Friday, December 6, 2013



Collects Mr. Twee Deedle newspaper strips from 1911-1918

Writer and Artist: Johnny Gruelle

Long has this book haunted my dreams, from the time that it was announced back in 2010 to the time that it was released. Then I saw the price tag...a MSRP of $75 for a 128 page book? Egads, surely they must be insane, I thought. Then I saw a copy in a store and saw that this book was frickin' huge, measuring 14 inches by 18 inches (That's 35.56 centimeters by 45.72 centimeters for readers in the non-English measuring unit world outside of the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar...and, mostly, England). Still, there was no way that I could justify spending 75 bucks on this book, so I passed on it...but it still haunted my dreams. Lo, the many sleepless nights, fitfully tossing and turning and counting the ceiling fan blade rotations with visions of Mr. Twee Deedle dancing through my head. Praised be Fantagraphics for their Memorial Day sale. I was one of the lucky ones who was home when the email first went out and got their order in at the nanosecond that the sale started for 75 percent off of cover price! Woo hoo! Twee Deedle would be mine!

I finally got around to reading it, and I tore through it fairly quickly. There is a lengthy introduction which does a superb job of putting this strip, as well as all of the work of Johnny Gruelle, in proper historical context. It's mindblowing to think of people sitting around reading this a hundred years ago. Comics are still a relatively young artform, but 100 years seems like a long time to me.

I have always been a sucker for Americana. When I was a child I always used to check out Beatrix Potter books from from the library. I have always loved oil based paintings found in old children's books, and Mr. Twee Deedle is rooted in that same pastoral Victorian English artistic sensibility. The sense of awe and wonderment of those Beatrix Potter books is present in every strip. Mr. Twee Deedle is a magical sprite-like creature, who uses his powers to shrink himself and the children, Dickie and Dolly, to go on adventures as well as gently teach adults lessons.

This strip bleeds charm. It is quaint and old-fashioned. It reads okay in its own right but is more enjoyable when you think of just how old and obscure this stuff is. I read some of it to my four year old daughter and she liked it for three strips. Then she got up and walked away. Children, with their home computers and surround sound television, no longer have a need for Mr. Twee Deedle. (Special No-prize offer to the first reader who can tell me where I stole that last line from. Use the comments section below, and NO GOOGLING!! Limit one No-prize per household. No purchase necessary. Offer void where No-prizes are taxed or otherwise restricted. Many will enter, few will win.)

The pre-Mr. Twee Deedle strips collected, such as Bud Smith from 1908, are virtually unreadable. The gags are completely unfunny and the strips completely uninteresting except for historical interest. 

This is as much a Johnny Gruelle artbook as it is a collected edition. Here's a breakdown of what this book contains: A 21 page illustration heavy introduction which features full page reproductions of the Raggedy Ann patent office filing, the January 29, 1911 New York Herald page which announced Mr. Twee Deedle with illustrations and John B. Gruelle's written introduction to the character and his world, and the April 20, 1911 New York Herald page featuring the public's reaction to the character. Could this be the very first “letters page” dedicated to a character? Serious comic historians could answer this more ably than I. Also featured during the course of this lengthy introduction is the full page July 12, 1914 strip, presented in it's original size without any restoration, like the other two featured in this introduction. Yellowed, flaked, and creased, it makes me appreciate the work that the restoration team did on the rest of the book.

There is an Early Years Art Portfolio, showing caricatures, political cartoons, and Gruelle's famous “bird's-eye view” of rural dystopia pages. (4 pages) World Color Printing Company Sunday Pages, with multiple pre-Mr. Twee Deedle strips like Handy Andy and Bud Smith The Boy Who Does Stunts. (10 pages) Early Book Illustration: 1911-1921, collecting work done for Brother Grimm storybooks. These were all brilliant. (8 pages)

Mr. Twee Deedle Part One- These are brilliantly illustrated and charming to read. Easily my favorite period. My OCD flared up like a pack of hemorrhoids upon the realization that there were no original publication dates provided for each strip, only the original copyright date as stamped upon the printed product. Worse still, they are printed out of original publication order, an OCD blasphemy if ever there were one! The breakdown for this section is as follows: Two strips from 1910, 34 from 1911, and two from 1912. All are full page strips.

