"Animals are reliable, many full of love,
true in their affections, predictable in their
actions, grateful and loyal."
-Alfred A. Montapert

Cover: The Adventures of
Dick Tracy Detective, by
Chester Gould, 1932. The

An amalgamation of stories and comics, each BIG LITTLE BOOK was designed with young readers in mind. Borrowing from popular radio and comic serials - and later television - BIG LITTLE BOOKS typically averaged around 250 pages, with odd-numbered pages dedicated to colorful comic-style illustrations; even-numbered to text. It was a design - if not merely for their hearty thickness - that made a kid feel like they were reading a "real" book.

As a child, I recall the anticipation around my grandmother's visits; she almost always showed up with a new BIG LITTLE BOOK title in hand. That anticipation was followed immediately with the thrill of diving into make-believe worlds and impossible situations that leaped from the pages, their plots driven home by the accompanying illustrations, quickly followed by the sense of self-satisfaction brought on by knowing I could read a book as thick as the ones Mom and Dad indulged in. I loved my BIG LITTLE BOOKS, and my grandmother for gifting them. Even now, I'll occasionally crack open one, and the memory of reading it for the first time washes over me clear as day. Here, I share six of my favorites, with the hope you'll love them as much as I.

Bonanza: The Bubble Gum Kid, #2002
by George S. Elrick
Whitman Publishing Co., 1967
.39, 249 pp

The Gang's (Mostly) All Here
The Cartwrights defend the Ponderosa from a cap gun wielding gunslinger who calls himself The Bubble Gum Kid, in this BIG LITTLE BOOK. Hardly a threat, Little Joe and Hoss take him under their wing and in no time have trained him to be the unlikely hero of the story. Wildly popular as a series on NBC, Bonanza was largely about the Wild Wild West as encapsulated in myth and lore, centered on the exploits of the Cartwrights. While Bonanza: The Bubble Gum Kid re-inforces the importance of family and righteousness, it does so - as did most of the Bonanza franchise - at the expense of native Americans who are reduced to caricatures, lazy and dumbfounded by the simplest tasks, when not being portrayed as cold-blooded killers. Hop Sing, the Ponderosa's broken-English-speaking cook, is present - a product of Hollywood's take on so-called Chinamen - while Adam, the eldest son, is noticeably absent. Hollywood has come a long way since the mid-sixties, preserving in Bonanza a record of the blatantly racist attitudes once prevalent on America's screens.

'Me Tarzan; You Jane'
Who isn't familiar with Tarzan, King of the Jungle? His exploits, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, produced one of the most succesful film and literary franchises of the twentieth century. In Tarzan: The Mark of the Red Hyena, the jungle king and his son Jack are tasked with ridding the dark continent of a diabolical poacher in defense of all of Africa's wildlife. To succeed, Tarzan gets creative and secures the aid of the Uzizi apes, a particularly war-postured band of gorillas. His bond, and ease of communication with the hairy band would have Jane Goodall envious.

Noticeably absent from most of the adventure, is Jane, whom we're to assume was left at home to indulge in the rituals of housekeeping. Also noticeable, are Jack and Tarzan's lack of clothes. While they're portrayed as next to buck naked, Jane - when she does make an appearance - is clad in western clothing. (How is she able to navigate the jungle in go-go boots?) Go figure.

Tom and Jerry: Meet Mr. Fingers, #2006
by Carl Fallberg
Whitman Publishing Co., 1967
.39, 249 pp

Cat and Mouse Game
Who can forget the perilous adventures of Tom and Jerry? In Tom and Jerry: Meet Mr. Fingers the unlikely duo (Jerry's a mouse, and Tom is - predictably - a cat) are in a race against time to save their city from an evil genius called Mr. Fingers. Evil, in the classic sense, Mr. Fingers is, by all appearances, an upstanding, respectable member of the community, so who's going to listen when a cat and mouse claim otherwise? Complete with the spooky trappings of a drafty mansion and a man-servant who bungles more than he serves, Mr. Fingers is the ultimate villain. Think Goldfinger, or any pick of villains from Ian Fleming's James Bond series - the more extreme the better - and you have Mr. Fingers. With a ball-bearing-busting grip his claim to fame, terrorism his game, this page-turner will have the reader rooting for the little guys through to its last suspenseful word.

