Oh Say Can You Say it Ain’t So!
When I went to Wizard World Philadelphia in June, I'd actually never read any of David Mack's work. I was, of course, familiar with the superb cover art he did for Bendis's Alias, but that's about it. So Chris insisted we go and check out all the Kabuki trades. When we went to the table, the man who was selling me the first trade was extremely personable, talking with me about everything from Kabuki to the weather, it seemed, as he piled a ton of free books on top of my purchase. Then he asked if I wanted him to sign them. "Umm, sure..." I said, utterly convinced that this was just some table lackey who for some reason wanted to write on my books. It never occurred to me that David Mack was really that nice of a guy to sit and talk to one of 10,000 comic book nerds filling the auditorium for more than a cursory second. But that's David Mack, quite possibly the nicest guy in comics.
I digress on this long story because I'm about to review The Shy Creatures, Mack's new children's book on sale this week, and I wanted to point out that if there's one comic book writer today capable of the warm cynicism-free writing required to entertain children, I would guess it's probably him--his excellently disturbed work on Kabuki notwithstanding. And also, I like him as a person so much, I really, really wanted to like the book. Unfortunately, that just wasn't the case.
To put it simply--and really, it's a children's picture book, so there's no other way to put it--The Shy Creatures is about a shy girl who wants to grow up to be a doctor for shy creatures (unicorns, phoenixes, loch ness--pretty much every apocryphal creature that "doesn't exist" because they're just too shy to show themselves). We'll get to the problems with that in just a minute. For now, I want to talk about the biggest glaring problem with the book, which I'm sure you can divine simply by looking at the cover--I remember walking around Dr. Seuss-land at Universal Studios thinking that I'm supposed to feel a warm sense of nostalgia amongst the misshapen pastel building, but instead felt only a strong sense of disturbing unease. Not that I have a problem with an imitation Seuss book, but I mean, look at what Mack is capable of:
I simply can't wrap my head around the idea that Mack didn't think he could draw a children's book with his own flair, so he decided to copy the style--and I actually believe this--of one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time. Remember that episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun where John Lithgow is reading Seuss, and pauses to exclaim, "My God, this man is a genius!"? Right on. The problem of course, is that David Mack is a much better artist than he is a writer, and when I'm looking at spot-on Dr. Seuss imagery, I can't help but think how far off the writing, in tone, in meter, in creativity, really is.
Take this line, from Dr. Seuss: "I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead and some come from behind. But I've bought a big bat. I'm all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!" Now compare it to David's book: "But instead of a doctor, what if the shy creatures just needed a friend? Then this story wouldn't have to end! All the shy creatures could play games together, like card, leapfrog, and...whatever!" As a standalone line from a children's book, I have no problem with this. But David's the one who opened up the can of Seuss worms, so I have to say it simply doesn't stand up. How could it?
Now this is after all a children's book, so I would be remiss not to go over some of the concepts and morals inherent in the book. Here's an incomplete-for-my-own-purposes of some of the creatures Mack mentions: Phoenix, Cyclops, Loch Ness, Pegasus and my personal favorite, Chupacabra. For a reader my age, these creatures are all fine and dandy, and even a bit amusing. But you have to ask yourself whether a child will truly understand the meaning of "What if a Phoenix got itchy, when rising from the ashes?" That's why Dr. Seuss tended more towards creatures of his own creation as opposed to pre-exisiting mythologies--I can imagine some parent giving an exasperated sigh as he tries to explain to his four-year-old about Odysseus' bout with the one-eyed monster (and no this isn't my umpteenth sexual reference on this blog--oh wait, crap, yes it is).
And as far as the moral of the story? Well, the shy girl would like to tell her classmates of her veterinary ambitions, and imagines their skepticism turning to excitement as her flights of fancy become more and more extreme. But alas, she's too shy to say anything at all. I have no problem telling kids it's okay to be shy--as I imagine is Mack's point--but I would have liked to see the moral finish "It's okay to be shy..." with "...because one day you'll overcome it." Not so with this work.
Perhaps I'm being to harsh with Mack on his first foray into children's literature. As my co-worker Ken--who has two daughters--remarked after sifting through the pages, "It's fine. They're all pretty much the same." But I love David Mack, and I wanted his book to be better than fine--I wanted it to stand out in the pantheon of schlack publishers try to hock to impressionable children. I'm sorry David, but please don't ingore me at the next convention!