Don’t Call Me Stupid!
Written/drawn by Steven Weissman
Published by Fantagraphics Books,
Child-oriented comics have been a staple of the medium since its earliest inceptions. It is the one genre that in many ways has surpassed super hero oriented stories in popularity and accessibility to mainstream culture. But as the profile of the comics medium has made many strides in the past few years, child oriented comics are generally seen as junk-culture fodder – something light and inconsequential to fill up space on the newsprint. While a few exceptions have been made, very few comics of this genre have gone on towards any kind of laudatory criticism beyond their function as kids’ entertainment outside of the comics community. Steven Weissmanï’s Yikes! mini-comic, collected and republished by Fantagraphics as Don’t Call Me Stupid!, serves the similar purpose of the “furries” of the 1980s and 90s by subverting two seemingly innocuous genres (i.e. the monster comic & the child-oriented comic) through juxtaposition. This technique brings to the surface both the shortcomings and the successes of each genre, while commenting on issues that extend beyond the realms of the comic medium by forcing the reader to reconsider what makes these caricatures socially viable.
As a comic featuring a cast of small children, Yikes! is bound to draw comparisons to some of the medium’s greatest examples, such as Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. Schultz’s world is made up entirely of children and animals, creatures of innocence, without the presence of adults. In Yikes!, the adults’ presence is carried throughout everything Weissmanï’s characters do. Pullapart Boy is obligated to meet “Sweet” Chubby Cheeks by his father, Professor Boy. “Sweet” Chubby Cheeks existence as a terror to the neighborhood kids is only made through his manipulation of the emotions of the adults around him, making him untouchable to his peers. Pullapart Boy’s attempts at expression and vengeance are only met with punishment at the hands of his educators. The situation is exacerbated when the mother and father of these two characters begin to date after both being called by the principal, forcing both Chubby and Pullapart to confront each other. This conflict can only be abated by the intervention of an adult presence, but yields disastrous results for both children. If these children were left to their own devices without being dependant on the existence of adults, the circumstances that create conflict would simply cease to be. As Weissman writes it, by the end of the story, both characters are forced to give up their previous roles for new ones. Chubby Cheeks has lost his appearance of innocence, and Pullapart Boy’s existence has been deemed little more than a nuisance to his father. The story of Yikes! reminds us that children exist in a world that was not created by them or for them.
By featuring monsters as children, Yikes! draws upon the obvious analogy of children as “little monsters” presented in such strips as Dennis the Menace and even Family Circus. Hank Ketchum’s Dennis is endearing in his destructive naivete. Weissman’s more literal juxtaposition brings the analogy to its most literal conclusions. While Weissman’s story does illustrate that children can be insensitive, mean, and, at times, destructive, his portrayal of these characters seems a bit more sympathetic. As adults, our experience and hindsight give us the possibility to relate to children, even if they are incapable of relating to us on the same level. This effort to share the perspective of someone who is unable to do so for us often creates a rose-colored sense of nostalgia that gives childhood an air of carefree innocence that only exists in our minds. In fact, it is simply a result of our desire to exist more simply and separate from our current state of being. We allow these unconfirmed assumptions to become the standard by which we talk and think about childhood. Weissman shows us in Yikes! that childhood is not all fun and games. Whether it is a beating from the neighborhood bully, or simply the nagging of their parents, children experience their own form of hardship on a personal level every day. That is the nature of existence for anyone. Weissman reminds us that while we may project our hopes and wishes upon the concept of childhood, we also project inversely on the concept of the monster, making them equal opposites in our minds. Combining these two concepts creates an uneasy mix of emotion in the reader, forcing us to look at both concepts from a fresh perspective.
