Imagine having a scandalous but fascinating tale buried deep within the branches of your family tree. Then imagine having the skills and industry knowledge to turn it into a book, but your expertise is wholesome early reader books for children. That’s the conundrum faced by Susan Schade, veteran creator and granddaughter of a man named Frank Mallet who started a nudist colony in the early 1930s.
After the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression, Mallet found himself to be in a fairly good position thanks to his holdings in real estate instead of stocks. Inspired by co-op colonies he had visited in Europe, he landed on the idea of converting one of his sprawling rural properties in Connecticut into a nudist enclave. The impressive growth of this enterprise bears striking similarities to later hippie communes, marking him as a trailblazer who both successfully ran his own utopia and forecast the popularity of the movement decades later. Unfortunately, his nascent libertine tendencies also led to a rift with his wife, with them eventually settling into separate homes on the property.
Working with her longtime co-creator and husband, Jon Buller, Schade turned her titillating family tale into this new graphic novel, which was thankfully picked up for publication by Fantagraphics for their small-run Fantagraphics Underground imprint. If you haven’t run across an FU book before, that’s partly by design: they focus on “work that can only be published outside the mainstream”, preferring quirky, idiosyncratic work that might not normally make it to market.
After creating and publishing more than 60 children’s books together, this work represents both the couple’s first work for adults and first graphic novel. Buller handles principal art duties, with Schade providing the whopper of a story. They have experimented with longer-form work before, notably their excellent Fog Mound Trilogy and Scarlett: A Star on the Run, but while those heavily illustrated middle grade books came close to comics territory, this project is their first foray into full graphic novels. It seems like a bit of a daring move for them due to any uptight parents who make the connection between their children’s books and this risqué project, but at this late stage of their lengthy joint career it’s likely that they simply don’t care about any potential dings to their reputation.
Buller’s art style isn’t markedly changed from his past works for this endeavor, giving the rubbery-limbed characters a children’s book feel in spite of their lack of clothes. It’s as if Dr. Seuss decided to make comix, but with heavier use of cross hatching to add appealing surface textures. For coloring, Buller employs an interesting technique of only using two colors to shade the backgrounds of his art, typically a cost-saving move for printing considerations, but those two colors are then frequently changed to completely different colors to mark shifts in timeframe or setting. All characters are rendered in black and white line art; color remains exclusively relegated to backgrounds throughout the book. Buller’s charming art fills the work with a sense of innocence seemingly at odds with its “underground” subject matter.
Schade is to be commended for peeling back the covers on her notorious family history that has largely been forgotten by society. It’s clear that she’s more amused than scandalized by the legacy of her flighty grandpa, even as she is still dealing with the ongoing maintenance of his property in the current day. While she doesn’t pull punches in recounting his adventures, she glosses over enough details of his financial mismanagement and family situation that he’s ultimately portrayed more in shades of gray than as a clearly defined hero or villain.