[Editor’s note: Today we are supremely lucky to have a special post from the multi-award-winning writer and cartoonist, Ed Brubaker, the man behind the dazzling Criminal series (which is how I first discovered him–it’s every noir-lover’s dream). Today, below, he writes about a series I remember well (Encyclopdia Brown, a favorite of my brother’s) and another I had read but long forgotten, The Great Brain. As soon as I saw the cover below, it came hurtling back. I even remember seeing the movie and I’m sure I’m not the only one. What a time machine this week has been.–MA]
WHO WOULD WIN IN A FIGHT—THE GREAT BRAIN OR ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN?
By Ed Brubaker
I grew up reading comics and watching old noir films, which explains a lot about my career so far, but I rarely talk about my favorite Young Adult characters—Encyclopedia Brown and the Great Brain.
I think I discovered them both at around the same time, snooping around in my big brother’s room. He read more books than me, and I mostly read comics, but the drawings on the covers of these ones really grabbed me, so I started flipping through them. A kid who is super smart and is a private detective? A kid who is super smart and is basically a conman? They didn’t make comics like this.
The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald takes place in 1890s Utah, but is based on Fitzgerald and his siblings, who were actually born about 20 years later— so it’s a strange fiction/real life hybrid. The books are narrated by a young JD, who’s always cleaning up after his brother Tom—known as the Great Brain in the family—who is constantly swindling the Mormon kids out of their Christmas presents or allowances. It was a bit Tom Sawyer-y, sure, but it was darker and more fun, and you got to follow The Great Brain’s progress as he grew up and tried to reform his wicked ways.
I’m pretty sure it was the only kids’ book series in the 60s where the star is actually a crook. “It’s like Parker meets Tom Sawyer” isn’t a pitch I can imagine going over well at the average children’s book publisher back then.
And as it turns out, the entire series came about by accident. Fitzgerald had written a few popular fiction books about his family in the 1950s, Pappa Married a Mormon and Momma’s Boarding House. What became The Great Brain was supposed to be the next in that series, but by the time he finished the manuscript, adult tastes had changed. As the book went from publisher to publisher, collecting rejections, an editor suggested cutting out over half the text—all the stuff about the adults—and just leaving the parts about the kids.
So Fitzgerald rewrote the book and it ended up becoming one of the most popular young adult series of its day. They even made a terrible movie starring Jimmy Osmond.
I’m sort of stunned people don’t know about these books today. The Great Brain at the Academy is probably one of my favorite young adult books ever. Right up there with Harriet the Spy and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Sent to a boarding school, the Great Brain immediately sets out to profit from all the rich kids, working out schemes to get extra candy and sneak out at night. And in the other books in the series he even solved crimes, stopped a corporation bilking the town out of their savings, and escaped kidnappers.
I can’t think of a kid I’d rather have been friends with than the Great Brain. But I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown. I wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with him because he’s a narc-y little nerd. But being him would have been cool.
The Encyclopedia Brown series is a strange one. You remember the characters more than the crimes. You remember flipping the books over to read the solutions, and you remember feeling cheated by them pretty often—“What? He couldn’t have been playing guitar at the time of the theft because he didn’t have calluses on his fingertips? Are you fucking kidding me?”
But that’s not a knock on them, because Donald J. Sobol’s characters were so much fun that I didn’t care. Encyclopedia and his partner/bodyguard Sally, who is tall and pretty and can beat up anyone who messes with our hero. Bugs Meany, the town bully who never gets away with any of his pranks or minor crimes, but who has a gang called the Tigers, who will do anything he says. The town of Idaville felt like a strange island off the coast of California somewhere—fake and too small—and its emptiness reminded me of the military base homes of my childhood. So I could read these books and imagine myself as some kid detective riding up the lane to solve the case of the candy shoplifter (it was my brother).
Of course, Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series has never gone out of print in almost 50 years (it was so popular that John D. Fitzgerald even tried his hand at a kid detective in 1974 with Private Eye) while the Great Brain books have been basically forgotten. But both of them meant a whole hell of lot to me, as both a kid and a writer.