'The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics' by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly

What a long way comics have come. Routinely vilified by parents half a century ago, they now "confidently [stride] into bookstores, museums, and universities," note Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly in their monumental "The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics" (Abrams ComicArts: 352 pp., $40), "cleverly disguised as the upwardly mobile 'graphic novel.' " Spiegelman and Mouly, of course, are two of the people most responsible for this cultural rehabilitation, with their journal Raw, in which Spiegelman published, in serial form, the stories that became his Holocaust tragicomic "Maus." For the last decade or so, however, they have focused much of their attention on an area overlooked even by the much maligned comics universe: that of comic books for kids.

"The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics" is the culmination of this process, a natural extension of Spiegelman and Mouly's "Little Lit" anthologies. Featuring 67 stories, all but two from the 1940s and 1950s, the book is a repository of lost culture, a reminder of how much fun comics are to read.

To be sure, there are plenty of the usual suspects: Little Lulu, Scrooge McDuck, Dennis the Menace, Pogo and Little Archie. But these are enhanced by an array of glorious B-sides. Among the editors' contribution, after all, is their archival sensibility, their belief in the necessity of preserving this most disposable of forms. As a result, the volume features such oddities as "Intellectual Amos," about a little kid with a big brain, and "Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism," in which the superhero finds himself in a "strange grotto" where the Dali-esque images come to life.

On the one hand, this is kid stuff -- "art for laugh's sake." But even more, it is a reclamation project with surprising nuance, not just in terms of the art but also of the artists themselves. Among the contributors are Jules Feiffer and Harvey Kurtzman, both of whom are known for their edgier work. Then there's Dave Berg, represented here by a one-page Alice in Wonderland strip, who went on to incite a generation of youthful cynics in the pages of Mad.

-- David L. Ulin david.ulin@latimes.com

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