Tuesday, June 02, 2020

The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes by Landis Blair

So I wanted to like The Envious Siblings. And I did, I guess, somewhat, but not to the level that I hoped. It's interesting and dark and well-drawn and has what I think of as the second-writer problem [1] -- there are good things about it, but I was left a bit flat.

Landis Blair is an illustrator and graphic novelist from Chicago; he seems to be a fairly young guy. This is, as far as I can tell, his first entirely-Blair book, though he did illustrate a couple of other people's books: The Hunting Accident and From Here to Eternity (not the one you're thinking of).

Envious Siblings is very much a second-writer book: it has eight semi-comics stories (full-page illos, text on the opposite page) in a crosshatched style, told in verse, about grinning children doing horrible, generally violent, things to each other and the world around them.

The first artist in this case is Edward Gorey, obviously. The cover makes that clear, and the rest of Blair's book leans into the comparison strongly. Blair is deliberately creating a Goreyesque collection here: he's not trying to hide his influences.

Blair is more bloodthirsty and perhaps less subtle than Gorey: the first story here, for example, is "The Malicious Playground," in which a group of fiendish youngsters gleefully maim each other while playing. And the title story is a Grand Guignol -- or maybe a traditional nasty fairy tale, since it feels like something that could have been collected by the Grimms in a particularly nasty German village -- in which two sisters progressively maim each other while grinning maniacally the whole while.

Here's the point where I don't want to spend all my time comparing Landis to Gorey, even though the book is begging for it. Blair is clearly reaching back further to the roots of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, while Gorey was more interested in late-Victorian and subsequent children's fiction, in adding back danger and fear to the deracinated latter-day products he saw. Blair has a heavier touch than Gorey, but I think that's entirely on purpose: he's not trying to be Gorey, but to take the Goreyesque format in a different, even more violent direction.

Blair's art is sprightly and amusing; his people grin unnervingly like no one else's. His monsters, especially in the wordless "The Awful Underground," are excellent. His verse rhymes and scans and supports his stories -- it's not great poetry, but it's not trying to be, and that would be entirely against his purpose anyway.

Envious Siblings is very bloody, in its inky splendor. Anyone who thinks Gorey sometimes went too far will want to avoid it. But if you found yourself wishing for a bit more bite in your darkly humorous rhyming stories about nasty children, take a look at Landis Blair.

[1] If you're the hundredth person to write a particular kind of book, you're in an established genre. If you're the second one, you're stealing from the first guy.

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