Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sugar&Spike - The Covers

The Chronicles of Sheldon Mayer's Sugar & Spike

The Covers of Sheldon Mayer

Sheldon Mayer's SUGAR & SPIKE covers are among my favourite covers ever, always sure to bring a smile or chuckle

(for a full gallery of SUGAR & SPIKE covers, you can go here, or here, or here)

The early covers were all self-contained and didn't refer to any of the interior short stories (except to the extent that there would be seasonal issues for things like Christmas or Halloween and both the cover and an interior story would play off that theme in different ways). One of the many delightful things about them, and about Mayer's work in general, is the way he can put a perfect facial expression on Sugar and Spike for any situation. When you see them, there's no question about whether Mayer meant for them to be happy or confused or angry or surprised. All the expressions are clear, all of them are funny and all of them remind me of faces I've seen real babies make in similar circumstances.

Structurally, these covers can be divided into three major groups, the comic strip, the single image verbal gag and the single image sight gag.

The comic strip types are usually four panels, and have the same rhythm as the classic humour strips like PEANUTS. Mayer used that type of cover on the first three issues, and again on #14 and #18. #11 is also a variation on this, being a two panel gag, with the panels being two tall ones (essential to the construction of the particular gag). These covers really make me wish that a SUGAR & SPIKE comic strip had come to pass (it was apparently seriously discussed at various times, with a proposal and some finished samples from around 1960 and an an unfinished six-week proposal from the early 1980s, including some recycled gags from these covers and other places, but it wasn't to be). Mayer is clearly worked on a level that only a handful of daily comic strip artists managed, and comic books didn't really seem to give him the audience he deserved. On the other hand, I like his longer stories even more than the four panel gags, and he had a certain flexibility in story construction there that comic strips didn't offer, so it's a trade-off.

Most of the covers are single images, though. Of those, most use both words and pictures to tell their joke, often playing off the idea of how the point of view of a baby is so completely different from that of adults. Their reaction to a lifeguard is to marvel at the size of his "highchair" but wonder how his mommy will feed him. Their reaction to a tree growing in the living room is to run before they get blamed. This kind of thing is a constant theme in almost all the SUGAR & SPIKE stories, but here on the covers it's distilled into its purest form.

Some of the verbal gags deal with just the general mischief and mayhem that the kids cause. This is seen even better in the third group of covers, the pure sight gags with no (or very little) dialogue. Here Mayer presents exactly what you would see, leaving it to your imagination to wonder exactly how that situation came about, what the kids are thinking and what the consequences will be. Of the 6 such covers in the run (#12, #15, #21, #21, #23 #44) I think #23 is the best, and may be the best SUGAR & SPIKE cover of all. It features Sugar and Spike in a movie theatre, and while the visual gimmick means we see less of their wonderful facial expressions than normal it's more than made up for in the rest of the cover.

In later issues Mayer started to do more full-length stories, and for a time the covers were mostly of a fourth kind, more of a teaser for what was inside (with a lot of blurbs and stuff) than a stand-alone entity. The first of these was #40, and then starting with #58 that becomes the norm, with about half the run after that composed of those types of covers, especially the stories with long Bernie the Brain featured stories. While those were still funny, they lacked a certain amount of the charm and completeness of the early covers.

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