Weissman’s use of the Frankenstein monster character, Pullapart Boy, as the protagonist of this story conveys this conflict as clearly as James Whale’s classic film starring Boris Karloff. The story of the Frankenstein monster, on some level, is that of a misunderstood child, rebuked by his father and society because he was not created through natural means. The monster Karloff plays is not created through the experiments of a mad scientist, but rather, in the minds of people who leave him no choice but to fulfill a destiny that has been decided for him. Karloff, and similarly Pullapart Boy, fails to see what makes him different from others because difference is decided by an external force incapable of recognizing similarity. When Pullapart Boy writes an essay describing his desire to receive a mother for Christmas since “All the other kids have moms. I think a mother could help me fit in,” we are struck by a deep sadness because, as a child, he does not yet have the ability to fully comprehend the logistics of his own existence. Pullapart Boy’s lack of a mother is due to the fact that his “father” assembled him. But the point of Pullapart Boy’s origin does not make his emotion any less real than a human child who was conceived in a womb. Karloffï’s portrayal of the monster shows a predominantly tender, innocent, and child-like character, who yearns for human affection to the point of accidentally killing a young girl who is willing to show him kindness. This idea is similarly addressed in Pullapart Boy’s letter when he states, “Moms are nice and pretty, and they always like to hug,” and when he concludes the letter by saying, “most of all, I want a mom so that she may tuck me in at night.” By filtering childhood existence through the lens of popular culture, Weissman gets at the heart of the alienation that many children and many monsters feel.
What makes child characters in comics so charming to us is that they unwittingly serve as midget philosophers who, through their innocent interpretation of the adult world around them, show great insight into our own existence. That charming perspective on human existence is completely lacking in Yikes!. Weissman’s portrayal of both the adults and the “tykes” are as flawed and stunted creatures coping with existential inequity. The Peanuts characters show a certain level of a matured wisdom untainted by experience, showing that both states of being are fundamentally similar, and that both adults and children can learn a lot from passively observing each other. Schultz shows us that children often act like adults, and adults often act like children. Pullapart Boy can only feign adult maturity by reading the paper each morning and speaking like a movie character from the 1930s, but we are consistently reminded of his ineffectual existence as a child through the expression of his stunted emotional spectrum. While the children of Peanuts all show themselves to be wise and capable in a very adult manner, the adults in Yikes! are shown to be equally as emotionally undeveloped as the children. This becomes most clear when we read a love poem written by Professor Boy, Pullapart and Dead’s father, to Miss Helen Cheeks, Chubby’s mother.
Miss Helen Cheeks is quite the female
But it’s tough raising kids when the father’s in jail
She has a little bake shop, on Market Street
Where I order wedding cakes the two of us eat!
XOXO Prof. Boy
The blurry line of definition between child and adult is most prominent in Weissman’s use of the character of E.Z. Worsted, a character who comes to play a pivotal role in the climax of the story as a full-grown adult drunkard and tramp. Because Worsted is the only adult character that remembers his childhood, and because he serves no functional role in adult society, Worsted can be essentially be seen as an overgrown child. Worsted’s societal immaturity is cemented by the presence of his friend Pickle Puss, a giant anthropomorphic pickle. No other adult character in the story is able to maintain that kind of relationship with an oddity born out of pure imagination. By addressing the nature of childhood in relation to adulthood, Yikes! shows us that both are not wholly separate and equally complex.
The tone of Yikes! is what separates it from other comics of the genre, making the material “adult”. This is made abundantly clear in the prologue strip featuring “Wee” E.Z. Worsted. In the strip, Wee E.Z. and his best friend Soft Serve, a giant ice cream cone, go to their favorite ice cream parlor to escape the summer heat, only to end with E.Z. eating Soft Serve. This seems innocent enough on its own unless viewed within any actual context other than the anything-goes arena of the kid-strip genre. The presence of over-sized anthropomorphic food items may not seem unusual, given the history of similar characters throughout children-oriented comic strips. But the fact that such characters are forced to confront the logistics of their existence is uncharacteristic of the genre. The Walt Disney character Goofy doesn’t stop to urinate on fire hydrants, and to the best of my knowledge, Felix the Cat didn’t have to be neutered. In the world of Yikes!, Weissman is not afraid to show us the things that make his characters who they are. We see Lil’ Bloody feeding on human blood. We see, Pullapart Boy live up to his namesake when blood and bits of flesh fly as an unsympathetic teacher, trying to teach him a lesson, rips off his ear. And, most poignantly, we see Lil’ Bloody and Pullapart Boy dub Chubby “Fatty”, a nickname so hurtful that it drives Chubby to once again give his “playmates” a horrifically violent beating.
