One of the great examples of the graphic novel form was published decades before people started using the term. Originally released in 1953, R.O. Blechman’s The Juggler of Our Lady offered a satirical, visual retelling of a classic medieval Christmas tale of the same name by the French novelist Anatole France. The story is simple: An innocent juggler named Cantalbert sets out to save the world with his talent but is scorned and ignored by everyone he meets until an encounter with a statue of the Virgin Mary changes his life.
Though the original edition of the book was not a bestseller and went out of print by the late 1980s, The Juggler became well-loved for its innovative, poetic blending of text and image. Maurice Sendak’s posthumous introduction to a new reprint of The Juggler (to be published by Dover Graphic Novels this summer) is a convincing argument for why this vintage volume should inspire a new generation. “I treasure my first edition of Juggler, and the memory of its effect on me is still fresh,” he writes, praising Blechman’s uniquely demure yet expressive squiggly-line drawings and delicately handwritten texts.
In his introduction, Sendak calls the book the “blueprint for things to come,” and a huge influence on many conceptual editorial and advertising artists of the time (along with Blechman’s award-winning TV commercial for Alka Seltzer where a talking stomach in a chair sitting across from its own body complains about the gas-inducing junk it had to consume). Doubtless this had a lot to do with the artist’s uncompromising attention to detail, which led to his working and reworking every squiggle before releasing the final. Moreover, Blechman’s literary-pictorial virtuosity countered the notion of the illustrator as slave to another’s text.
Blechman’s adaptation enlivened the original story with its emotional representation of the human comedy—and in the reprint’s new foreword, Jules Feiffer compares Blechman’s work to Samuel Beckett for its “spare, stoic ... pratfalls of defeat.” But “where Beckett evokes despair,” he adds, “my old friend Bob, who is an American after all, insists on an ending of hope,” tempered by a message that cautions against “the mainstream of pious shits” determined to take the joy out of life (and Christmas).