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Marie Severin’s Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies – Muppet Babies #1

June 10, 2013

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I remember two things about the old Muppet Babies cartoon: the fantastic Indiana Jones takeoff they did in one of their episodes, and that when Robin, Kermit’s nephew, came to visit his uncle in the nursery, he was just a tadpole in a bowl. Both were neat. Sadly, though, Muppet Babies was not a well-liked show — at least in this corner. Its watered down, infantile versions of the characters who had brought the spectacular The Muppet Show to such vivid life was a bridge too far. Though its emphasis on encouraging kids to explore the limitless bounds of their imaginations was laudable, the execution was too often glurgey, dragged down to the lowest common denominator, as most Saturday morning fare was (and, I suppose, is). It was strictly kid stuff, whereas the Muppets were always aimed at all ages. (Hell, Ted Koppel once thought it was a good idea for Kermit and the gang to come on Nightline and explain the 1987 stock market crash. Yes, Milton Friedman shared a billing with Fozzie Bear. Wocka wocka.) Animation stripped much of the tangible charm from the characters — was it still the same sans Jim Henson and Frank Oz with their hands jammed up the Muppets’ rear ends? Without their fuzzy, homemade appeal? The three dimensions? No. No it wasn’t.

Yet the show ran for seven years or so, and picked up acclaim along the way. So what do I know.

All that said, I’m pleased to report that their comic works a bit better.  

The Muppet Babies comic was one of the early entrants in Marvel’s mid-1980s Star imprint, a line aimed at younger readers. Much of the IP in this new venture was dreadful — Planet Terry and The Get-Along Gang were unfathomably puerile — but Muppet Babies, along with Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham, constituted the rising tide that raised all boats. Much of the credit for the Muppet Babies’ quality entry goes to Marie Severin, one half, along with brother John, of the Flying Severins (or something). Here in the premier issue, the first of many times that she drew the young Muppets, she pulled an artist hat trick, tackling the pencils, inks and colors (she may have played the cymbals and banged the bass drum, too). The results of her efforts are characters and backgrounds that are easy on the eyes, and, most importantly, easy to process for the intended younger readership. It’s solid work.

For those unfamiliar with the show and its star babies, here’s the short of it: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Rowlf, Scooter, Skeeter (Scooter’s sister and the only Muppet character unique to the show), Animal and Gonzo the Great all lived together in a nursery, watched over by their unnamed nanny, who only appeared from the hips down. This early sequence (script by Stan Kay) gives you the sum total of the dramatis personae in this universe:

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You have to admit it, they are cute. I mean, Kermit — just look at him.

(Seeing them all again, I’m struck by something I never thought of as a kid: Why does Kermit get to go around starkers while the others are diapered or otherwise undergarmented? Favoritism? Do frogs not, um, eliminate? Make boom boom?)

In those panels the Muppets are all acting brave because there’s a thunderstorm raging outside, and soon they start hearing the mournful wail of what they think must be a ghost. Ignite imaginations. Check out the visual variety in this next scan:

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There’s a lot to praise here in the way Severin has everyone doing something. Fozzie’s struggling to reach the doorknob and get the hell out of there. Kermit looks like he’s delivering a Shakespearean entreaty. Miss Piggy and Skeeter both look like their knees are about to start knocking (women…). Scooter is at his computer, his belly protruding just like many a basement-dwelling, Cheetos-gobbling nerd. Gonzo’s fat butt is sticking out. Rowlf’s ears are standing at full attention. And Animal — well, Animal is doing what Animal always does: look dangerously insane. Even the “new” door is well-designed, all dark and cross-hatched so that it sticks out from the clean, soft lines of the Muppet Babies’ one-room world. It’s all non-verbal characterization galore.

I’m probably going overboard. It seems to have an understated brilliance, though. (Much like the original Muppet premise.)

As with every episode of the show, the kids can’t stand to leave anything un-investigated. Soon they’re all through the imaginary door (the series was a never-ending The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe scenario), and in some haunted castle. And there’s no way back out, thanks to one of their own:

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Well done, Animal. Well done.

I offer this next scan only because you have to admire Fozzie Bear’s unabashed comedic impulses — he’s one of those guys that likes to whistle past the graveyard:

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Tough crowd.

Anyway, it goes on from there. Spoiler: they make it back alive.

I’m hesitant to apply sexist reasons for why Severin was so perfectly suited to bring infant versions of the Muppets to comic book life. “She’s a woman, and women like babies and stuff, so…” — that sort of thing. Maybe it has something to do with it, though. And maybe she just knew what she was doing, whether it was sketching Vermithrax Pejorative or gentle children’s fare. And really, who isn’t touched by baby Kermit? No one hates adult Kermit — how could anyone loathe the littler version? A crass adult like me, who still couldn’t care less about anything the Muppet Babies do, can still admire the craft on display.

The Kay/Severin duo became the guardians of the Muppet Babies comic book flame, helming them through 26 Marvel/Star issues and a brief revival in the early 1990s for Harvey. The stories weren’t blowing anyone’s minds, but the visual component was in good hands with Ms. Severin — indeed, what she did with the characters outstripped the onscreen shenanigans. This corruption of Jim Henson’s sock puppet genius at least had that going for it.

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