Filling The Shelf: Melvin Monster 2

Posted by on August 14th, 2010 at 5:13 AM

Rob reviews the second volume of Melvin Monster, by John Stanley (Drawn & Quarterly).

The second volume of the collected Melvin Monster is the latest edition of the Seth-designed John Stanley Library for Drawn & Quarterly.  As is always the case with a Seth-designed collection, there are always two things to consider: his choices as a designer and the actual work itself.  Let’s look at these in reverse order.  Stanley was a gag craftsman of the highest order, thanks mostly to the way he organized and composed his panels.  His character design was extremely simple but enormously expressive.  There’s a marvelous economy of lines in the design of the titular character: a little boy with a pointy head, pointy ears, and an iconically-drawn face.  Stanley loved arraying his characters against the others using extreme angles, always being careful to balance the “equation” of a panel with just the right amount of background detail to swiftly lead the reader from panel to panel.

Stanley was all about delivering jokes with a rapid-fire pace, using images to bolster verbal jokes and vice-versa.  He’d switch back and forth from one type to the other, ending up with either a single unifying gag for a story or else a “topper gag” that took a progression of jokes to its logical extreme.  The sophistication of his storytelling served a fairly simple and predictable set of premises.  Melvin is a little monster boy who horrifies his monstrous parents by wanting to do “good” things like go to school, clean up his room, etc.  From time to time, the family’s pet alligator Cleopatra tries to eat him.  A young witch girl named Little Horror annoys him.  Melvin constantly tries to get the local witch schoolteacher to enroll him, and she tries to find ways to get rid of him.

This is Stanley’s M.O.: come up with a set of formulas for his character, run variations on them, and slowly add and drop new characters or premises from issue to issue.  Melvin Monster is fairly limited in some respects as it’s an obvious response to the 60s monster fad (The Addams Family, The Munsters, etc.), but Stanley clearly enjoyed working with the darker possibilities of his premise.  The constant menace that Melvin faces is one thing, but the weird antipathy he and his father hold for each other is even more disturbing–especially in its matter-of-factness.  Still, Melvin Monster doesn’t quite hold the same charms as Stanley’s Little Lulu work or Thirteen (Going On Eighteen). One of the problems with this series is the coloring.  There’s a garishness to the coloring decisions that detracts from Stanley’s otherwise-outstanding art.

One school of thought regarding reprints is that they should reproduce the original experience as accurately as possible.  It’s a position that has some merit, especially given some reprint projects that are hideously recolored or printed on terrible paper.  Seth takes a different view, and with the John Stanley Library books, he’s trying to create a single line in the tradition of classic children’s book series.

To that end, he’s omitted the original covers from each issue reprinted, preferring to create a singular flow from story to story.  The endpapers he designed start with the titular character and the JSL logo, then flip to a panorama of the various threatening characters’ heads Melvin would encounter in this volume, and then finally a shadowy page with every detail in black except the eyeballs of the characters.  It’s Seth’s statement on what to expect in this book: funny-looking characters and situations with a slight tinge of danger.  Aesthetically, I’ve always enjoyed Seth’s design decisions, especially when applied retroactively to projects like this.  It’s an acknowledgment that any decisions applied to reprint a classic series will always be personal to the designer/editor.  Seth simply takes this farther and sometimes choose to emphasize underrepresented aspects of series than some would like, something he has freely acknowledged.  I’ve yet to see him make a wrong step in one of his designs, and I think he really hit on something with the way he’s presenting the John Stanley Library.

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10 Responses to “Filling The Shelf: Melvin Monster 2”

  1. patford says:

    Is it a fact Seth didn’t include the covers as a design choice?
    My assumption is the covers weren’t included because of copyright issues.

  2. Rob Clough says:

    I believe both Seth and Tom Devlin are on record as saying that not including the covers was a design choice. I think Tom said they might include them in a future volume as additional material.

  3. I’m very grateful to have all these comics back in print, but the majority of the design/editing decisions baffle me:

    –Why do the covers not feature Stanley art?

    –Why do the covers have lush production values (fancy embossing) when it’s so out of whack with the stripped-down aesthetic of the comics themselves?

    –How could you possibly decide not to include covers drawn by John Stanley, one of the best cover artists ever?

    –Why is there no historical, biographical, or analytical material in any of these volumes except for Seth’s (excellent but preexisting) essay in the Thirteen one?

    –Harry

  4. Rob Clough says:

    Harry,

    The basic answer to all of your questions is, “Because Seth chose not to.” His vision for the JSL series was to evoke memories of past collections of childrens’ stories that carried a fancy, embossed logo. In other words, to create a reality where there always was a John Stanley Library and that it started 40 years ago.

    Seth has noted that other collections of cartoonists have featured covers by others, interpreting/providing an homage to the original artist.

    The covers were excluded as a design choice; I believe the rationale was that these stories, aimed at kids/readers rather than collectors, had a flow that would have been disturbed by putting the covers in. I think that’s also the reason they didn’t put in essays for Nancy or Melvin Monster, given that these strips are aimed at younger kids.

