by Tony Millionaire
(Dark Horse Books)
Tony Millionaire's brilliant comics sway easily between cryptic and base, surreal and direct. Now he's written a children's book. In this book, a stuffed and nervous toy crow replaces his famous character of Drinky Crow, the lush, "...not a dusty old taxidermy crow, but a soft fuzzy velvet crow with big yellow button eyes." The captain of the comics has become a family man, bringing home presents for a beloved girl child.
The book is a postmodern pastiche, drawing on a range of children's classics. The combination of text and carefully drafted pen and ink illustrations evokes the sense of the Raggedy Ann series, or the original Oz tales by L. Frank Baum. A fairy, appearing toward the end of the book, is drafted in the graceful style of Victorian fairy images and the famous "Flower Children," illustrations.
In one section, Millionaire's story draws directly from the key scene of the Velveteen Rabbit. In Sock Monkey, a cornhusk doll explains, "Normally, [coming alive, for a toy] has to do with the love of a child and so forth, if you know what I mean..." With the Velveteen Rabbit, of course, very similar and often quoted dialogue about becoming lovable through wear, and thus fully alive, has been picked up by self-help gurus and new-age life coaches as illustrating the key to self- acceptance and mutual forgiveness: We all have to take a little emotional roughing up on the road to being loved.
Millionaire's story deviates from the Velveteen Rabbit's sentiment as the dialogue continues. The cornhusk doll says, "'...or in the case of the ragdoll, I believe that she came into being around the same time as the new electrical system was being installed...' 'Yes, yes, harumph,' said the ragdoll quickly. 'There was some kind of mix-up involving Bunsen burners and a number of beakers of chemicals in the Captain's laboratory, very scientifical.'"
This morphs the Velveteen Rabbit's tough-love theory into something more random and unsettling; we all fall into disaster. The lucky ones survive, recognizing they're alive.
Tony Millionaire has long shown a dark side in his comics. Although this children's book is naturally more tempered and gentle, aimed at a younger audience, perhaps it skims a little too closely along the rosy side of a child's world. One of the strongest lessons drawn from fairy tales and classic books is that kids like scary thoughts. In Peter Pan, Tinkerbell was often wicked, coniving, and lustful. She found herself on the verge of death. The Lost Boys were wild, untamed. In most fairy tales, somebody dies or is transformed, held captive and forced into sexual compromise. In the world of the Oz books, danger takes on a new shape, mixing surrealism with fantasy.
In Glinda of Oz, for example, Baum writes, "The very fact that Dorothy lived in Oz, and had been made a Princess by her friend Ozma, prevented her from being killed or suffering any great bodily pain as long as she lived in that fairyland. She could not grow big either...But Dorothy was a mortal, nevertheless, and might possibly be destroyed, or hidden where none of her friends could ever find her. She could, for instance, be cut into pieces, and the pieces, while still alive and free from pain, could be widely scattered; or she might be buried deep underground, or 'destroyed' in other ways by evil magicians..."
One reason these books remain unforgettable is because of the titillating, extended meditations on horrific possibility. Millionaire's story is charming, lovely, and beautifully illustrated. Yet it leaves part of the imagination untapped, calling for more.