Young Hannah Marie is afraid of monsters, so her older cousin Jimmy has promised to take her trick-or-treating this Halloween. She’s excited about going out with the big kids for the first time even though they’re not happy about having to wait for her. They decide to scare her to make her go home, but the tables are turned when Hannah meets her Scary Godmother and her monster friends.
Scary Godmother is a witch in a black tutu, purple- and green-striped stockings, and clouds of curly red hair. (She’s similar to author Jill Thompson herself in that way.) She introduces Hannah to bats, a ghost Scaredy Cat, Skully the skeleton, and Bug-a-Boo, the monster under the bed.
Thompson has painted gorgeous images to illustrate this hardcover combination of a comic and a children’s book. There’s dialogue in the pictures as well as captions explaining what’s happening, making the work suitable for all ages. The characters are beautifully designed to communicate their emotions, and this story runs the gamut as Hannah learns to appreciate the fun side of being scared.
In the sequel, The Revenge of Jimmy, cousin Jimmy’s experiences last Halloween have left their mark; in order to keep the monsters from getting him, Jimmy vows to prevent Halloween from coming, although his plans don’t work out quite as expected.
He kicks in all the pumpkins, but that just inspires folks to use the holes for the mouths of their jack-o-lanterns. He tries to ruin the store-bought costumes, so the kids and parents use their imagination to make their own. Beyond the messages of optimism (Hannah continually looks on the bright side, rescuing not only her Halloween, but trapped monsters she doesn’t even know about), there’s a more subtle warning, reminiscent of Nietzsche: when fighting monsters, take care that you don’t become one yourself.
Hannah’s parents host a Halloween block party in The Mystery Date. Scary Godmother discovers a note from a secret admirer inviting her to the celebration, and we get to see more of the denizens of the Fright Side as Hannah and Orson try to figure out who sent it.
Thompson captures just the right moment in each picture, evoking perfectly her intended scenes, and topping it off with beautifully descriptive phrases (like “cinnamon wind”, to capture the autumn mood). The settings are part of fully imagined worlds, whether it’s the neighborhood street or a haunted house. She has a fondness for awful but funny puns and gags, as when the kids find male monsters at (where else?) a monster truck rally.
Her style is such that the characters couldn’t be people in costume — they’re designed to be inhuman looking, for the most part — but they’re very human in gesture and expression nonetheless. The monster milieu provides a great disguise for some realistic characters that are easy to relate to. They’re also appropriately fanciful or menacing (or even both) as it suits them.
When Scary Godmother gets The Boo Flu in the fourth storybook, Hannah takes over her tasks preparing for Halloween. This volume most resembles a typical children’s book — it’s told all in rhyme with lots of full-page panels — but it’s my favorite of the four because it’s so realistic when it comes to the stress surrounding holiday celebrations.
I must mention the gorgeous color palette used for the art, very appropriate autumn browns, reds, and greys. The stories often show a kid’s perspective on life and adult problems, which makes for a large part of their charm. Hannah is brave, but she’s still a child, and her fear sometimes overcomes her. But that’s why she has these wonderful friends, with the large and well-realized supporting cast.
The children have more of the focus in the storybooks, while the comics deal with more mature themes (a couple arguing about their relationship, for example, or the need to move out on your own) and characters that an older person is more likely to be familiar with (such as the fanboy). The books have larger panels and more room for establishing scenes, leading to a slower pace, while there are jokes in the comics younger kids won’t get, like the reference to the Donner party. Regardless of the format, though, the situation is always established for new readers.
Spooktakular Stories collects holiday-themed stories. In the first, previously published as the Bloody Vampire Special, Hannah Marie meets Ruby, a vampire, and plays with her son Orson. Ruby’s upset because she had a fight with her husband Max over modern conveniences (an entertombment center with new skel-a-vision and scar-e-o) vs. old-fashioned tradition.
After a collection of fun things to do — including craft projects, pencil puzzles, instructions for speaking French, coloring pages, recipes, and great information on how to make a comic — Hannah pays a winter visit to her Scary Godmother’s house for the Holiday Spooktacular. She and Orson compare notes on their respective holidays, Christmas and Solstice, and set out to earn money for their parents’ presents. Of course, they bump into Mr. Boogeylegs, the Fright Side’s version of Santa Claus, who teaches them the real fun of the holidays: parties with friends!
