Monday, September 9, 2013

My Influential Books: Yellow Yellow

I recently got the notion to, from time to time, write about a book that influenced my life. I unknowingly started this series (if it becomes a series) back in July 2009, when I wrote about how important Mae and Ira Freeman's children's book You Will Go to the Moon (1959) was in molding my Space Age expectations. That was the first.

The second, Yellow Yellow by writer Frank Asch and artist Mark Alan Stamaty, was published by McGraw-Hill in 1971. I guess it's a children's book, though that glib categorization doesn't do it justice. I would've been 11 or 12 when my parents gave it to me--way too old for a children's book but just the right age for a capital-A Art book. Mom and Dad expected their budding cartoonist to be electrified by its hyper-detailed rendering and formal playfulness. They were right.

Yellow Yellow is the tale of a boy who finds a yellow hard hat, inventively plays with it for a while, returns it to its owner, and goes home to make his own yellow hat out of paper. That's the plot. If Asch's charming but slight story had been illustrated by P.D. Eastman or the Berenstains, it might've been a fondly remembered addition to Random House's Beginner Books library.

Instead, Stamaty's artwork turns it into a sort of innocent's odyssey through a grotesque urban hellscape, part Hieronymus Bosch and part Ralph Steadman. It's got an Underground (circa 1970) sensibility, though I wouldn't have known what that meant at the time. Grungy and subversive, rewarding through multiple readings on a couple of levels. At a time of my life when the universe of comics consisted of newspapers strips and DC superheroes, Yellow Yellow expanded my understanding of what comics could be.

A two-page spread (most of the book comprises two-page spreads--click on the images to see them larger) showing the boy discovering his yellow hat. The detail in this is both obsessive and impressive. Stamaty folded a lot of little asides and gags into his visual stew.

A detail of the left page above: A toad with a high school class ring for an eye fights a spider and a beetle for his dinner. Are the spider and beetle trying to save the bug because they're his pals or because they also want to eat him? Unresolved dramatic tension! And look at that gorgeous chicken wire!

One tiny detail from another page: a one-face two-bodied bird begs for help. Perhaps the sweet merciful release of death? The gag's payoff comes three pages later where a bird with one body but two heads pleads for the same. That's weird, right?

The boy meets his hat's rightful owner. For me, this drawing captures the mood of the book. It's sort of ugly, every whisker in the worker's scruffy beard practically prickling off the page, but the man doesn't look at all angry or menacing. He's just a Regular Joe who lost his hat. Even though he deprives the boy of his wondrous new toy, he's not the bad guy.

After handing over the hard hat, the boy goes home and Yellow Yellow slips into a neat bit of formal inventiveness. First the boy draws a yellow hat by itself on a piece of paper. Then he draws yellow straw, yellow lemons, yellow corn and dandelions . . .

. . . until the entire two-page spread is colored solid yellow, so that the book we're reading looks just like the paper the boy is coloring. Then the boy folds the paper . . .

A good example of Stamaty's thoughtful use of white space contrasted with the over-busyness of the boy's alphabet-and-airplane wallpaper (which, again, is fun to closely examine). There's not a detail on the floor indicating carpet, wood, color, texture, shadow; the floor is implied by the boy's posture and the few objects that rest on it. It occurs to me as I write this that the bat leaning against the bookcase really helps define the space since we read from left to right, making it one of the first details we perceive on the page, and instinctively know bats don't float in mid-air.

. . . and makes himself a new yellow hat.

Yellow Yellow was published more than 40 years ago and is out of print. Both Asch and Stamaty are still working prolifically, with long bibliographies to their credit. I think I somehow managed to raise two children without encountering Asch's many children's books (I count more than 80 listed on his website), but happily realized I've seen a lot of Stamaty's illustrations done for the Village Voice, The New Yorker, and many other publications. Looking over their bios, Yellow Yellow was very early in both their careers, just a couple of years out of college. For a lot of writers and artists, Yellow Yellow would be a career highlight; one measure of the success Asch and Stamaty have enjoyed is that you have to dig pretty deeply into their resumes before either mentions it.

I like to imagine I can see the seeds of that success in this early work. Yellow Yellow was an eye-opener for me.


Anonymous said...

Yelow Yellow is my favorite book ever!

Anonymous said...

I've been trying to figure out what book this was for years! Thanks! I love it too.