Thursday, December 19, 2013

Who Is Your Santa, Part III: The Santa Claus of William Joyce

Today, we actually get two Santa Clauses for a single entry as we look at the work of William Joyce (born 1957).

Joyce took the publishing world by storm in the late 1980s-early 1990s with a series of picture books, including Dinosaur Bob (1988), A Day With Wilbur Robinson (1990), and his Christmas book, Santa Calls (1993).

Though Joyce has expanded his talents into film and television production, it is his picture books that I perhaps love the best, and Santa Calls most of all.  It tells the story of Arthur Atchinson Aimesworth, boy inventor, cowboy and amateur adventurer.  With his sidekick, Spaulding Littlefeets, and his sister, Esther, he goes from Abilene, Texas to Santa’s Toyland at the North Pole.  There, Esther is kidnapped by the Dark Queen and her evil elves, and it is up to Art, Santa and the rest of the gang to rescue her.

In summary, it does not sound like much – but in execution, it is nothing short of magnificent.  I have long considered Santa Calls to be Joyce’s masterpiece, and it is a story that I seem to see with fresh eyes every year.

First off, Joyce’s talents as an illustrator were never put to better effect.  The entire book is suffused with a creamy, subtle color strongly reminiscent of the Golden Age of Illustration.  (Without a publication date, anyone coming to the book with fresh eyes could easily mistake it as a work from the 1930s or 1940s.)  True to his art deco aesthetic, Joyce reimagines Santa as a North Pole dandy, complete with flowing red frock coat (trimmed with white), striped off-white vest and dashing monocle.  And his Toyland is filled with gadgets both wondrous and fabulous.  This should not be surprising – as one of Joyce’s inspirations was… James Bond.  Joyce conceived of Santa as an older gadgeteer, and his workshop much like the highly-mechanized fortresses found in the Bond films.  Double-Ho Seven, indeed.

His Toyland – where the motto is The Best of the Old, The Best of the New, The Best That Is Yet To Be – is a major feat of imagination.  Inspired by both the spacious and ornate dreamlands found in Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo strips, it also nods its head at the Emerald City of Oz.  However, with its floodlights, bow-tied elephants, Santa-shaped buildings and walking beds… it rather makes the Emerald City look like Dubuque.

The action zips along as quickly as a Robin Hood adventure, and is richly garnished with Joycean pop culture references to everything from Punjab in Little Orphan Annie to silent screen cowboy Tom Mix to the pets found in Doc Savage.  But through it all beats a warm and generous heart, and I guarantee that this overstuffed and gorgeously designed book will leave you weepy at the final revelation.  It is my favorite Christmas picture book.

Joyce has revisited Santa in his overarching cosmology – the Guardians of Childhood.  This is his effort to tell the origin story of such childhood touchstones as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, among others.  Here, Santa is a reformed Cossack bandit, who learns magic and compassion from the wizard, Ombric.  Though the series is not yet complete, we see some of what Santa will become – in the latest installment, he has already started construction of his Toyland.  This Santa is a dashing, reformed brigand.  He has a sense of style and the dramatic, and is more an adventurer at this point of the series than anything else.  Armed with swords or a robotic genie, this Santa is ready for all comers in his efforts to protect his band of Guardians, and we see the nurturing, patriarchal side of the man emerge.  It is an interesting transformation, and we wonder how Joyce will end the series.

In the film version released last year, Rise of the Guardians, Santa was voiced by Alec Baldwin, in what has to be the voice performance of the decade.  It is perfect holiday fare, and as Christmas approaches, you could not do better than spending it with the Guardians of Childhood.

One Last Santa Tomorrow!

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