Many cartoonists working within the kid-strip genre feel the need to make violence seem harmless for the sake of comfort (How many times could Schultz have used that football gag if Charlie Brown’s head cracked open and spewed blood instead of squiggly lines?). Weissman’s use of graphic violence is effective but never offensive because it always contrasted with the absurd, channeling the literal meaning of the word “surreal”. Weissman does take the time to share endearing scenes of his characters behaving as we would expect children to, but this mood is always compromised by an undercurrent of unease and Weissman’s consistent use of irony. While the circumstance of monster-children does raise very interesting questions of how society constantly views “the other”, more than anything it is a consistent set-up for gag after gag. As amusing as the concept of a child-vampire in any situation is, the absurdity of it all only comes into focus when we see a scene of Lil’ Bloody innocently playing kick the can alone in a graveyard and swinging on a swing set following a graphic scene of him actually feasting on flesh in the dead of night and writing his name in blood. Conceptually, these gags seem simple-minded and transparent, but Weissman’s knack for illustration and coloring genuinely adds enough depth to balance the fantastic and realistic equally. When Lil’ Bloody’s victim becomes aware of his attacker’s presence, we react viscerally to the EC Comics-style horror expressed across his face. We see the beads of sweat. We see the look in his eye. We see the shift in posture. And we see the man’s hand contort as he drops his keys before a background of blood splattering against the wall.
Weissman’s choice in confining his art with a consistent tri-chromatic scheme (black, pink, and white) may seem like tapering, but Weissman uses it to great effect here and throughout the story. By establishing a consistent standard made up by the obvious choice of black lines with pink color over white backgrounds, Weissman is able to more effectively convey the mood and perspective of his characters through inverting and subverting this color scheme. Black backgrounds with the solitary use of pink coloring inside non-existent outlines create an ominous tone that conveys fear. Moments of frenzy and violence are communicated when Weissman illogically overuses pink coloring, either as background, skin tone, or blood. Both of these inversions create a certain level of emotional resonance that makes these scenes feel more realistic in the minds of the reader. Alternately, Weissman’s occasional removal of black from the palette boils particular scenes down to negative and positive space. This withdraws the grit and weight from certain scenes like the one in which Lil’ Bloody plays in the graveyard shortly after killing a man outside his doorway, giving these scenes a dreamlike quality that stands out from the rest of the story. These perceptual shifts lend a sense of realism to a child-like perspective seamlessly shifting in and out of imagination and reality. Likewise, the emotion conveyed is grotesquely clumsy and raw but unfettered and genuine. Weissman’s art essentially creates a concrete world but willingly does away with that world to convey a specific mood or idea with a simple gesture that gives it equivalent weight and a sense of belonging.
The genre of the kid-strip comic generally is noted for taking on very adult subjects such as sexism (Little Lulu), the eternal melancholy and dissatisfaction of human existence (Peanuts), and even the failings of linguistics (Dennis the Menace, Family Circus). What Weissman does with Yikes!, however, is not reflective of adult existence, much like many other kid-strips, but rather supplemental. Weissman recognizes both the similarities and differences between adulthood and childhood but uses this distinction as a narrative tool. Weissman not only uses elements of his own art and characterization as tools to tell his stories, but also uses the readers’ minds and preconceived cultural standards. Like any good novel or story, Weissman only shows us parts of the picture (the external narrative), leaving the completion of a fully formed idea to the reader’s subconscious. It is in this fashion that Weissman not only proves himself to be a master storyteller on a higher level than most, but also proves, much like Art Speigelman and Stan Sakai, that culturally redundant genres in the medium of comics can still be utilized for their untapped storytelling potential.