Yesterday I showed a sequential-art print that Virginia Lee Burton created about 1940 for new colleagues in her Folly Cove Designers cooperative. We know she was studying the comics form around that time because the next year she published Calico the Wonder Pony, or the Saga of Stewy Stinker, an attempt to create a picture book that could compete with comic books for her sons’ attention. (A decade later, Burton was able to go back to Calico, rework some of the pictures, and reattach her original title; that’s the form available today.)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt quotes Burton as saying: “Calico the Wonderhorse I did for both Aris and Mike in an attempt to wean them away from comic books.” In Virginia Burton: A Life in Art, Barbara Elleman quoted her as saying: “I really dislike the comic books for their lack of design and drawing more than anything.”
But she steeled herself to research the form of adventure comics, coming to these conclusions for The Horn Book:
the hero must be endowed with more than the average physical and mental powers, besides being all that was chivalrous and virtuous, and the villain the antithesis. There must be action, suspense, and tremendous but possible odds against the hero, but no one must get seriously hurt. Humor was welcome. Westerns were the most popular.Curiously, Western comics weren’t flourishing in 1941, except as spin-offs of cowboy movies. But they may have been popular in Burton’s house; she recalled letting her boys listen to The Lone Ranger on the radio.
Elleman wrote that “In making her horse, Calico, female, Burton felt she was giving a tongue-in-cheek poke to Western comics, where women were mostly ignored.” That said, Burton had already established her habit of making her main non-human characters female.
Burton’s comments on comic books indicate she was assessing their content, not just their form. Thus, she came up with an exaggerated, fast-moving, action-filled, Manichean adventure. Calico contains sequential, juxtaposed images, one of the hallmarks of the comics form. But otherwise it seems to tell its story through a standard picture-book technique: third-person narration, set off in plain text from the illustrations. Nonetheless, the Burton family labeled Calico a “symphony in comics.”
The book’s original reviews were mixed. Parents said it “meets the sensational comics on their own ground,” while Bangor librarian L. Felix Ranlett wrote in The Horn Book, “We like our funnies and our books kept separate and we don’t know whether Calico is a book or a funny.” (As late as 2002, biographer Elleman wrote that the comics technique “is not often seen in today’s trade books.”)
Last year, James Sturm of Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies called Burton “Godmother of the Graphic Novel” in a slide show at DoubleX. He referred not just to Calico but also to The Little House and her more successful books. Peggy Burns at Drawn and Quarterly agreed with Sturm’s assessment while Tom Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter thought he hadn’t made his case. Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat archived the resulting debate and prolonged it.