April 20, 2006


The Ratvolution Will Not Be Televised: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Red Carpet Rose: A “Rose Is Rose” Collection. By Pat Brady and Don Wimmer. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     Comic strips, even the really good ones, have life cycles.  Not even the greatest strips of all time – George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, Walt Kelly’s Pogo – retained their highest-of-high quality until the end.  It can be exhilarating to read a strip that is already good and still improving – and it can be genuinely upsetting to read a once-loved one that has clearly started on a downward course.

     Pearls Before Swine is good and getting better all the time.  Stephan Pastis’ dark, death-obsessed, surrealistic, pun-filled strip constantly rings changes on its existing themes while bringing in all sorts of new ones – and even making fun of itself in the process.  The Ratvolution Will Not Be Televised takes the dumb-but-happy nature of Pig to extremes as he attends a “Dumb Guys Convention,” accidentally falls into space after drilling through the Earth to “Kukistan,” and has a series of hilarious and humiliating dates with a “Ms. Bootyworth” syrup bottle.  (“Hilarious” and “humiliating” often go together in this strip.)  Good-hearted Zebra continues to try to persuade lions and crocodiles to stop being carnivorous, with predictable results.  Rat locks Pastis out of the strip until the cartoonist agrees to change the title to “Worship the Rat” and “depict me as a Roman emperor surrounded by hot chicks who are feeding me grapes.”  In this sequence and others (including a near-illegible panel filled with tiny type), Pastis skewers numerous strips that have been around for generations and long since lost whatever punch they once had.  There is much, much more of this sort of anarchic behavior and strangely skewed humor here.  This is clearly a strip that is not for everyone (Pastis makes fun of that fact, too); but it is just as clearly a strip that is several cuts above the vast majority of today’s daily comics – if your own funnybone is as twisted as Pastis’ clearly is.

     Alas, Rose Is Rose shows the other side of a comic strip’s life.  The new collection, Red Carpet Rose – the first to include both creator Pat Brady and Don Wimmer, with whom Brady now shares the drawing and writing – is so disappointing that a (+++) rating is largely a gift in memory of what this once-marvelous strip used to be.  If this book is your first exposure to the strip, you’ll more likely rate it a (++).  All the creativity has been squeezed out of the adventures of the blue-collar Gumbo family (father Jimbo, mother Rose, son Pasquale, cat Peekaboo).  Brady’s inventiveness has gone stale.  For instance, Rose’s alter ego, the hot biker chick Vicki, makes a few appearances here – but, among other things, she reads a map to find her way to a farm, which is a totally un-Vicki-ish thing to do.  Pasquale’s guardian angel, who used to grow to huge and terrifying size to protect the boy from danger, now does so simply to help the family’s car go faster or help Pasquale fly a kite.  Rose and Jimbo still sometimes shrink to child size to enjoy things in a childlike way – but in one strip, Rose as a child gives Rose as an adult permission to add chocolate to milk, which gets the process exactly backward.  And Brady’s occasional use of odd angles and skewed panels, which in previous collections added piquancy to specific strips, is here an ongoing feature for no apparent reason – the reader may actually get tired of turning his or her head to the side to read panels that are angled simply because they can be.  It is impossible to know whether Brady’s own creativity has flagged or whether he has turned too much of the strip over to a less-talented collaborator.  But either way, those who have loved Rose Is Rose will have to face the fact that this collection shows the strip going downhill fast.  It was a wonderful comic; now it is, at best, an ordinary one.

No comments:

Post a Comment