Nine more pages of Gruelle's “bird's-eye view” drawings/strips.

Mr. Twee Deedle Part Two- The format morphed from comic strip with word balloons to picture story form, with text found below each picture. This was not uncommon in strips as varied as Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon, among others. Most of these were black and white, although some of the later strips were also two-color (as opposed to four-color printing found in the earlier strips). Things were more whimsical and fantastical in the later strips. I found the introduction of the Scarecrow and the Scarecrowess, obvious precursors to Raggedy Ann and Andy, to be utterly fascinating. Here is the breakdown for the strips collected in this section: Two strips from 1912, 10 from 1914, two from 1915, 12 from 1916, six from 1917, and seven from 1918. Also of interest is the cover of one two hardcover reprint books from 1918. Could these be the earliest collected editions? The mind boggles.

So while my completist OCD wants to read every strip in order of original publication, the realist in me fears that these strips no longer exist in any form. In short, I fear that the bulk of the Mr. Twee Deedle strips have been lost to the mists of time, and that is a damn shame.

There are two post-Mr. Twee Deedle strips, titled Brutus, also reprinted after the main course, one from 1929 and the other from 1930. They are mind-numbingly dull, and it is hard to believe that the same genius created them. 

The Scarecrow and the Scarecrowess, whose appearance is similar to characters that would make Johnny Gruelle famous: Raggedy Ann and Andy.

While I enjoyed reading the non-Mr. Twee Deedle strips as a historical curiosity item, I cannot call them great or even good. The artwork is nice, and the stories are pleasant enough, but that's about it. Rating is based on my enjoyment of the Mr. Twee Deedle strips and presentation of the book, which is superb.
Junk Food For Thought rating: 5 out of 5.

The OCD zone- This book is a difficult read because of its unwieldy size. It is too large and awkwardly heavy to hold at five pounds. It lays flat and can be read on a bed or table, but you must do a forward fold to really study the top of the page. The material was presented in the size of the original Sunday pages. The only possible solution that I could come up with would be to cut the strips in half like Titan's Flash Gordon Sunday strip books. Still, there would be a few problems with even this approach, as the earliest strips shown in the introduction were full page, single frame shots, as well as the bird's-eye view full page illustrations. So you see, there is no perfect solution. I advise practicing your yoga, especially forward folds to limber up for reading this book.

DVD-style Extras included in this book: Too hard to categorize. See breakdown in the review section.

Linework and Color restoration rating: 5 out of 5. The restoration techniques used in this book are covered in detail on the Rosebud Archives website. They demonstrate how they don't recolor the scanned pages, only remove the yellow and use photoshop only to eliminate line bleed, off register printing where the colors seep outside of the lines, and replace portions of color which have flaked off due to age. There are many schools of thought as to which technique is best (warts and all scans, full blown frame up restoration completely recolored to match the original color palette, the hybrid approach used by Hermes Press, so on and so forth). I can't pick a favorite, and am I glad that I don't have to. I can appreciate the benefits, drawbacks, and limitations of all of the various restoration methods found in these collected editions. A hearty thank you to those who dedicate their time and life to the craft of preserving the integrity and history of the artform. 

Paper rating: 5 out of 5. This has to be the thickest paper that I have ever seen used on a collected edition. Beautiful, thick uncoated stock with zero sheen under any light source. Believe me, I've tried. I use different bulbs in different rooms for science experiments such as this. Incandescent, CFL, LED, Halogen, and natural sunlight are all in use in my house.

Binding rating: 5 out of 5. Sewn binding with sufficient case for the book block to flex and lay perfectly flat, an absolute must for a book as unwieldy as this tome.

Hardback cover coating rating: 5 out of 5. Fantagraphics books are as much works of art as much as they are art books. No expense is spared, no artsy design is cut in favor of cost. Case in point the cover of this book. This book's cover looks and feels like some 100 year old book. Again, Fantagraphics could have gone for the cheap but, as usual, they didn't. Props to them for making physical media something of value.

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