Review by Ian Keogh
Before any consideration of the actual content it’s Seth’s wonderful design for all three hardcover Melvin Monster books that grabs the attention, with only the great cover illustration the work of creator John Stanley. The care and the craft is immense, with a formidable colour scheme, slightly debossed silver foil title lettering and back cover logo, and a smooth sticker applied to the rear imparting the book and author information. This is in deliberate contrast to the tactile, slightly rough feel of front and back covers. The design elements combine so pleasingly to give an indication of a prestige project, and continue within where the pages are browned, as if those of genuine old comics.
Stanley began writing and drawing Melvin Monster in 1965 after almost two decades of plotting and laying out the superbly conceived adventures of Little Lulu. The brief biography at the back of the book reports that Stanley was embittered with the industry when he left comics, shortly after Melvin Monster was cancelled, and the world he created in Monsterville was the polar opposite of Lulu’s pleasant environment. She was surrounded by friends, and whatever happened hers was a world of safety and comfort. Melvin can’t even count on his own parents to keep him safe, and his is a solitary existence where he has to constantly avoid the family’s pet crocodile, who attempts to eat him. Another of the series’ running jokes involves Melvin coming up with ever more inventive ways of making the teacher open the school for him, while she sets deadly traps to prevent him attending. What prevents this being dragged down by the depressing situation is Melvin remaining resolutely cheerful whatever degradation he faces.
While Melvin can be read as an inventive all-ages re-hashing of then popular TV shows The Munsters and The Addams Family, it’s also darker than the darkest of the Witch Hazel stories for Little Lulu. Stanley’s premise is sound. Melvin lives with his Mummy (her face covered in bandages) and his Baddy (a massive hunched monster) in Monsterville, where his dad works as a hairmesser for werewolves. Melvin has a guardian demon, Damon, to watch over him and ensure he comes to no harm, and takes occasional trips into the human world, the passage and return kept deliberately vague. The stories never exceed ten pages, and are densely plotted, with quirky elements that bear a uniquely hilarious touch. At one point Melvin is climbing up the side of a building and stops for a snooze by clamping his teeth either side of a protruding brick.
The darker aspect of Melvin Monster renders it one of the few American strips for children that could have comfortably sat alongside the more creative British equivalents of the mid-20th century. There’s usually a demarcation line of wholesomeness never crossed, with even tamer British strips of the era starring misbehaving children. Stanley doesn’t approach the manic intensity of Leo Baxendale or Ken Reid, but the invention and great cartooning place him in their league. However, the inconsistency of the strips here continues thoughout the series.