'I Yam What I Yam'
While its title may give you the impression Popeye is taking the family to Vegas, that couldn't be further from the truth; it's not that Treasure Island. In Popeye: Ghost Ship to Treasure Island, a mysterious abandoned ship washes ashore and Wimpy in short order comes up with plans to turn it into - what else? - a hamburger joint. His plans are overruled, however, when a treasure map is discovered in the ship's safe. Handily, the ship is one Pappy once crewed, but had to abandon in a storm. Not only is he familiar with the treasure map, he's also the only man alive who can make sense of it. That, my friend, is what is called in Vegas, A gift horse. Shortly, a plan is hatched to round up a crew from the Old Sailor's Home - crew members who'd once served on the very ship Pappy meant to resurrect - and set out to find the island and its treasure. Olive Oyle is enlisted to cook; Pappy and Popeye have a co-skippering arrangement (to complement their co-dependency in life, no doubt); and Wimpy is along to do what he does best; eat hamburgers.

      [L]ike every good wife of the era in which she was created, she can make herself invisible when called for.

Enroute, the motley - a term both true and accurate - crew encounters a stowaway, Sea Hag (and the rough seas she wroughts), a Giant Gooney Bird (a what now?), and even a menacing Sea Serpent, all of which Popeye deflects with his signature heroic strength, brought to us by the makers of spinach. In the final conflict, when all looks lost, predictably spinach again looms large in the crew's salvation, but the source of the muscle-building greens is most unexpected. As for the treasure? Let's just say its a pretty safe bet it's not what you think, and leave it at that.

The Invaders: Alien Missile Threat, #2012
by Paul S. Newman
Whitman Publishing Co., 1967
.39, 249 pp

Space Invaders
David Vincent has a history with aliens. When an explosion over the Arizona desert seems eerily reminiscent of an encounter he had several months prior, his interest in the explosion is piqued. He launches his own, independent investigation into the matter, and what he finds is unsettling on both a personal and national level. These are not your Roswell variety aliens; when they're killed they burst into flames, leaving no trace of evidence, aside from scorched earth. Hard to prove the existence of little green men - let alone an encounter - without hard physical evidence. To make matters worse, save for one slight physical feature, they look and act just like us.

After a time, his investigation leads him to an outlying storage facility of the Atomic Energy Commission. Although it's not the alien base Vincent hoped to find, it is a crucial lead and confirmation that aliens have infiltrated one of America's most sensitive government agencies. How far up their infiltration goes, and how wide-reaching, remains to be discovered; a task made more difficult with the knowledge no one can be trusted. The result is a Body Snatchers meets The X-files sort of story.

'. . . And One For All!'
The Fantastic Four, as with most comics, pushes archetypes. The Fantastic quartet contains the archetype of the genius with Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic), who's always relied on for his brains, not to mention his incredible contortionist capabilities. In Ben Grimm (the rock dude), we have brute strength, a trait crudely associated with what it is to be a man. In Johnny Storm (aka The Human Torch), I'd like to think his creators are giving a nod to the LGBTQ community ("Flame on!"), but they're not. Rather, Johnny's talent, like Reed's, is problem-solving, but without the genius. In military terms, Reed is a logistical commander; Johnny a staff sergeant; and Ben, a lowly foot soldier.

Then there's Sue. The wife of Reed, Sue's talent is in erecting force fields and making herself invisible. Sue Richards is the archetype of the good wife. She's a mama bear when it comes to protecting her own; an expert at the art of deflection. And, like every good wife of the era in which she was created, she can make herself invisible when called for. Comic book characters - particularly heroes and heroines - can be empowering individually, but The Fantastic Four, not so much.

What The Fantastic Four are good at - and it can't be emphasized enough - is working together. Time and time again when faced with insurmountable odds they put their heads together and come up with a battle plan that wins the day. One win might require the specific toolset Reed brings to the table; another might rely on Ben's. A third requires Sue to save the day, while a fourth is suited for Johnny's talents. By working together - whether to save the world or their own skins as in The Fantastic Four in the House of Horrors - they mitigate threats, and together secure the win. In some circles that's called teamwork; in others, collaboration. Whatever name is hung on it, it's never a bad lesson to learn, whether from real people, or from characters confined to the lowbrow world of newsprint comics.

posted 07/19/22