Sock Monkey: Into the Deep Woods

By Tony Millionaire & Matt Danner (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-746-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a new classic to add to the “Every Kid Must Read” list… 10/10

Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey first appeared as a Dark Horse comicbook in 1998. Since then the cast of characters within have achieved a bizarre notoriety as adored favourites of gentle lovers of whimsy and the degenerate darlings of clued-in cynical post-moderns.

Confused? Then by all means read on…

The original tales (recently repackaged in a sumptuous 336 page hardback) featured a lovable handmade simian puppet, a toy crow with button eyes and a much repaired doll in multiple award-winning, all-ages adventures published as occasional miniseries between 1998 and 2007 as well a couple of hardcover storybooks Millionaire created in 2002 and 2004. He later recycled and repurposed the durably distinct stars for an adult-oriented (by which I mean surreal and clever, not tawdry and titillating) newspaper strip…

Tony Millionaire comes from a dynasty of exemplary artists, loves to draw and does it very, very well; referencing classical art, the acme of children’s book illustration and an eclectic mix of pioneering comic strip draughtsmen like George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray, Elzie Segar and George Herriman.

His own creative endeavours – words and pictures – seamlessly blend their styles and sensibilities with European engravings masters from the “legitimate” side of the pictorial storytelling racket.

Born Scott Richardson, he especially cites Johnny (Raggedy Ann and Andy) Gruelle and English illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh) as definitive formative influences. That is particularly obvious from the range of stunning pictures in this latest work starring his inimitable plushy paragons in a winning and memorable collaboration with animator, screen writer and director Matt Danner (whose past credits include Ren & Stimpy, Loony Toons, Monster High and The Drinky Crow Show).

With a variety of graphical strings to his bow such as various animation shows, his own clutch of books for children – particularly the superbly stirring Billy Hazelnuts series – and the brilliant if disturbing weekly strip Maakies (which details the aforementioned, riotously vulgar, absurdly surreal adventures of an nautically-inclined Irish monkey called Uncle Gabby and fellow über-alcoholic and nautical adventurer Drinky Crow: grown-up world iterations and mirror universe equivalents of the sweet and simple stars herein), every Millionaire project seems to be a guarantee of endless excitement and quality.

This one certainly is and may well push the featured creatures into the rarefied atmosphere previously inhabited solely by such esteemed and established children’s favourites as the Moomins, Wonderland, The Velveteen Rabbit and the assorted chronicles of Oz…

A prose tale scripted primarily by Danner with ideas, contributions and 46 stunning monochrome illustrations (in a variety of media from soft pencil tones to crisp stark pen & ink) from Millionaire, the sublime saga details how one day in a Victorian House by the sea, an old Sock Monkey named Gabby and his constant companions Crow and dilapidated, oft-repaired doll Inches discover that their beloved guardian Ann-Louise is missing and presumed taken by the recently discovered monstrous beast dubbed the Amarok…

Determined to save her, the ill-prepared trio plunge into the terrifying Deep Woods, armed only with maps and a compass from the library of Ann-Louise’s grandfather Professor Rimperton. Braving all manner of terrors – and with the occasional assistance of strange creatures such as the wood-elf Trumbernick, a partly digested sea captain and an undersized bear carpenter – the toybox heroes defeat, or more usually narrowly escape, such threats as Venomous, Triple-Spiked, Hog-Faced Caterpillars, stormy seas, a Sea Serpent, horrid Harpies and the unpleasantly ursine Eastern Mountain Guards of Bear Town, until they find her.

However even after the dauntless searchers have finished dodging pursuers, roaming the wilds and soaring the skies to be reunited with Ann-Louise, there is still one final trial as the remorseless Amarok tracks them to the beloved little girl they would lay down their lives for…

Like the very best children’s classics, this is a book that isn’t afraid to confront dark matters and actively embraces fear and sadness amidst the wonders in an effort to craft a better story.

Compelling, beguiling and visually intoxicating, this latest Sock Monkey yarn judiciously leavens discovery with anxiety, heartbreak with gleeful imaginative innocence and terror with bold triumph.

Millionaire has described his works as intended for “adults who love children’s stories” but this collaboration with Matt Danner may just have turned that around by concocting a tall tale of adult intent which is one of the greatest kids’ books of modern times.
Sock Monkey: Into the Deep Woods © 2014 Tony Millionaire & Matt Danner. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books.