence, his design sense and his love for comics history.
All three of those hallmarks are on display in the 10-page adaptation Mazzucchelli delivers of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Give Me the Shudders."
This story tells the legend of a young peasant boy in medieval times who has never shuddered in all his life. Whether in the presence of the fear-inspiring King, or surrounded by terrifying giant cats, flying around in a strange bed or in the presence of skeletons who go bowling with their own skills, the boy can never raise a shudder. This fact leaves him deeply chagrined until a clever ending shows the boy what shuddering is all about.
Like all fairy tales, though, the important part isn't the legend itself but the way that legend is retold.
Mazzucchelli chooses a simple, even line to illustrate his piece, with sparse and dreamlike backgrounds and a muted pastel color palette. These decisions help make the 10-pager feel distant and vaguely odd, resembling a fable that your grandparents might have told about the old country or an old Sunday newspaper comic from the early 20th century, faded and muted and full of the mysteries of an America long past.
The clean linework and newspaper strip style demonstrate Mazzucchelli's powerful design sense. He wrings a great deal of drama out of this odd little fairy tale because of the way that he places his ten-pager at an unnamed time and place. All we know is that this piece of folklore takes place was long ago and far away ("once upon a time"). He delivers just the right amount of detail to convey background and mood while trusting his memorable images to carry his narrative.
Mazzucchelli's design sense also shows his love for comics history. For those of us who are steeped in classic comic strips, there are easter eggs aplenty in the way his characters look. The king is a little like a latter day version of Otto Soglow's Little King, only shaped like an apple core. The scenes with our protagonist trapped on his flying bed channel the classic Little Nemo in Slumberland and other scenes remind readers of classic children's books and the illustrations in Alice in Wonderland.
The easter eggs don't call attention to themselves – and the target audience of kids won't get the references anyway. But the uniqueness of the images that Mazzucchelli presents here gives these creatures a fascinating feeling of him resurrecting the sorts of character designs that went out of style decades ago, exposing them anew to readers and allowing us to rediscover what made those sorts of figures so powerful when they first were part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Just as with many classic comic stories aimed at kids, Mazzucchelli draws his tale slightly offset from the edges of the panels. All of his characters stand about a quarter-inch above the panel borders, dead center in the panels in much the same way that classic Carl Barks Donald Duck comics always put the main characters at the middle of every panel. This makes his storytelling very easy to follow, with a clarity that helps gives "Give Me the Shudders" a true childlike charm.
And yet all this retro-vision only adds to "Give Me the Shudders" rather than detracting from it. Somehow the classic elements help make the story feel fresh. Surrounded by brilliant cartoonists such as Craig Thompson, Gilbert Hernandez, Vanessa Davis and RainaTelgemeier, Mazzucchelli finds his own unique take on fairy tales that makes his wonderful strip stand out.
The legend of the unique David Mazzucchelli continues to grow.