Stinky Cheese Man: Picture book Analysis
More than Satire
Jon Scieszka’s and Lane Smith’s picture book “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” could be describes as a satirical take on a collection of traditional tales, but that description wouldn’t quite cover the broader story the book has to offer. It expands its humour from cover to back, or more precisely, from the fourth page onwards to the back cover of the book (1993 paperback version). In some ways the concept resembles a theatre play, with a narrator and a sidekick (a hen), leading readers through the acts of the story. This way, the tales seem to be independent of one another, while still being held together by a larger storyline.
“The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” doesn’t simply make fun of tales, it plays with them and is destructive in a way. This becomes quite obvious right in the first story, when all five characters we only just got to know, are squashed by the structure of the book itself: the table of content, coming crashing down from the sky. Scieszka and Smith play with conventions in various ways, thereby ruining every shred of meaning a tale could contain. This leads to hilarious turns of events, seemingly indifferent to any deeper truths we’ve come to expect from this kind of stories.
Not so Grand Narratives
What Scieszka and Smith make use of is a well known recipe for laughs: Unpredictability.
The theory behind this kind of humour is referred to as “Incongruity Theory”. While this is only one of many explanations of why humans find something to be funny, it is definitely one of the leading approaches. (Smuts 2006) Immanuel Kant summed it up well, explaining “Laughter is an affect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.” (Kant 1790 / 1987: 333) In the culture of the western world, there are quite a few kinds of stories we have tense expectations about, like myths, tales and fables or most notably the bible. With this in mind and adding its humour “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” can be compared directly to movies and sketches by the comedy group Monty Python, which became immensely popular in the 1970s. Movies like “Life of Brian” or “The Holy Grail” question the meaning of stories whole societal structures are based on. The absurd and surreal humour strongly hints towards a postmodern view of the world with a touch of nihilism mixed in. (Wisecrack 2018) In this line of thought, truth is nothing more than a human concept, societal structures, or really any kind of structure is man-made and therefore everything we think to know about the world and our life in it, has to be taken with a grain of salt and constantly questioned by each individual. This makes the search for meaning in life more difficult since the concept of meaning by itself is merely a human construct. On the other hand, postmodern philosophy opens up everything we’ve come to acknowledge as a kind of irrefutable law of nature to criticism, which in turn provides the possibility of questioning power-structures, hierarchies and other rules we live by.
The postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard was one of the most influential advocates of postmodernism at the time. In his book “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” (Translation from French) he argues, that science produces and legitimises knowledge based on so called “Grand Narratives”. These grand narratives, or metanarratives as he also calls them, are stories which contain theories of universal truths, which seem to reaffirm and legitimise knowledge in institutions and society at a whole. Advocating against this kind of legitimation he writes:
“The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”
(Lyotard 1984: 37)
While Lyotard specifically focuses on science and the way it creates knowledge, everyday life is also affected. Heroism, destiny or metamorphosis into beauty are only a few themes we tend to base our view of the world on. Tales and fables as well as myths contribute to the concepts society at large might perceive to be true. It is easy to fall for the truths they tell, because they suggest meaning, which is something most storytellers strive towards. But Monty Python (and later Scieszka and Smith as well as others) don’t pay too much respect to the grand narratives which have been told for the last hundreds or thousands of years. Following Lyotard’s thoughts they deconstruct the narratives they set out to tell, revealing the structures beneath the surface. “The Holy Grail” targets the saga of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, questioning the narrative of heroism, honour and glory we’ve come to associate with medieval knighthood. Monty Python even goes a step further, revealing the story to be a movie, breaking the fourth wall and regularly hinting towards a tight budget. “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” follows the same idea, adding absurdity to seemingly meaningful tales in order to reveal what they really might just be, plain and simple fantasy stories. As Monty Python did with their movie, Scieszka and Smith reveal the book to be a book, by taking apart it’s structure. The title page being identified as “Title Page”, the dedication page being upside down and dedicated to everyone and no one at the same time, the table of content squashing characters in the first story, pages missing because tales became too short or the end paper being separated in order not to wake the giant. On the back cover the hen even complains about the ugly ISBN number. The “Fairly Stupid Tales” really are fairly stupid and comically absurd, but that doesn’t automatically make them superficial. It might not be very obvious, but the depth of this book lies in its concept, which not only questions the meaning of tales, but also the medium of books itself.
Happy Dark Absurdity
Similarities to Monty Python aren’t by chance. In an Interview with Reading Rockets Lane Smith stated that both he and Jon Scieszka grew up influenced by the British comedy group (and others) and share a similar kind of humour. (Reading Rockets 2014) While Smith does illustrate children’s books, he often-times chooses seriousness (in style rather than in content) over cuteness. The resulting art-style is very iconic, absurd at times. “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” is one of those examples. Smith says:
“I do have this dilemma. I like edgy things. I’m attracted to them, but I wish I could do just kind of a sweet thing. I start out sometimes doing sweet things, but they just come off kind of goofy.”
