Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Review: THE SUGAR AND SPIKE ARCHIVES, VOLUME 1 by Sheldon Mayer (2011, DC Comics)

Every so often, I make a "Why Not?" purchase at the comics store, based on both curiosity and some faint inkling as to the nature of the item being considered. This is my latest such buy, and one of my very best, I'd say. Apparently, some DC fans who've been waiting impatiently for the company to get around to reprinting Sheldon Mayer's fanciful series starring a pair of simpatico toddlers are quite miffed that DC decided to do so in the pricey "Archive" format. I can certainly sympathize, but I didn't recoil at the price tag. From what little I knew about SUGAR AND SPIKE, I was fairly sure that I was going to like it. I just didn't realize how truly enjoyable it would be.

Like PEANUTS, LITTLE LULU, and DENNIS THE MENACE, SUGAR AND SPIKE is a deceptively simple "kids' strip" in a deceptively benign setting. Little Sugar Plumm and Cecil "Spike" Wilson, like the kids in PEANUTS, appear to be eloquent beyond their years, but there's a catch; the "baby talk" in which they converse, helpfully translated for us by Mayer, is essentially a private language, one which turns out to be shared by babies of all sorts and species. This is a clever mingling of the real and fantasy worlds on a par with Charles Schulz' creation of the Snoopy-centered "parallel universe" in PEANUTS, with the difference being that the kids themselves fashion the fantasy element. This gives such mundane "adventures" as taking a trip to Grandma's or the zoo, or learning how light switches and mirrors "work," an extra dollop of intrigue. Mayer also starts out in the PEANUTS mode, or somewhere near there, by only showing the kids' well-meaning but (from the kids' perspective, anyway) clueless parents from the waist down and never showing their faces, but he soon changes that policy, which I think was a wise move. Trying to manufacture stories starring toddlers without getting the parents "completely" involved on occasion would have been far too confining a creative format.

SUGAR AND SPIKE has been described, not inaccurately, as a 1950s version of Rugrats -- to which I would quickly add, "with much better artwork." Actually, this last is anything but a minor point, as anyone familiar with Mayer's earlier artwork for such features as SCRIBBLY would agree. Mayer's style on SCRIBBLY -- and the backup feature LITTUL (sic) SNOONY in SUGAR AND SPIKE #1 (April-May 1956), which would never appear again (how did DC get around those persnickety postal regulations, I wonder?) -- could best be described as "Rough and Ready Urban," full of lumpy, rough-edged-yet-lovable denizens of the lower middle class. To be honest, it is unlikely that such a 1940s-esque style would have sustained SUGAR AND SPIKE if it had been used for the adventures of the suburbanite title characters. Instead, from the very beginning, Mayer's work on SUGAR AND SPIKE is slick and stylized. The kids start out a bit on the tall side before assuming the squat fireplug shape that they would keep for the duration of the series (and which Mayer undoubtedly found easier to draw and work into scenes).

In terms of scripting, I don't think that Mayer's imagination fully kicks in until the later stories in this volume (which reprints the contents of SUGAR AND SPIKE #1-#10). Early in the game, Mayer apparently got a lot of ideas from his own young children; in this respect, he was the exact opposite of John Stanley, who insisted that his kids gave him no story ideas of any kind for LITTLE LULU. The result of this, though, is that many of the early S&S stories, while funny enough, hew pretty closely to the "cute kids getting into innocuous trouble" template. As Mayer becomes more comfortable with the characters, however, some of the more charming aspects of Sugar and Spike's "child logic" come to the fore. Thus, Sugar describes the appearance of the kids in a mirror by exclaiming, "There's again of us!", and the duo figure that there's lots of sand on the beach because, like the sand in the kids' sandboxes, it must have followed its "owners" there. I expect that we'll be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing in the stories to come.

I don't think that one can overemphasize the importance of the creator-fan connection in explaining how this title managed to brave all the vagaries of the Silver Age and last until 1971. (Even then, SUGAR AND SPIKE was only cancelled because Mayer, who insisted on doing all of the stories himself, was having severe eye trouble.) In the 1950s and early 1960s, at a company like DC, taking such initiatives as giving readers credit for story ideas and allowing them to design wardrobes for the kids was legitimately meaningful. I've little doubt that Mayer's long and distinguished career as a DC editor and talent-groomer was the main reason for him being given the privilege of signing his work; for Mayer to "give back" in the way that he did is a credit to him.

I'll definitely be on board for as long as this particular series lasts -- and, if you like high-quality humor comics, then I'd suggest that you clamber on as well.

1 comment:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris, you write:
“(how did DC get around those persnickety postal regulations, I wonder?)”

IIRC the regulation required at least one page of text, and one story that featured characters not in any other story of the book.

The “story or educational text pages”, that later evolved into the letter columns, served that part of the requirement.

In titles, like ACTION and DETECTIVE it was easy, because Superman and Batman were only the lead features, with others (Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Tommy Tomorrow, Congorilla, Elongated Man, etc.) comprising the balance of the book.

But in other titles, DC cleverly placed “cartoony strips” like “Casey the Cop” (…one of those was even titled “Super Goof”!!!), and features like “Cap’s Hobby Shop” to meet the “guest story” requirement. SUGAR AND SPIKE must have had something similar therein.

…At least that’s how I THINK they did it!