Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 3: Scaled Creatures with Enormous Eyes.

10 Oct

3. Scaled creatures with enormous eyes.

Molly Bangs offers a different way of looking at Sendak’s pictures. If McCloud gives us a theory of reader projection onto blank faces, Bangs breaks down pictures into a primal, emotional geometry. Using Bangs principles as a cipher, we can see some of what makes the book so powerful, and timeless.

First, Bangs argues that smooth, horizontal lines are comforting (Bangs, 42). All of Max’s journey is framed by a smooth horizontal plain at the bottom of the page, except the rumpus pages. This gives the island not a sense of horror or fear, but calm adventure. It also answers the question, why isn’t this story scarier? A boy adrift at sea, stranded on an isle of monsters that threaten to eat him, and yet, the creatures somehow feel warm. (Also, one of the creatures wears a cardigan, adding a touch of whimsy and some fuzzy feeling of home.) The white plain, in various sizes, is almost omnipresent, giving the book a soft glow, explaining the disconnect between the book’s tone and what is actually going on in the story.

Max faces the right side of the page, in classic western pictorial tradition, in the fantasy sequences. As we read left to right, we expect action in picture books to move in the same direction. Yet, in the “real world”[1] of the story, Max faces left. He also faces left when he is thinking of home while in the fantasyland.

Sendak knows what he’s doing here; Max’s eyes, in a sense, are our own. Where he looks, the reader looks, too. Max always faces the monsters. This allows the monsters to be both less threatening and an extension of Max’s own thoughts.

Second, the center of the page is also the center of attention (Bangs, 62). Max, returning to our three-page wordless spread, is almost at the center. But for most of the rest of the pages, he is—at times uncomfortably—tucked into the edges of the frame. He is a boy at odds with the real world, and Sendak doesn’t want us to forget that his jaunt into a fantasy world isn’t a race towards perfection, but rather a retreat from the hard realities. The rumpus, Sendak is saying, is the whole point; Max has escaped the rules of his home for the wild. Anything less than pandemonium would miss the point.

Max, at the center of things, where he belongs.

Returning to the monsters, they are big bellies with eyes. They are huge. They have enormous teeth and sickly yellow eyes. They are clearly of different origins, some bullish and others birdlike. But, as the colors of the creatures are similar, they are lumped together. This, too, is covered in Bangs’s book (Bangs, 74). The result is a clan of monsters, almost a family, but covering great creative width. They have something childish about them, something sweet[2], and Bangs touches on reasons why they seem this way, too. They are round, almost mushy, and thus less threatening (Bangs, 11). They look like they should be scary, but they aren’t.

The creatures look (almost) peaceful, save for the beaked monster at the end.

The mood of the book, almost soporific with its reassuring plains of white surrounding the frames or bordering them, works because of the principles Bangs’s elucidates.

The last line is delivered against a vast, calming white space. The pictures are gone, the boy is gone, the monsters are gone, only the idea of a warm meal remains.


[1] Of course, it’s all fiction.

[2] Except for the bird creature, which has more than just a touch of the perverse. Note the expression on page 25. Extrapolating why Sendak included this thing in the book would take a much longer essay, but I believe he’s intentionally placed a discomfiting creature amongst the cute and fuzzy.

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