Matthew Looney

A version of this post first appeared at USA Today‘s POP CANDY blog.

When I was a kid in the Seventies, I was crazy about the seven-part Matthew and Maria Looney series of kids’ sci-fi books, written by the now-forgotten Jerome Beatty Jr., and illustrated by the unforgettable spooky-kooky cartoonist Gahan Wilson. What we learn from Matthew Looney’s Voyage to the Earth (1961) through Maria Looney and the Remarkable Robot (1978) is that Matthew and Maria are Moonsters — members of a civilization almost exactly like our own, except for that fact that they live on the Moon, they eat scrambled arks (and burgles with canal juice), and they measure distance in lunacules and time in moonits. Moonsters find sunlight painful, which is why our telescopes and — as of Apollo 11 — astronauts never see them.

Gahan Wilson’s twisted, sinister, loopy cartoons — signed at the bottom with his loopy signature — were a big deal in my household. We had most of his collections, which were contemporaneous with the Looney series: Gahan Wilson’s Graveside Manner (1965), The Man in the Cannibal Pot (1967), I Paint What I See (1971), Gahan Wilson’s Cracked Cosmos (1975), The Weird World of Gahan Wilson (1975), and And Then We’ll Get Him! (1978).

My father used to clip Wilson’s cartoons out of magazines and paste them into a notebook for us, too. When I was a teen, I was delighted to discover Wilson’s kid’s-eye-view series “Nuts” in the pages of National Lampoon. (Note that Fantagraphics has announced a complete “Nuts” collection.) So Wilson’s illustrations lent a certain frisson to the Looney series; I took the books more seriously, read them more carefully for subtext, than I might have otherwise.

The Looney siblings explore the galaxy (including the misshapen planet Earth, where Matthew discovers life), battle space pirates and other menaces, and work to foil the machinations of Hector Hornblower, a Butch Meanie-type pest. Most importantly, however, their adventures are set against an all-too-Earthlike backdrop of space-race political maneuvering: While scientists like Professor Ploozer (whose funny accent indicates that he’s from Ganymede, near Jupiter) stress peaceful and scientific uses for their rockets and missions and probes, the Moonster military and politicians are more interested in developing and testing weapons — which they’d like to use to invade or destroy the Earth. Beatty infuses a lot of satire into these kiddie adventures — I’m particularly amused by the jingoistic, sabre-rattling opponents of the UN-style group Organization for Peace in the Universe; Anti-Earth Leaguers mock this worthy organization by holding their noses while saying its initials: “O.P.U.”

The Looney books are out of print and out of circulation, these days. In fact, when I brought my copies to the Boston Comic Con this past spring, the formerly gloomy-looking 82-year-old Wilson brightened up considerably. “I haven’t seen one of these in years!” he exclaimed. He signed all the books, and then — for good measure — drew a poster of Matthew Looney for my thrilled 11-year old son.

Some enterprising publisher should hustle this series back into print before another moonit passes.

CLICK HERE for a list of some of my other favorite science fiction novels for kids.