Since comparisons between Mike Raicht and Brian Smith’s Stuff of Legend, and Pixar’s Toy Story, franchise seem almost inevitable, it feels prudent to get the discussion out of the way sooner as opposed to later. This is not to say that the stories are intrinsically or overtly communicating with each other, but the overlaps between the two are more than superficial. Both deal with toys that come to life when their owners are not looking, both deal with the themes of loss, growing up, and the fear of being forgotten, and both stories involve the toys fulfilling their role as not just playthings, but protectors of the child they belong to.
And while these similarities are interesting, it is where the two tales of toys on a quest diverge that things start to get interesting. Where Toy Story ponders the implicit tragedy of growing up and leaving your childish things behind – to such a degree that many have convincingly argued that the series is in fact films more for kids than adults – but always pull back before the sadness become too overwhelming and it deprives the kids of the happy, if bittersweet, ending they need, Stuff of Legend zags in an overtly more adult direction. In Raight and Smith’s world – beautifully illustrated by Charles Paul Wilson III – the finite nature of youth is painfully ever present. Like the death it prefaces, the fact that these toys time with their child is undeniably short, forces the reader to confront the darkness in our own closets in an unflinching manner. The life of the toy, like some of the more cynical views of the life of the human, is not joy bookended by despair, but instead despair punctuated all-too-briefly by brief glimpses of happiness before, as the The Rubaiyat notes, we are laid “one by one back in the closet…”
Fortunately however Stuff of Legend doesn’t fully leap into the emo navel-gazing of the abyss, instead the toys struggle on despite these painful truths. The story begins very swiftly with a young boy being abducted from his room by that recurring manifestation of the childhood fear of the unknown: the boogeyman. His toys, led by the brave Colonel, immediately form a search party, and despite the doubts of some of the playthings who wonder what special loyalty they owe to him, enter into the boogeyman’s lair, the closet. This act of bravery is made braver by the fact that all the toys know that the closet is not just the hiding place of their foe, but also the place where all the doomed toys go when they are forgotten. This is not the March of the Wooden Toy Soldiers, so much as Orpheus’ descent into Hades.
The reader’s expectations are expertly and immediately frustrated as the creator’s thrust you swiftly into story. With no preamble or context the narrative jumps to the middle of a violent battle, as armies of the dark – forgotten toys who have thrown in their lot in with the boogeyman – make war on what the Colonel refers to as “the boy’s Loyalist forces,” made up of a toy soldier, a teddy bear, a duck, an Indian princess, a piggybank, a jester, and the child’s dog – uniting the party under the two most recognizable metaphors of childhood companionship. The sense of disorientation is further compounded when a leading figure in the party is brutally killed as a result of betrayal from the piggybank (While this sickening treachery threatens the entire group, it is hard not to feel sympathy for a toy that is designed to be smashed by the child it loves).
Following the bloody defeat of the boogeyman’s forces on the beach – eerily and intentionally reminiscent of the D-day invasion as the story takes place in September of 1944 – the survivors make their way to the city of Hopscotch. This small Hamlet made up of various pieces of childhood detritus is the perfect Borgesian labyrinth; a totalitarian vision wedded to the aesthetics of youth that puts to shame Toy Story 3’s daycare. It is a city where in a desire to give toys back their purpose, the evil mayor has them playing a never-ending board game, a game without rules, objectives, and most importantly winners. It is the illusion of purpose, work for works sake, and all the toys live their lives moving around a meaningless board. It is an incredibly powerful vision of the affectations of youth without the animating magic of the young. There the rescuers are forced to confront what they would be without someone to love them and play with them.
All of these events are powerfully illustrated by Wilson, who evokes a type of Tim Burton-esque world without the irony or color. Instead of capitalizing on the countless opportunities for bright, powerful images, the artist instead selects a yellowish monochromatic hue that pervades every panel. Eschewing the potentially beautiful imagery, this decision seems to reflect the desire of the creators to not let the façade be mistaken for substance. The dirty yellow wash invokes a dying light bulb in a dark room and never allows the reader to forget that this is not a children’s story.
The one theme that makes this The Stuff of Legend go beyond just being good and enter the realm of great is its recurring meditation on perfect loyalty. Despite the treachery of the pig, who himself begins to regret his decision, the others remain steadfast in their tireless devotion to the boy. Unlike Toy Story, whose sense of purpose in the characters begins to shift to each other as and away from their owner Andy, the heroes in this book remain steadfastly loyal – at least so far – to their child master. This is perfect loyalty. Even though they are constantly being reminded of their future as disregarded playthings, left in the closet and forgotten by the child they loved, they nonetheless persevere. Because in the end, isn’t that toys are for? To protect children in the darkness from the monsters under their bed and the evil lurking in the closet? It may be a lie, but for the heroes of this story, it is a lie worth risking everything for.