Four playful, frisky monsters ready to send cards and letters throughout the country appear on stamps that the U.S. Postal Service says are its “most playful, participatory postage stamps ever — stamps that welcome you to customize a collection of cute and crazy critters.”
The illustrations on this pane of 20 stamps (Figure 8) invite interactivity with dozens of self-adhesive accessories on the selvage. The monster-ific accoutrements include cartoony voice balloons and thought bubbles with exclamations and salutations, hats and crowns, hearts, stars, crazy daisies and other fun flair.
Figure 8. Technical details and purchasing information for the Message Monsters stamps are available from https://aps.buzz/BuyMessageMonstersUSPS.
The stamp designs start with the playful illustrations of Elise Gravel. The colorful characters populating the pane include a roundish, rosy rascal with a sunny tummy; a silly, striped imp waving a four-armed howdy; a squiggly, squid-ly yellow critter with enough eyes to go around; and a reddish rapscallion in short shorts. Whimsical, wacky and inviting your inventiveness, these creatures appeal across generations.
Art director Antonio Alcalá designed the pane with original artwork by Gravel, a Canadian author and illustrator of popular children’s books.
Alcalá said in an email interview that “Elise was an easy choice (as the artist) as she had experience creating, fun, lovable, inventive creatures. Plus, she had written several books so she knew how important it was to create memorable characters.”
“They’re not perfect,” Gravel said about the monsters on the stamps in an interview in the third quarter of the Postal Service’s Philatelic catalog. “My monsters also have no gender and no race, and they all have different body shapes, so they can be used to promote diversity and to show that we’re all weird in our own way, but we all deserve love.”
A first day of issue event was held September 24 at Redbud Park in Topeka, Kansas. Scheduled speakers were Jeffery A. Adams, vice president, corporate communications, U.S. Postal Service; Angie Grau, owner of Paper June Books; and Tom Underwood, executive director for the NOTO Arts & Entertainment District in Topeka. The dedication event falls during “Thinking of You Week,” which ran September 20-26. It was first launched in the United Kingdom in 2014 and brought to the United States in 2018 by the Greeting Card Association.
There have been other issues in which stamps could be dressed up. In 2003, Royal Mail issued a set of 10 fun Fruit and Veg stamps in both a presentation packet and on sheets, which included as many as 93 stickers and 20 labels, according to the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue (Figure 9). Mailers could dress up a basic eggplant or strawberry with everything from googly eyes and moose horns to a mustache and bow tie. The stamps were rebranded as Smilers set and reissued in 2006 in a different format. Great fun was had by all.
Figure 9. Royal Mail released its Fruit and Veg stamps in 2003. Senders could choose from great variety of stickers – from goofy eyes to hats – in the selvage to decorate the stamps.
A more sedate issue came from the USPS in 2015 with the From Me to You issue (Figure 10). The vertically oriented stamps are simple with the words “From Me to You” in four colors, with the “Me” and “You” much larger than the other two words. Kind of dull, really. But the beauty of the issue was in the selvage, which included 11 greeting labels in words – like “Miss You” within a heart and “Congrats,” within the shape of a sealed letter, along with stickers like flowers, leaves, hearts and “XO.” The stamps were issued in conjunction with April’s designation as National Card and Letter Writing Month.
Figure 10. In 2015, the U.S. Postal Service produced a pane of From Me to You stamps, which include several stickers in the selvage that can enhance the sender’s message.
But when did monsters become non-scary? We could point to all sorts of sometimes controversial sources, including several that have appeared on U.S. stamps. The land of non-scary monsters has originated from illustrators and authors like Dr. Seuss in the 1960s and Shel Silverstein in the 1970s; television, with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964) and its eventually reformed Abominable Snowmonster and or “Sesame Street” (starting in 1969) and its whole cast of monsters; and big-screen animators like Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Shrek”).
Gravel (born 1977) is a children’s book author and illustrator who works in her hometown of Montreal, Quebec, where she lives with her husband, two daughters and pet cats. She has written more than 30 books and graphic novels, which often have a humorous focus on gross content. In 2012, she won a Canada-based Governor General's Award for Children’s Illustration in French for her book La clé à molette (The Adjustable Wrench).
Gravel studied graphic design before becoming an illustrator. Gravel publishes in both English and in French, and her books have been translated into 12 other languages.
Gravel said in the Philatelic catalog that she enjoyed creating the new stamps.
“I knew that a lot of kids were going to see the stamps so it was a lot of fun.” she said. “I can pretty much draw monsters with my eyes closed. I’m a child inside and they’re what my inner child finds cool.”
Message Monsters – Antonio Alcalá
When did you start working on these stamps?
We would love to hear the origins on this one. Did the USPS stamp directors say something like “blobby monsters, we must have?” Or more like “do something young people would love?” Or, what?
I was showing some artwork to Bill Gicker for a different assignment when he noticed some inventive, fun looking creatures among the samples and thought they might have potential for a fun set of stamps that might be attractive to kids and adults.
Did you offer any guidance on the shape of the monsters or was that all from Ms. Gravel?
No specific guidance about the shape of the monsters, but I gave her a pretty good idea of where I/USPS wanted to go with the assignment in terms of tone, etc.
OK, we have a two-part project here, monsters and messages. Let’s start with the monsters. Did you or the artist choose the shapes? Did any change along the way?
No, those were invented entirely by Elise Gravel to fit the shape of the stamp format.
Did you or the artist choose all the colors? Any changes along the way?
The artist chose all the colors but there may have been a tiny tweak here and there.
They are all done in a somewhat subdued tone. How did you settle on that tone as opposed to something explosive and vibrant?
Ms. Gravel provided the color palette and everyone loved them during our review process. No one asked for “punchier” or brighter colors.
It’s a nice mix coloration. It looks like you chose that orangey color (what is it?) to thread through them all. Was that on purpose?
That reddish-orange color was from the illustrator. I’m guessing her use of it was intentional.
I love the “Hi” and “xoxo” and hearts in the selvage. Who added that and what was the inspiration?
The pieces in the selvage were developed by Elise and me in collaboration. The inspiration probably comes from sending letters where you want to say “Hi!” and then close with a XO. They’re friendly and loving, and will make a letter that much more special to mail/receive.
How did you come up with the specific labels in the selvage to add to the message? Did you get any inspiration anywhere for all of those tags?
The specific selvage items are a combination of what will look fun and appropriate with each message monster, and what will fit in the limited area allocated.
I see doubles of almost everything except the pirate hat! Only ONE? That may crush the pirate community!
Perhaps it will encourage the pirate community to purchase more panes!
Which is your favorite monster? Favorite tag?
Too hard to choose! I like the top hat, the hearts, and the speech balloons.
Is there anything else interesting you’d like to add?
The pane title was all done with hand lettering. It is intended to be friendly, playful, and kid-friendly, but also clear and legible. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.