Toys in the Basement

By Stéphane Blanquet
32 pages, color
Published by Fantagraphics Books

There are books out there that, no matter who you are, as soon as you read it you’re going to have the exact same mental description in your head. It’s impossible to not refer to it that way the second the phrase pops into your head, and the more you talk to other people, the more you realize that it’s perfect because everyone can’t help but feel the same way about it. I am pretty sure that Stéphane Blanquet’s Toys in the Basement is one of those books, and the phrase that everyone’s going to find themselves using is, "A deranged Toy Story." Which is, I shall quickly add, a complement.

The idea behind Toys in the Basement is pretty easy to sum up; a young boy and girl at a costume party go into the basement, are mistaken for toys by the damaged and discarded toys left behind, and led into the secret hiding place that the toys have created for themselves. On the surface, it’s like a thousand other "toys are secretly alive" stories out there. Except here, the toys have no love for children and are quite bitter about their fate. We don’t get toys that yearn to be played with again, these toys are ready for revenge, and woe to any children who stumble across them. It’s at that moment that Toys in the Basement moves away from so many other stories over the years, and starts marching in a distinctly warped and evil manner.

I liked Blanquet’s art in a volume of Dungeon Monstres from NBM, but this is the first time I’ve read something written by him as well. For the most part, he’s a good storyteller, introducing us to the main characters and then hitting the ground running. After all, he’s only got 32 pages to tell his story, so things need to progress at a fairly swift rate. Our protagonists (who never get names, the better for which younger readers to imprint their own lives into this story) are in many ways horrified observers than actual characters; aside from a brief opening scene explaining how the boy ended up in a bunny outfit rather than dressed as a pirate, they don’t have much personality or depth, but they don’t need them. They’re there to get dragged down the terrifying river, pulled through as their situation goes from bad to worse every time they stop to catch their collective breath.

Blanquet saves the creepiest moment—the massive Amelia—for the climax of the story, letting everything build up to that point. It’s a great part of the book, and up until then I found myself loving Blanquet’s storytelling. It’s also unfortunately the moment when the book runs out of steam; the last three pages feel deflated and are a bit of a let down. It’s hard to say if Blanquet ran out of ideas and wrapped things up, or if he simply didn’t have the space for anything else. Either way, though, it’s a sudden (and rather cliché) ending that ends the book on a slightly sour note. You’re having so much fun that this last moment just can’t quite hold up to everything else we’ve experienced, and that’s a shame.

The art, fortunately, is adorably dangerous the whole way through. The toys all look gleeful and creepy at the same time, and the children in their costumes look positively deranged in the same way that Ralphie in the bunny suit appears in A Christmas Story. Blanquet walks a fine line between cute and creepy, with deliberately garish and over the top colors that seem happy at first but hurt your eyes the longer you look at them. And of course, the behemoth called Amelia is anything but cute, and it’s the best image in the entire book; for that alone, I’m a fan.

A stronger ending would have made me love Toys in the Basement rather than merely like it. Still, it’s a nice book and it let me know that Blanquet’s not a slouch in the writing department. Between this and The Littlest Pirate King it’s nice to see Fantagraphics bring these strange little books into English; in theory they’re for children, but they’re so darn creepy that I think in many ways adults will get the bigger kick out of them. I’ll be keeping my eyes open to see just what Fantagraphics unleashes next in this line.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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