We have grown accustomed through Pixar’s Toy Story franchise to the appealing idea that childhood is largely and wondrously trouble-free.
That’s not to say that Andy and later Bonnie don’t go through some emotionally troubling experiences; they definitely do and it informs and propels the narratives in all four of the films, with the toys, notably Woody and Buzz Lightyear placed in peril too as they try to craft a happy ending for both themselves and their owners.
But there’s something comforting in all the bright colours, whimsy and abundant humour, such that while trouble is at hand, it doesn’t necessarily spell out any kind of apocalyptic doom (though for Andy, Bonnie and the kids, it can often feel that way).
The Stuff of Legend: Book 1 – The Dark by Mike Raicht & Brian Smith, with illustrations by Charles Paul Wilson III, by way of graphic contrast is a story so cast in monochrome artwork and emotionally stripped bare writing which tells a story of a kid in danger and the toys that set off to rescue him that you often tremble as you read this beautifully written but soul-troubling tale.
In the world of The Stuff of Legend, the toys are not one big happy family – that’s true of Toy Story too in a way but most altercations are generally resolved in the affirmative to everyone’s reasonably mutual happiness – and in fact, are often working against each other in pursuit of wholly separate goals.
This isn’t simply some light-and-bright plot device to engender dramatic tension; in this darkly intense story, it’s a life-or-death proposition as The Boy is kidnapped by the Boogeyman from out of the closet – no Monsters Inc. cuteness here; it’s hellishly black and terrifying and all the monsters under the bed/in the closet stories are horrifically true – his only chance at salvation the brave toys who are willing to into the nightmarescape of the Boogeyman’s world to rescue their owner.
What’s especially inventive is where the story is set and how the toys react to his loss.
The Stuff of Legend is set in late 1944 with The Boy’s dad away at war, and a whole lot of growing up happening that means a number of the toys, if not all of them, are being relegated to the margins; some cope with this well, some do not, and it’s schisming of sentiment that drives how the story progresses as the Boogeyman leverages some lingering resentment to his own bleakly nefarious ends.
What in Pixar or Disney’s hands might be a scary but easily resolvable rescue mission becomes infinitely more complicated and emotionally intense in The Stuff of Legend which doesn’t pretend everyone is one big happy family and that the goodness of toys like the Colonel, the Princess and the Jack in the Box is moderated by the wavering loyalty of Percy the Pig and the divisiveness of Max the Bear and the wooden duck, both of whom resent the present of Scout, the Boy’s loyal mutt and, as they see it, a rival for their owner’s affections.
The commitment of toys like Max and the duck to rescuing The Boy is beyond reproach, unlike Percy who becomes very Edmund from Narnia’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but they represent how fallible and ironically all too human these toys are and how their lack of total unity with the selflessness of the Colonel, the Princess and others risks imperilling their mission to a fatal degree.
It’s this brokenness and fallibility of character and intent that adds so much emotional depth to The Stuff of Legend: Book 1 – The Dark and which propels its storyline along some all to real paths, some of which will tear your heart out.
This commitment to superlatively evocative writing is matched by luminously arresting artwork that uses monotone colouring to underscore how grim life is in both the real world where a global conflict is raging, and in the terrifying realm of the Boogeyman who is seducing and corrupting toys with the idea that they will find a true home and fulfillment with him.
It’s all glossy pitch and authoritarian reality, which emerges again and again in a world that, in stark contrast to the relative happiness of the toyroom – though not, as we’ve observed, total and complete unity of purpose or belonging – eats dissenters alive and crushes those who stand up for what is good and right.
The bleakness of this environment and the dreadful truth about war and its barbaric consequences is on manifestly harrowing display in every page of sharply drawn artwork – which also disappears into the shadows too, reflecting the emotional and moral greys in which much of the story takes place – which create worlds where hope and love are openly warring with nihilistic despair, hatefulness and cruel control.
It may sound like a soul crushing read and in large measure it is but what shines through is the bravery, tenacity and love of the majority of the toys who are willing to do whatever it takes, no matter the cost or lack of personal reward (other than saving The Boy) to see their mission through the end.
They are up against some horrifyingly implacable obstacles and genuinely evil characters and there’s no suggestion of a super quickly realised happy-ever-after – The Stuff of Legend continues on in three more volumes – but you hang in there because no matter the odds, the toys are going to hang in there and do what they must, proof that evil may look dauntingly menacing but that love, in its most muscular and heroic form, is more than a match for it, even if in the short-term it has its collective back up against the wall.