September 21, 2006


Planet of the Hairless Beach Apes: The Eleventh “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Frazz: 99% Perspiration. By Jef Mallett. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     Whether you prefer slapstick or clever humor with a touch of heart, you can find something to your taste in the many comic-strip collections from Andrews McMeel.  These two books are cases in point: each is delightful in its own way, but their ways are very, very different.

     Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon just keeps chugging along through its own alternative universe of absurdity, featuring Sherman the lazy but constantly predatory shark; his better (and fiercer) half, wife Megan; their shark baby, Herman; and a supporting cast consisting of various forms of food for Sherman and family (hairless beach apes – humans, that is – as well as fish and crustaceans and pizza and the occasional anchor), plus Hawthorne the hermit crab, Ernest the fish nerd and hacker, Fillmore the poetry-writing sea turtle, Thornton the perpetually hibernating beach bum of a polar bear, and…well, you get the idea.  An appreciation of the finer points of humor is not necessary here, since there aren’t any finer points to consider in Sherman’s Lagoon.  One series of strips is about a cloned alien who constantly insults everyone, whose genetic material arrives on a meteorite that crashes into the lagoon one day – he ends up as puree.  Sherman has E-mail problems with his service, which is not AOL but EOL (Ethiopia On-Line).  Megan cooks and bakes according to post-prison Martha Stewart recipes – Fillmore ends up getting a file in his piece of cake.  Hawthorne creates business cards for Sherman to make the shark seem like the head of a major corporation, then issues a fake press release, sells fake stock in the fake company and finds the real FBI (fish division) investigating – the agent eventually telling Sherman, “If you weren’t so lazy, you’d be dangerous.”  That’s not a bad motto for the whole strip, actually.

     There’s nothing lazy at all about Frazz, the well-to-do songwriter who stays in touch with everyday life by working as a janitor at Bryson Elementary School.  The strip’s premise doesn’t make much sense, but it does explain why everyone holds the frizzy-haired Frazz in much higher esteem than most schoolkids and administrators hold most members of the janitorial staff.  Jef Mallett goes in for highbrow jokes whenever possible, as when Frazz says that Apple doesn’t make the Palm Pilot – it makes the Pomme Pilot.  When the kids don’t understand, he says, “Well, French speakers would get it.”  To which one of the children replies: “French speakers get Jerry Lewis.”  There are at least three levels of humor in that single four-panel strip.  This second Frazz collection shows Mallett stretching himself as an artist: a Sunday strip in which one part of the narrative occurs along one line, a second part along a separate line, and the two lines intersect at the end, is especially impressive (and everyone stays in character through the whole thing, too).  Not all the humor is cerebral, by any means: one student finds just the right color to turn a snow-frog that Frazz is building green – it turns out to be the cafeteria’s pea soup (three bowls).  And some strips are purely visual, like one in which Frazz and a student are shown in swapped outfits in the third panel so Frazz can say, in the fourth, “You’d be amazed by what you can slip past people.”  Yet Mallett’s strip is, on balance, more intellectually interesting than most – a very different experience from Sherman’s Lagoon, and equally funny in a very different way.

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