Desperate Households: A “Stone Soup” Collection. By Jan Eliot. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.
The Enchanting Rose: A Collection of “Rose Is Rose” Comics. By Don Wimmer. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.
The American family comes in goodness-knows-how-many forms nowadays, and there are comic strips that celebrate just about all the forms that there are in the real world. Stone Soup, though, tries a little too hard to make its multiply blended and highly complex arrangements warm as well as funny; and Rose Is Rose, which was a wonderful look at a much more traditional family when it was created and drawn by Pat Brady, has deteriorated into a pale, imitative copy of itself in the hands of Don Wimmer.
Desperate Households is the second Andrews McMeel collection of Stone Soup, and comes a full decade after the first (in the intervening years, there have been four collections published by Four Panel Press). The new book’s title is not promising – the whole “Desperate Housewives” thing is tremendously overdone – but Jan Eliot does create some interesting character comedy in this all-color collection. You do, however, have to work a bit to keep the characters straight. Two sisters live next door to each other. One, Val, is a widow with two daughters: 13-year-old Holly and nine-year-old Alix. The three of them live with Val’s mother – who is also the mother of next-door neighbor Joan, who is divorced and has a four-year-old son, Max, by her first husband. Joan has remarried; her new husband is named Wally. Also living in their house is Wally’s nephew, Andy (whose parents, we learn at the end of this collection, are divorcing). Val is dating a police officer named Phil, with whom she gets back together in this book after they broke up sometime in the past because he was worried about dating a woman with two children. The ins and outs of all these characters – and occasional walk-ons, such as Simon the hairdresser and Andy’s girlfriend, Chelsea – make for a very busy strip. But most of what actually happens is pretty straightforward comic-strip stuff: Holly and Alix call each other names; the adults try to get away for a while without the kids; Holly develops an online advice column and, in another sequence, gets poison ivy; Val loses her job, but is eventually rehired; Alix and Max get muddy; Val’s dog thinks amusing dog thoughts; etc. Individual strips can be quite funny – the best sequence has Alix, who has read Tom Sawyer, “helping” Holly (who has not read it) with a book report. Most of the humor, though, is either strained or fairly straightforward.
Don Wimmer is straining to keep Rose Is Rose going, but the strain is showing, and that’s a real shame. Readers encountering the strip for the first time in The Enchanting Rose will find it anything but enchanting, probably worth a (++) rating at most. Readers who knew the strip when Pat Brady drew it may rate it higher for old times’ sake. Unfortunately, those times really are old: all Wimmer can do is recycle elements that Brady created, while frequently getting the context wrong. The family here is super-traditional: married parents with one child and a kitten. What Brady did was make the ordinary extraordinary by showing the Gumbo family getting great pleasure out of each other and all the little joys of life: sunsets, fireflies, flowers and so on. Then Brady personified a few offbeat things: down-to-earth Rose has an imaginary alter ego, a sexy biker chick; her son, Pasquale, has a “dreamship” that he climbs into when sleeping, plus an actual guardian angel to watch over him. Unfortunately, Wimmer takes the extraordinary elements and makes them ordinary. Rose’s inner biker shows up too frequently, and in ways that make no sense (while Rose admires a lovely view, for example). Pasquale’s guardian angel turns into a huge and menacing form for entirely trivial reasons – for instance, to cool hot cocoa. And Wimmer has decided to play up some of the strip’s weakest elements, such as Pasquale’s boring, one-dimensional cousin Clem, who hogs everything but otherwise has no personality at all. Rose Is Rose was wonderful when it celebrated ordinary family life in far-from-ordinary ways. Under Don Wimmer, unfortunately, the celebration itself has become ordinary – and barely celebratory.