(Reading Rockets 2014)
This goofy and edgy style can be seen in his character designs, which (in this book) are dominated by the exaggeration of facial expressions and the decision of not following conventions of beauty too closely. This gives his characters extreme expressiveness with the added unique personality one doesn’t get nearly as strongly with beautifully polished figures. Textures and simplicity are other ingredients for the depth his illustrations convey. Smith himself explained, that commonalities of his illustrations are a lot of experimentation, strong textures and keeping the content of the pictures simple (Art of the picture book: 2018). This simplicity doesn’t seem as extreme in Smith’s illustrations as it might be with other picture book illustrators, especially the pictures of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” seem detailed in comparison to artists like eg. Leo Lionni or Jon Klassen. This can be largely attributed to the extreme amount of texture and lighting used in the illustrations. This way, despite the content and the compositions being simple, the illustrations have spatial depth and simulate a haptic quality, thereby successfully combining simplicity and complexity in the pictures. Writing about his picture book “It’s a Book” Lane Smith described how he created the illustrations technically:
“I did the illustrations in brush and ink. I first tested the brush a few times on the edge of the page until the ink became desaturated enough for the dry brush effect I wanted. I then created textures using oil paints on hot press illustration board. I sprayed them with an acrylic spray (water based) while the paints (oil based) were still wet. This caused a chemical reaction to the paint giving them a mottled look. I then scanned all into the computer and assembled the final illustrations in Photoshop for greater control.”
Not knowing if the process was the same with “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” and acknowledging that this would surely have been a pre-Photoshop production, it does seem probable, that a similar technical process was used for the textures.
Fairy Tales like those collected and written down by the Brothers Grimm are often quite dark. These traditional folktales weren’t written within the frameworks of modern science of education and can therefore in many cases be deemed too frightening for children. While Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith use a variety of tales (not solely scary traditional folktales) Smith did state that he intentionally chose a darker art style in order to better represent the theme of the book. (Biedenharn 2016) Not only are the characters very much outside of what is socially recognised to be pretty, the colour palate is rather dark and low in saturation too, making the pictures seem older and more serious (in style, not in content). Collage technique is added in some illustrations, which introduced further illustrations and text passages into the pictures. The most notable example can be found in the Giant Story. Here the giant makes up a tale, obviously citing books, magazines and newspapers he has read in his life. The collage references tales and stories in different styles and from different times, further emphasising the connection this book makes to stories from the past.
What To Make Of It
“The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” can be read as a parody of traditional tales, a badly performed theatre play, a postmodern deconstruction of grand narratives or a homage to old stories. It probably is a bit of everything, mixed together to a full, absurd and hilarious picture book. Fans of Monty Python’s humour will also like this book, but since both the text and the pictures are quite odd, “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” might not be for everyone. To get the most from it, knowing the original tales is essential. This is the reason the book is probably not ideal for small children. It won’t harm them though. The pictures are fun to look at and the text is short and (mostly) easy to understand. But still, without knowing the original stories, the humour has no target to hit. Added to that, some jokes require knowledge of conventional book structures (like the table of content falling down or the ISBN rant) or conventional story structures (like introduction, main part and conclusion as well the build-up and release of tension throughout the story). Scieszka and Smith play with all kinds of conventions and with no knowledge of them the most significant part of the book is going to be missed or misunderstood.
Art of the Picture Book (2018): An Interview With Lane Smith. In: https://www.artofthepicturebook.com/-check-in-with/2018/6/26/an-interview-with-lane-smith, accessed 10.12.2018
Biedenharn, Isabella (2016): Lane Smith explains the origins of his darkly funny picture books. In: https://ew.com/article/2016/05/06/lane-smith-explains-origins-his-darkly-funny-picture-books-and-what-he-found/, accessed 15.12.2018
Kant, Immanuel (1790 / 1987): Critique of Judgement. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Jean-François Lyotard (1984): The Postmodern condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Reading Rockets (2014): Transcript from an interview with Lane Smith. In: http://www.readingrockets.org/books/interviews/smith/transcript, accessed 10.12.2018
Smith, Lane (2010): Lane Smith on It’s a Book. What in the Heck Were You Thinking? In: http://curiouspages.blogspot.com/2010/07/lane-smith-on-its-book.html, accessed 15.12.2018
Smuts, Aaron (2016): Humor. In: https://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/, accessed 04.12.2018
Wisecrack (2018): How Monty Python Shaped Modern Comedy (feat. Rick and Morty & Deadpool) – Wisecrack Edition. In: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFANgWN2Ul0, accessed 09.12.2018