The Day the Cow Sneezed, written and illustrated by James Flora, 1957. Click to view larger.
Several years ago I was standing in my friendly neighborhood music/comic book store, Criminal Records, thumbing through one of those books on SHAG. Near the beginning there was an article written by SHAG himself that served as an introduction to the man, the myth, the legend. He talked about how he developed his style and listed some of his influences. One, of course, was Jim Flora. In the corner of one page was an image from a children's book in pink, blue and black with wild and crazy stylized characters. "Whoa!" I thought, "what the heck is that?" At the time, I was just starting to learn about this eclectic old-school illustrator. I looked closer at the image. The title "The Day the Cow Sneezed," appeared below and I made a strong mental note to remember this moment, this book.
As many of you know, I'm a big Jim Flora fan. I've mentioned him on The Ward-O-Matic (here and here) as well as on Drawn (here and here). To say that I've been influenced by Flora would be an understatement. Even though my style might not be exactly like his, there are many elements of his work from which I've taken cues. His linework, cut-out paper shapes, wacked-out characters, and brilliant use of color speak to me in so many ways that I end up speechless. He was a true artistic genius.
Inside cover. The image is repeated in the front and back.
Fast forward several years to 2005 when I did an eBay search for "cow sneezed." I wasn't expecting anything to come up because this had always been the case. The book was out-of-print and extremely rare. There was little information about it online. The book had become my "white whale" and I had accepted my fate—The Day the Cow Sneezed would never be in my possession. Whenever the book was up for bid, the price would always exceed what I was willing to pay. Until one day—it was listed as a former library book and there was no image provided, making this a bit suspicious (plus former library books are notorious for wear and tear). But by this point, I was willing to take anything that was remotely associated with this book. I ended up paying a mere $16! When the book arrived, I was surprised to find it was in decent condition. It had some unsightly library stickers on the cover, but the inside was tear- and scribble-free! I was ecstatic.
About the book: The Day the Cow Sneezed was first published in 1957, and was Flora's second children's book (his first being The Fabulous Firework Family in 1955). Working in the children's book format was a change for him. Most of his career had been devoted to illustrating album covers for RCA Victor and Columbia, as well as a burgeoning freelance business providing spot illos for magazines. Flora had children at this point, and had hand-painted some rudimentary kiddie books, but he had not seriously pursued publication. Margaret McElderry, one of the top editors of children's books at the time, liked what she saw in Flora's portfolio, and asked him if he could write a book for her. This proved to be a challenge for the mostly visual guy. In the "Something About the Author Autobiography Series," published by the Gale Group (some of which is featured in The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora), Jim reminisces:
"I found it very difficult at first to write a book because I had been trained to see an idea, not write about it. Facing a blank sheet of paper and writing a story was something I found I could not do. So I devised a new way to write my story. During the day I would think about the book. I would see it in pictures in my head. At night, as I lay waiting for sleep, I would run the story through my head like an animated cartoon one sees in theaters and on television. When finally the complete story was arranged in my head I drew a seres of pictures of what I saw there. In films they call this 'making a storyboard.' With this storyboard at hand all I had to do was describe what was taking place in the drawings. That's how I wrote my first book and all of the sixteen others that followed." -- James Flora, 1988.
After The Fabulous Firework Family was published it received great reviews, prompting Flora to think about the next one. "In my new role as author I thought it best to write another book just to prove that the first one was not an accident."
Back cover detail.
About the story: "I try not to overload my stories with moral lessons or messages but I did in [The Day the Cow Sneezed]. I wanted to show what could happen when you are careless in your work and do not attend to your duties as well as you should." The story concerns a boy, Fletcher, who leaves his cow, Floss, standing too long in the cold water while stopping for a drink. The cow sneezes in the barn, sparking a chain of events that disrupts the entire town. The moral, Flora says, is that "a teeny-weeny error can grow into a whopping big mistake almost before you can say KA-CHOW!" It is a light-hearted story, told in a straight-forward way, but illustrated in typical Flora fashion—with pizzazz, humor and spunk. The black & white spreads are just as appealing as the color spreads, in my opinion.
When I first considered this post, I contacted Flora's biographer, Irwin Chusid, to request assistance. What he sent far exceeded my expectations—scans of original mock-up spreads for The Day the Cow Sneezed! I was floored. I love works-in-progress, especially conceptual and early versions of books as well as animation penciltests, so you can imagine how excited I was. In fact, this is the first time these mock-ups have been publically shown.
The mock-ups shown before each accompanying two-page spread are test runs for the artist and printer to make sure that the pages and copy (text) are properly coordinated. Notice that there are a few notations written in (what I'm assuming is) Flora's handwriting. For this late stage of the process, it's important to work with the publisher and printer so that everyone is on the same page (no pun intended) and that there are no mistakes, mess-ups, or misunderstandings with the final printed product.
