Saturday, November 9, 2019

Review: THE ENVIOUS SIBLINGS and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes

W.W. NORTON & COMPANY – @wwnorton

ISBN: 978-0-393-65162-1; hardcover – 7.3” x 7.3” (October 8, 2019)
240pp, Color, $20.00 U.S., $27.00 CAN

The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes is a book collection of nursery rhymes and cartoons from comics artist, cartoonist, and book illustrator, Landis Blair.  A hardcover book (7.3” x 7.3” dimensions/trim size), The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes is a collection of rhyming vignettes or stories.  Each vignette/story is divided into multiple verses; each verse has its own page featuring a cartoon that illustrates the contents of the verse.

The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes (which I will occasionally shorten to The Envious Siblings) contains eights vignettes/stories.  They are “The Malicious Playground,” “My Suspicious Sister,” “The Envious Siblings,” “The Refinement Tree,” “The Awful Underground,” “Honourable Beasts,” “Grounded,” and “Danse Macabre.”

I am not familiar with Landis Blair's prior work, but it is obvious that he is influenced by Edward Gorey, the American writer and artist whose drawings were macabre and unsettling.  In fact, Blair holds Gorey for special notice in the acknowledgments page at the back of the book.  The contents of The Envious Siblings can also be favorable compared to the work of Roald Dahl (renowned author of children's books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Quentin Blake (children's author best known for illustrating Dahl's books), Charles Addams (legendary cartoonist at The New Yorker and creator of what became known as “The Addams Family”), Shel Silverstein (beloved children's book author and illustrator), and Tim Burton (director and filmmaker known for his 30+ year career making films with macabre sensibilities).  I would also add to that list cartoonist and comic book creator, Richard Sala, who is far lesser known than the aforementioned authors and visual artists, but whose work is also true to the spirit of Edward Gorey.

I have seen the term “pop macabre” used to describe the work of Charles Addams and Tim Burton.  I assume that the term separates Burton and Addams from horror novelists like Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker, “masters of the macabre” who emerged in the last quarter-century of the twentieth century.  The authors' novels were sometimes both macabre and violent, while Addams and Burton's work is macabre, but gentle and humorous.

I would call Landis Blair more “pop gruesome” than “pop macabre,” but the stories and cartoons in The Envious Siblings are both gleefully gruesome and grotesquely macabre.  They have a kind of absurdist horror to them that, to me, redefines the nursery rhyme, the fairy tale, and the folk tale.  Or perhaps what I see as a redefinition is actually a cartoonist and visual artistic voice that is truly unique.  Edward Gorey may have inspired Blair, but Blair has gone on to create his own aesthetic, the way American blues music inspired The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards, before Jagger and Richards took those influences and invented their own sound for the Stones.

I want to pick a favorite story in The Envious Siblings, and I actually think a few of the stories here would get Landis Blair jailed in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes.  First, there is the pantomime comic strip (of sorts), “The Awful Underground,” a sort of Brothers Grimm fairy tale-warning about getting lost.  It mixes a bit of Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak and has a blood-chilling ending.  I really don't want to spoil this, so I'll say no more.

Right after that is “Honourable Beasts,” a Satanic Aesop's Fable about talking to strangers.  The ending is ghastly, just not the way you think it would after reading the first 15 pages of this 16-page tale.  And right after that (dear Lord) is “Grounded,” a middle-grade (not nursery) rhyme about an incorrigible child in a test of wills with his exasperated and none-too-bright parents.  About that ending, all I can say is “Wow!”

All the stories here are delightfully macabre, but these three are the little monsters that stand out.  If every music album needs one great song, The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes has three great rhymes/songs and that makes the entire book a great work of the macabre and the gruesome.

If you like Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake, Charles Addams, Shel Silverstein, and Tim Burton... and Richard Sala, do I have a book of cartoons for you!  The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes is a must-have, and its author, Landis Blair is a revelation.  Encore! Encore!, you sick and devious new master of the macabre.

10 out of 10

Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux a.k.a. "I Reads You"

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