This week, we look at some books that make for perfect summer reading, and we start with something special. Any new book by author, illustrator, filmmaker and poster boy for high-spirited shenanigans William Joyce (born 1957) is a cause for celebration. But his new book – Billy’s Booger, A Memoir (Sorta) – is sufficient for bursting out into song, headstands while doing a Tarzan yell, and unrestrained fits of the hokey-pokey.
Not that Billy’s Booger is your ordinary, wonderful book. It’s snot. It is something quite unique – an illustrated memoir by a master of the form. In it, he chronicles his participation in a school-book competition, and includes his first opus, Billy’s Booger – The Memoir of a Little Green Nose Buddy. In short, this is the portrait of the artist as a (very) young man, and provides an insight into the formative components that make up Joyce’s protean imagination.
The story does snot have many fairy tale elements, despite its very traditional beginning of Once upon a time. Or, as Joyce starts his narrative, Once upon a time, when TV was in black and white, and there were only three channels, and when kids didn’t have playdates -- they just roamed free in the “out of doors” there lived a kid named Billy.
And we’re off for an in-depth look into the Joycean imagination. Most books in Joyce’s oeuvre exist largely as showcases for his stunning depictions of glowing, nostalgic Americana. Billy’s Booger, however, is different – it has the full complement of stunning illustrations (some, the finest of his career), but is more of a masterpiece of design than anything else.
Consider – Joyce includes his initial foray into book creation as a special insert into the book itself, published on different weight green construction paper (and printed in what appears to be white chalk). In addition to that, Joyce reproduces the illustrative style of 1950s-60s hygiene texts, along with loose-leaf paper doodles, and also includes several loving homages to classic newspaper comic strips. Nor does he miss an opportunity to display his obsessive creativity and imagination: the endpapers include schoolboy doodles of the most mischievous sort, including my favorite: Replace Hallway Floors with TRAMPOLINES – why has this not happened?
Joyce fills the book with quotations of his many obsessions, as well as many of his early books. In what may be my favorite illustration in the book, Joyce’s depicts his younger self creating his first magnum opus. In the background, just perceptible, is the poster from the 1933 King Kong, one of Joyce’s seminal influences. Nearby is a model spaceship in the mode of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (Joyce’s sense of science fiction, like that of your correspondent, is locked in 1930s art deco futurism). On his desk is a brontosaur that may well serve as the model for his later creation, Dinosaur Bob, and doodles on his desk bring to mind his most recent book, The Mischievians.
In other parts of the book, you will see references to his earlier works, including George Shrinks, Roli Poli Oli, and perhaps even a nod to his sometimes collaborator, Michael Chabon. There is even a little doodle that will become the logo for his animation and imagination company, Moonbot.
And Joyce simply never lets up. In those pages where he recreates classic comic strips, I was able to spot homages to Peanuts, L’il Abner, a gorgeous Little Nemo page, Flash Gordon (of course) and Dick Tracy. It is in his affections and deeply-rooted loves that Joyce reminds me most, perhaps, of the late Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). Like Bradbury, one of the great writers of the last century, Joyce wears his heart and his loves on his sleeve – which is perhaps where they belong. It is not a fashionable way of looking at the world; and certainly the last thing anyone could ever accuse Joyce of was being “ironic.” But it is honest, and sweet and boyish and … peppy. I can’t read Joyce (or Bradbury, for that matter) and not feel young again, or at least young at heart. If for no other reason, Joyce deserves a medal, perhaps with an oak leaf cluster, if they have one lying around somewhere.
More literal minded readers will wonder how much of Billy’s Booger is “true.” Well what does it mean when one promises the truth in a memoir? Is this the actual book Joyce created in his boyhood, reproduced here without editorializing? Did he, in fact, have such a happy relationship with his principal? (If so, Joyce was doubly, if not triply blessed.) And … are these pages lit by the glow of personal nostalgia?
Well … what does it matter? Billy’s Booger is thickly crusted with enough biographical data to have more than a kernel of truth, and this is the artist’s biography as he remembers it. Perhaps, one day, there will be a full-fledged autobiography or third-person biography to enjoy in addition to the Booger.
In a culture that values its heroes and children’s entertainment when it’s “dark,” the wonderful world of William Joyce provides a much-needed corrective. His world is a place of sun-kissed landscapes, mid-century American optimism, and unfettered fun. His books are for very young children, very old people, and everyone and anyone in between.
For those reasons, and many others, the book Billy’s Booger is our pick of the week.