Monsters ink

How Maurice Sendak made the world safe for monsters, and vice-versa

By Roger White
October 4, 2009

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One of this fall’s most anticipated films is “Where the Wild Things Are,” which attempts to bring the 338 words and 18 pictures of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book to life on the big screen. The stakes are high because the book is perfect; its simple story, about a misbehaving kid named Max and the creatures he meets on his imaginary voyage, is now a revered parable about growing up, staying young, and dealing with the unknown.

With an army of puppeteers and CGI effects, the filmmakers will also be reacquainting audiences with one of the great supporting casts in children’s books: Sendak’s monsters. The Wild Things - fierce but charming beasts with bulging eyes, fangs, and claws - became, for generations of the book’s fans, iconic. With mismatched animal bodies and goofy, humanoid features, they looked like a cross between ogres and teddy bears. And they promptly claimed a spot in our pop culture bestiary, along with Godzilla, King Kong, and Barney the Dinosaur, where they’ve roamed ever since.

The Wild Things looked like nothing ever seen in a children’s book. Rendered in simple ink-hatch over watercolor sketches, they evoked a perfect mixture of proto-adult dread and anarchic, childlike glee - an eternal, platonic form of the kindly monster. From the moment they appeared in 1964, they seemed bracingly and completely original. But in fact Sendak’s monsters had a long series of ancestors and descendants, and a closer look at their lineage suggests why “Where the Wild Things Are” marked such a revolutionary moment in monster history: not because they were so radically original, but because the book allowed us to see monsters in a new way.

In interviews, Sendak has said the Wild Things were inspired by visiting relatives, whose appearance in his boyhood Brooklyn home were a source of great alarm to the budding storyteller. Just who were these creatures, barging into the living room and upsetting the domestic routine? (They’d come over for dinner, so young Sendak was told, but was he the meal?) Sendak cites one uncle in particular, named Joe, as a template for the Wild Things, and looking at the illustrations we can imagine him as he appeared to the impressionable child: a rotund, hirsute guy, jovial but prone to overexcitement, toothy, and bulgy-eyed.

But it’s possible to find other ancestors, distant cousins, and even offspring on the Wild Things’ family tree. Monster genealogy is necessarily an inexact science - each example seems a unique aberration to the natural order of things. But if you look closely, you can trace the ancestry of Wild Things all the way back to the Classics.

The first thing you notice about the Wild Things is that they’re all mixed up. One has a lion’s head and webbed feet; another, a cockatiel’s head and lion’s body; yet another shows scaly, reptilian legs, horns, and a shaggy mane. They recall the hybridized monsters of the Ancient Greek world, complicated in appearance and lineage, who harassed the heroes of myth and bedeviled contemporary taxonomists. For example, the Chimera, a fire-breathing cross between a goat, a snake, and a lion, was said to be the daughter of Typhon (a winged giant with a dragon’s tail) and Echidna (a woman with the body of a serpent) as well as the sister of Cerberus, a three-headed dog. Like the Wild Things, the monsters of classical myth were neither fish nor fowl, but they were always somebody’s relatives.

The Middle Ages had its Wild Things, too, but by then they were called demons. If you look closely at the phantasmagoric canvases of the Netherlandish master Hieronymous Bosch, who worked during the Renaissance but dreamt back to the medieval world, you can see them cavorting around: enormous man-eating fish, bird-headed men, and giant mice and rabbits that hopped and crawled the earth to terrify hapless mortals.

Like Sendak’s, Bosch’s monsters recast the familiar in strange shapes, magnifying, distorting, and recombining elements of the everyday world into fanciful configurations. Ostensibly, they served to frighten viewers onto the path of good behavior - you most often found them exacting fiendish and ingenious punishments on unfortunate sinners. But the sheer creativity of his depictions suggests a fascination with the monstrous which exceeded the job description of a pious, hell-fearing artist: The monsters might have been the villains Bosch’s paintings, but they were also the stars of the show. Later on, Francisco de Goya’s satirical prints “Los Caprichos” would recast them as the forces of societal backwardness, irrationality, and superstition - everything a good Enlightenment artist hoped to dispel. An iconic image of a dozing man surrounded by enormous bats, owls, and cats, spelled out the message: “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”

A lot happened to those monsters between Goya and Sendak: 19th-century Gothic horror brought them into literary vogue, Sigmund Freud placed them squarely in the unconscious mind, films and television brought them lurchingly to life. Sendak’s creatures are unmistakably indebted to these advances (he recalls narrating the plots of monster movies to his childhood friends, and embellishing them with even more gruesome details), but the Wild Things are ultimately closer to the denizens of myth and fairy tales than to those of psychology or creature features.

Sendak is a classicist with the heart of a radical, and the story he tells marks an important moment in our relationship with our monsters. Max, the hero of the story, neither vanquishes the Wild Things nor flees in terror: Instead, they hang from trees together and howl at the moon. Far from admonishing Max (and the reader) against evil or the unknown, Sendak’s beasts are mascots for the strange and exceptional, teaching us to abide the weird and disturbing, within and without.

We’re now in a very pro-monster age, and the pop landscape is full of them. There are grotesque science-fiction horrors, undead ghouls of all stripes, and baroque marvels of CGI. But Sendak’s work helped usher in a whole host of monster-protagonists, from Jim Henson’s Muppets to Captain Caveman to Shrek, who are less fearsome than empathic, and about as normal as you or I. In 1964, when Sendak wrote the book, Wild Things existed in a distant land of their own. In 2009, their descendants are everywhere, like relatives who came to visit and never left.

Roger White is a painter and a founding editor of the art journal Paper Monument.