Harry is a werewolf fanboy who spends all his time on the internet. Irene, Harry’s mother, can’t enjoy an afternoon of cards with her friends without his demands driving her crazy, so she finally demands that he find his own place in Wild About Harry. Like many selfish types, Harry blames every problem on somebody else, and he doesn’t realize that trying to spite his mother will only make things worse for him. After getting kicked out of the vampire castle, he winds up at Scary Godmother’s before roaming through the “haunted” forest. Amazingly enough, the story concludes with Harry considered talented and famous for just doing what comes naturally.
The comics can get a bit busy at times — without color to distinguish the characters, it can be a little difficult to make out everything happening in the panels — but there’s compensation in the use of black to draw the eye through the stories. Whenever possible, Thompson takes the unexpected approach, leaving me pleasantly surprised at the twists and turns of the story. Her use of action is similarly non-traditional, making for comics that have a good sense of movement but in unusual ways (as when Max grabs for Orson to protect him from Harry).
Ghoul’s Out for Summer shows how Hannah, her Scary Godmother, and just about the whole Fright Side gang spend their vacation. Hannah’s going to sleep-over camp, Bug-a-boo is visiting his family, and Orson is going to school to learn how to be a better vampire. Scary Godmother has been invited to a witches’ conference, but a jealous old schoolmate decides to take her place — it’s identify theft, magic-style. Meanwhile, Orson’s teacher turns out to be a tyrant, and Hannah’s cousin Jimmy returns to make her camp activities miserable.
The mayhem, business, and chaos of a summer convention is captured well by Thompson. The frenzied activity is shown without the reader getting lost or confused in the art. The witch characters, even though many of them are filler, are individual and distinctive in look and action. The mood changes greatly among the variety of scenes, from confusion to Hannah’s despair at her cousin’s unfair behavior to the fear of the young vampires, yet the transitions somehow fit in the larger picture. That’s probably due to the theme of the story. Since Scary Godmother was a misfit who made good, there’s room for lots of approaches to life (and comics).
When Scary Godmother explains to the gang why she’s excited about going to her witches’ conference, the reader learns more about her background, including the interesting fact that she was the first combination witch and fairy godmother. As a result, she had some trouble fitting in with the two groups of kids, although it’s shown to be their problem, not hers. Normally, the Scary Godmother books have acceptance of difference as an implicit message; this is the first time I remember seeing it expressed so explicitly.
All of these tales are educational in a variety of ways, and the messages are well-thought-out. In various issues, we learn that it’s ok to be who you are; that you’ll still be loved even if you’re different; that couples have problems but they can often work them out; and that friends and celebrations and parties are all important and fun.
I love the way that everyone in this book has friends even though they’re all different, and that eccentricities are to be celebrated instead of hidden. The large variety of characters means someone for everyone to identify with or enjoy reading about. The comics also include recipes, which is one of my favorite parts; comics are a great way to show how to make something, and these treats are all nicely kid-friendly.
This series justifiably won the 2001 Eisner for Best Title for a Younger Audience, while Jill Thompson won Best Painter. She has also written and drawn two manga-style graphic novels with Sandman characters: Death: At Death’s Door and The Dead Boy Detectives. She previously illustrated The Little Endless Storybook, in which kid versions of the Sandman characters look for their sister; The Sandman: Brief Lives, reprinting The Sandman #41-49; and Mick Foley’s Halloween Hijinx, a children’s book written by the wrestler and illustrated by Thompson in a style similar to Scary Godmother.
The characters from Scary Godmother have also made appearances elsewhere:
The friends have fun in Mexico on the Day of the Dead in “6 Feet South of the Border”, a 4-page story (complete with recipe!) appearing in Action Girl Comics #13.
The 10-page color story “Tea for Orson”, in which Orson and Harry crash a ladies’ tea party, is included in the Trilogy Tour 2 Special. The Sirius Gallery from 1999 includes a 3-page color recipe — Hannah and Orson make Ghost Toast — while the Gallery from 2000 has 3 color pages on how to make sock puppets.
Orson, Bug-A-Boo, and other characters, illustrated by Thompson, appear on 3 pages of the Dan Brereton Nocturnals: Troll Bridge special.
Graphitti Designs has released Scary Godmother t-shirts, baby doll tops, tumblers, and a nifty magnet set. Sirius Entertainment put out a notepad, greeting card set, poster, valentine postcard set, and limited edition Alex Ross print.