    Seth has essentially said that he understands if people don’t like his choices, but is uninterested in apologizing because it’s his personal vision for what a John Stanley Library should look like. If you hire Seth as a designer, you have to know that this is exactly the sort of thing he’s going to do: present the work as it affects him as a reader.

    Lots of people disagree, and especially with the premise that kids are going to be the primary audience for these books. I’d be curious to see what the actual breakdown is. I am hoping that in the final volumes of these series, we will get a special section for covers, biographical information, analysis, etc. I’ll be really disappointed if we don’t. Other than that, I like the design.

  5. patford says:

    I’d really like to see where Seth said he didn’t include the covers as a design choice.

  6. Rob Clough says:

    Pat,

    I’ll find out for sure. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from Tom Spurgeon’s interview with Seth over at Comics Reporter:

    http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/cr_sunday_interview_seth/

    “I love John Stanley. He’s way up in that personal pantheon of mine. The entire design of the series was inspired by Tom Devlin when he spoke these words to me over the phone: “John Stanley Library.”

    That was it. I immediately knew I wanted the books to look like a set of old time children’s encyclopedias. I love the look and feel of those books — specifically the ’50s/’60s sets. What was great about them is that many of them still had ’30s surface stylings to them. They were brand new ’60s books but they felt instantly old. Hence, my plan.

    I know that seeing the designs for Melvin on-line probably doesn’t transmit that feeling but when you see the physical books — especially when they start to pile up and you have a handful of different volumes stacked up — you’ll see what I am going for. I think the online pictures make it look like it’s got some sort of fancy art deco design going on. I can see why you might think that (and why people might think that’s a really bad design choice) — but really, with the endpapers and the texture of the cover stock and the shiny seal on the back — it will read “encyclopedia.” But, of course, encyclopedia with a fun cartoon character front and center. I think kids will respond to the design. I think it has kids written all over it. But then again, what do I know? No one is less involved with children today than I am. Do kids even read books any longer?

    That last part of the question — “What does Stanley bring out of you that maybe your other design assignments don’t?” That brings us to a real problem with me as a designer. The truth is, when I design something it really is too much about me. I’m responding to Stanley with the love of another artist. I’m trying to create a package for him that is a tribute to him. It’s not really how designers classically work. I think the best graphic designers try to remove themselves from the picture and create a package that is suited to the work being packaged. I don’t really think that way — I can’t keep myself out of the process. My designs end up having a bit too much of me still in the picture. It’s that way with Schulz, it’s that way with Stanley and it is certainly that way with Wright. I’m probably not a very good graphic designer for that reason.”

  7. patford says:

    Thanks Rob. I’ve seen that, and have listened to the Seth interview on Inkstuds.
    I have no problem with any of the design choices I know Seth made (Front cover, end papers, etc.), but if he in fact left out the covers as a design choice then that was a very poor decision.

  8. DavidO says:

    Seth’s statement that his design approach is “really too much about me” is very true. He’s a talented cartoonist with a distinct style, but I find it very hard to appreciate his designs. They’re all stuck within his very narrow aesthetics, including his dated hand-lettered fonts and color schemes. I would never insist that comic reprint covers must include some of the original artist’s work, but I can’t escape the feeling that, for the most part, Seth’s covers just fail to reflect the mood and tone of the work within. For example, Peanuts makes me happy, but gazing at Seth’s Peanuts covers kind of gets me down. (As for who I think gets it right, see the excellent design work of Jacob Covey.)

  9. Rob Clough says:

    Here’s more info from Tom Devlin (from an email, reprinted with his permission):

    “Yes, the covers were not included as a design choice. It was my choice and it was backed up by Chris [Oliveros] and Seth. Basically, these collections are meant for younger readers rather than collectors and I felt that covers are a distraction from the stories. I wanted kids to read these books as story collections, not historical documents (hence, the reduced biographical information and lack of essays.) THIRTEEN has the essay because I was willing to give in a bit to the fact that most people reading this volume would be collector types given the thickness and price of the volume.

    There are no copyright issues with the series.

    I am also well aware that this is an unpopular decision but it makes sense for what we want to achieve with these books. What we want to achieve is just not what the average fan wants us to achieve.

    I have nothing against collectors (I’m one myself) but these volumes are not meant to be something like WALT AND SKEEZIX, with their deep historical essays along with the comics content. These are really meant for kids to read.”

  10. patford says:

    Thanks for the follow up Rob.
    All I can say is Tom made an extraordinarily poor decision by not including Stanley’s covers.
    I don’t take issue with ANY of the other choices that were made; such as the front covers of the books, end papers, excluding biographical material.
    The front covers are stand alone gags. Not including them is incomprehensible in my view.
    I salute Tom in every other way.
    BTW: THIRTEEN is my 10 year old daughters favorite book in the series. I don’t see it, or any of the other books as expensive, they are a tremendous value.