Johnny Gruelle

Since I brought him up in another post, I feel I should expand a little on Mr. Gruelle. Johnny Gruelle was a very accomplished illustrator up through the late 1920’s. He’s best known for creating and illustrating Raggedy Ann, although he did many other illustrations as well. His work is powerfully dark and strange. It  made a deep impression on me as a child. He’s like the abandoned offspring of Maxfield Parrish and Diane Arbus.

If you only pay attention to the characters of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, they seem nearly the same as their modern incarnations. But while the modern illustrations are sunny, saccharine and open, Gruelle’s were childlike, beautiful, and grotesque – like dreams just before they go bad. And always that darkness behind everything, even the sunny, happy scenes.

My Gruelle books are all in storage, so I can’t scan the illustrations that made the strongest impression on me. Not surprisingly, the examples I can find online tend towards the sweeter ones. But there’s a witch in ‘The Lucky Pennies’, her face covered in … bandages? with those blank, steampunk goggles. She still gives me the creeps and she’s not the only one. The supporting cast of Gruelle is weird and dark, even the friendly ones.

Gruelle was also a casual racist, probably much of the reason his original illustrations have been largely forgotten. He had several characters: a maid named ‘Dinah’, ‘Beloved Belindy’ and ‘Little Black Sambo’ for which he shouldn’t be forgiven.  I don’t remember those books well enough to comment on how those characters were presented in the stories but the illustrations speak loudly enough.

You don’t get to choose which images sink into your imagination as a child – some just swim right to the bottom and take up permanent residence without so much as a by-your-leave.  Many books and things that I loved appear very different – and tainted – in retrospect: Raggedy Ann, Babar, Tintin, Gilbert & Sullivan, even Winnie-thePooh, but the images remain as powerful as ever.

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