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Jim Henson's Designs And Doodles: A Muppet Sketchbook

What did the Muppets look like before they were "the Muppets?" This new book reveals Jim Henson's first sketches and concepts. Will Ryan reviews.

© 2001 The Jim Henson Company.

This long-awaited new book is based on the eponymous exhibit at Manhattan's National Arts Club in 1996. As I was present at the kickoff evening of that show and visited the club several times during its run, I had a good chance to appreciate the original art on display. As most citizens of Planet Earth did not reside in Manhattan at that particular point in time, this book is an excellent way to get a sense of the exhibit whilst simultaneously escaping the perdition of subway transit.

Karen Falk, archivist of the Jim Henson Company, was kind enough to write the foreword to this new book. As the curator of the original exhibit she might easily have written the book herself, but the Henson/Abrams casting department selected Alison Inches, a former employee of Jim Henson Publishing. In her foreword, Karen was kind enough to say, "It is extremely gratifying to see this exhibit revived and expanded in book form, giving an even greater audience an intimate look at Jim Henson's creative process." Revived? Yes. Expanded? Well...

In terms of artwork, this book presents the audience with a reduced, rather than expanded, look at Henson's original works. Reduced, not only perforce in scale, but reduced in number. None of the handful of historic puppets on display at the National Arts Club, including the actual very first Kermit, has found their way into this book via photographs. And, unlike the exhibit, nothing more recent than The Muppet Show seems to be represented. So missing is an impressive later piece, sketched by Jim as a guide for veteran puppet builder Rollie Krewson (who had the wherewithal to have Jim autograph his circa 2' x 3' drawing on the spot).

In terms of the text, however, the book expands the original exhibit descriptions into something resembling a limited biography of Jim Henson. 'Limited,' that is, to his professional development and leaving his personal life aside. The Henson family initiated a biography project several years ago, but the project was aborted. Hence, the volume at hand may be the closest we'll have for some time to an official biography of the father of the Muppets. As such, this book has value beyond the obvious fascination of the touted "designs and doodles."

As for the graphic works, the reproduction seems to be from 35 mm (or possibly 2 1/4 in.) photographic negatives rather than the 4 x 5 in. or larger negatives more common to art books from this publisher. A certain less-than-distinct quality of line is the unfortunate result. Having said that, however, the stuff itself is fascinating to browse through or study. We see the work (after the ambitious juvenilia) of a busy artist/performer with a focus on basic design and an evident reluctance to use an eraser -- he's too busy! Too busy to draw? What could he possibly be doing with his time? Building puppets, building a staff, building a business? Building a career? Building a fortune? Building a legend?

As a matter of fact, yes to all of these.

And it's because Jim Henson succeeded in all of those goals that this artwork is as fascinating as it is. We behold nascent doodles, which have transmogrified themselves into icons; subconscious scribbles, which have transformed themselves into universally recognizable images. One might as logically criticize such drawings for being hasty or unimpressive as one might criticize a manuscript score by Mozart for exhibiting poor penmanship. Irrelevant, immaterial.

This book invariably shows up in the animation section of bookstores. In the public's mind, or at least in the minds of bookstore employees, Jim Henson appears to be considered an animator. Jim Henson's studio was responsible for several Emmy-award-winning animated series (primarily The Muppet Babies), but in the basic sense of the word Jim Henson and his Muppeteers were animators. They gave life to rags, foam, hunks of fur and a multitude of unblinking hemispheric ping-pong balls.

It could have been a coffee-table book. It should have been a coffee-table book. But it's what we've got and it's all we've got. And at this non-coffee-table-book price, it's worth getting.

Jim Henson's Designs And Doodles: A Muppet Sketchbook by Alison Inches. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001. 128 pages. ISBN: 0-8109-3240-7. (Hardback, US$24.95)

Will Ryan was a writer/producer of The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss for Jim Henson Productions. He received Emmy and Writer's Guild award nominations for his work on the series. Among his current projects is the Annie Award-winning series Elmo Aardvark: Outer Space Detective!