Not the Bears

March 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

About a month ago, on February 24th, Jan Berenstain passed away at the age of 88; she and her husband Stan were best known for their series of Berenstain Bears children books. Below is a review of a collection of the earliest Stan and Jan cartoon work; this review was first posted to the Thought Balloonist site on August 19, 2008. (Click on the images below to make them larger.)

Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain by Mike Berenstain (Abrams, 2008, $35).

First, note the discrepancy between the image and the title of this post. The cover of my library copy of Child’s Play doesn’t include “The Berenstain Baby Boom” subtitle on the cover, for reasons unknown to me.

Second, I should admit up front that I’ve always disliked the Berenstain Bears children’s books. The members of the Bear family are defined in broad, simplistic strokes–Papa Bear is a self-confident, bib-overall-wearing dope, while Brother Bear is a typical rough-and-tumble, sports playing boy–and never grow throughout the 100+ volumes of the series. The fact that the central characters are identified only as Father, Mother, Sister and Brother Bear, without any proper names, reflects how vacant and generic their personalities are. The art, too, reinforces this vacuity; visually, the main way to tell the difference between Brother and Sister Bear is that Sister wears a pink bow in her hair.

The protagonists remain empty and static, of course, because the Berenstain Bears books are relentlessly didactic, and it’s easier to invent a story that transmits a moral if your characters keep making the same stupid mistakes over and over again. In The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food (1985), Father, Sister and Brother eats candy until they get “chubby” and Mother Bear teaches them healthy eating and their doctor encourages them to exercise; In The Berenstain Bears Forget their Manners (1985), Father, Sister and Brother Bear burp explosively and neglect to say “Thank you” until Mother Bear penalizes them with chores; in The Berenstain Bears’ New Neighbors (1994), Papa Bear mistrusts the Panda family that moves in across the street until the rest of the Bears teach him tolerance and multiculturalism; lather, rinse, repeat. (The sole exception to this sermonizing I found was The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation [1989], where the Bears have a rotten getaway but laugh it off when they return home.) When I read these (and other) Berenstain Bear books out loud to my kids, they figured out the formula in record time–they knew they were listening to a lecture–and they drifted away to their rooms in search of a non-judgmental space to exercise their imaginations.

I was surprised, then, that I liked Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain as much as I did. Child’s Play‘s prose, written by son Mike Berenstain, is a career biography of his parents that begins in 1941, when Stanley Berenstain and Janice Grant met as freshmen at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, and ends in 1964, as Stan and Jan’s focus shifted from gag cartooning and magazine illustration to children’s books. Mike Berenstain gives us all the basic facts, and his prose wraps the art in historical context; he comments, for instance, on a Stan-Jan double-page spread titled Gymnasium, first published in Collier’s in 1949, by noting that “the elevated track circling the interior of the gym places the scene firmly in the aging urban schools of the 1940s” (28). The real attraction of Child’s Play, however, is the pictures. As young artists, Stan and Jan scrambled to find as many viable markets for their drawings as they could, and reprinted in Child’s Play are gag cartoons, magazine covers, book illustrations, and samples from Sister, a relatively unsuccessful syndicated comic strip that ran for a little less than two years (1953-54). It was a relief to discover that Sister was, as Mike Berenstain points out, “a female sibling of Dennis the Menace” (74) rather than a harbinger of the Bears’ didacticism:

There’s a lot to love about this Sister strip: its wobbly panel shapes, its stupefied, perpetually open-mouthed father character, even its nutty disregard for the delineation of a natural, commonsensical world. (Look at that seventh panel–even crouched down, Dad would never fit through that doorway into the stacks. But what about the adult librarians? Were they all bent over like Quasimodo?) Sister‘s verve is at least partially due to the variations in line width, as fine lines (like the strands of the librarian’s hair that spill over the border of panel two) mingle with spot blacks and thicker marks like Dad’s eyebrows in panel four. By the time the Berenstains begin to draw the Bears, the line widths are more uniform, more sedate, flatter, and less exciting.

Even in the early phase of their joint career chronicled in Child’s Play, though, Stan and Jan drew in a less line-intensive style for some of their gag cartoons. Their central market in the early 1950s was Collier’s, one of the few magazines to publish cartoons in full color, so the Berenstains kept it simple, dropping in watercolor hues rather than lines to add another dimension to their art:

The above gag again stars Sister, who made her first appearance in magazines before her short-lived migration into comic strips. A later variation on Sister, called It’s All in the Family, ran in either McCall’s or Good Housekeeping between 1956 and 1988. Virtually all of the art in Child’s Play has to do with kids and families, and Mike Berenstain indicates that this focus on family life was based on advice from the editor of The Saturday Evening Post rather than a desire on Stan and Jan’s part to be the artistic chroniclers of the Baby Boom zeitgeist. Child’s Play is a celebration of two talented cartoonists who were unabashedly commercial, and who occasionally, at the beginning of their careers, came within striking distance of creating art.

My favorite Berenstain work is an outgrowth of Stan and Jan’s frustration with, in Mike’s words, “the tendency of magazines and newspapers to shrink cartoons down to near-postage stamp scale in order to cram more copy, more pictures, and more ads onto a page” (24). To showcase their cartooning more effectively, Stan and Jan began to craft big panoramic cartoons that were eventually published as Collier’s covers and interior single and double-page splashes. These are beautiful and overwhelming in their detail. They encourage the reader to move his or her attention around the image, taking in one event (a father tugging multiple sleds up a hill) and then an adjacent event (the building of a snowman), and yet another, in a dance around a locale and theme. Below is one such big cartoon, titled Freeze:

I’m grateful to Mike Berenstain for unearthing images like these, and for persuading me to re-evaluate his parents’ work. I still can’t stand those Bears, but I love Sister and Freeze. In the second half of Child’s Play, Stan and Jan settle into their cozier, simpler Bear-style, and for that reason I can’t unambiguously recommend spending $35 dollars on the book, but I checked it out of my local library and found it the proverbial pleasant surprise.

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