After comparing the mock-ups to the final versions, I noticed that most of the spreads remained the same, including brush strokes, color choices, and character shapes. However, there were a few alterations that are worth noting.
Be sure to click on each image to view it larger:
Notice the overall layout of the barn with the house off in the distance. Flora had a knack for showing action and here, we see nice key poses for the cow, cat, and mouse in the barn. The only major change Flora made here was the pose for the cat. In the mock-up, we see the cat's profile, but in the final version we see the cat's entire face.
The Day the Cow Sneezed is printed with four color overlays: black, blue, pink, and a rusty red. In the mock-up for pages 14-15, I noticed that a 5th color—purple—was included in the layout. By the time Flora created the final version, all the purple had been changed to blue. Makes me wonder if purple was originally intended for the entire book, but had to be simplified because of printing and/or money reasons.
Throughout the book there are several black & white spreads. This was a practice that was typical of the time, mostly to cut back on printing costs. I've always wondered if the originals for these pages were done in color but photographed in black & white for the final print version, but seeing the mock-up for this spead answers that question: they were painted in black & white. And in this particular one, we see the most drastic changes made from mock-up to final. On the left page (page 16), the policeman dominates the page, dwarfing the mayor and the few buildings in the background. Page 17 remains intact. So, why the changes? A pencilled-in note at the bottom of page 17 tells us why: "Make policeman smaller + less fearsome." By reducing his size, along with adding a crying child that he attends to, Flora gives the police officer a more likable presence. It's also worth noting that by shrinking the policeman, Flora was able to add buildings in the background, allowing for a cohesion to the town square that was not present in the mock-up. Our eyes now flow easily from the left to right, as we follow the path of destruction caused by the rampant steamroller. (My favorite Flora touch: the two children in the schoolhouse have big grins on their faces, obviously delighted by all the commotion going on.)
Another obvious change from mock-up to final version is here on pages 24-25. We see in the mock-up that this spread was originally meant to be in color, but was changed to black & white. There's no mention why, just a simple "No color overlays," written in pencil on the mock-up. It's a shame, really. Some wonderful things going on with the color here. I particularly love the way that the alligator was originally rendered in pure black with a simple white line for his scales.
I don't have a mock-up for this page, but I wanted to show it anyway because I can't get enough of all the twisted and contorted animals. Love the octopus.
As the story continues, the steamroller crashes into a Ferris wheel and carries with it a large assortment of animals along with Fletcher, the boy. Fireworks erupt from a truck that gets caught in the melee and suddenly the scene comes alive with explosions and color. It's a great Flora moment as he reverses the sky color to black, allowing the brilliance of the pink, red and blue to explode off each other and the page. Almost all of this scene remains intact from the early version (notice that Flora even kept the same brush strokes and shapes for all the fireworks), but two interesting things to note: 1) the first chicken on the left is missing its color; 2) there are some black pencil details missing from the cow and pig. I think that the chicken mistake was indeed that—a mistake, or an oversight. At one point I thought that maybe Flora intentionally cut back on the cow and pig details, but now, I think that that was also a mistake.
As the rolling Ferris wheel of fireworks and animals continues on its trek, the layout for pages 38-39 remain virtually unchanged, with the exception of a few minor changes like ornamental tree details, a missing rooster, and some added color. This is another brilliant scene—the rolling hill (with text underneath) on the left is neatly juxtaposed by the rolling Ferris wheel on the right, creating a wacky ying/yang of sorts.
The Day the Cow Sneezed is a wonderful children's book, gleefully playing with visuals and imagery that only Jim Flora could imagine. The storyline is simple and linear—everything moves from left to right—which makes it perfect for reading to kids. I've only posted a portion of the book, but it's worth checking out in its entirety. But is it readily available? Not to worry. When asked about the possibility of reprinting Cow Sneezed, Irwin Chusid tells me that he, along with Flora's family, are "looking into it." Thus, exposing the genius of Jim Flora to brand new audiences.
To view these images all together in a photoset, click HERE.
Another photoset featuring some of Flora's commercial work can be found HERE.
Join the Jim Flora Flickr Group and see the collections of fellow Flora Fans.
For more about Jim Flora, be sure to visit JimFlora.com.
The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora, the second book featuring the art of Jim Flora, will be published early 2007, by Fantagraphics.
Images courtesy Jim Flora Art LLC; (c) Jim Flora Art LLC. Big BIG thanks to Irwin Chusid.
UPDATE: Good news! Enchanted Lion Books will reprint The Day The Cow Sneezed in Fall 2010. Details here. They'll also reprint other Flora titles if the interest is there. So, buy it when it's available!