October 11, 2007


This Is as Bad as It Gets. By Voutch. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

Everything I Need to Know I Learned on “Jerry Springer”: A “Close to Home” Collection. By John McPherson. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      Here we have a skewed French view of everyday life and a skewed American view of everyday life. If the French book proves somewhat more sophisticated, the American one is certainly more over-the-top – as its title and cover drawing suggest.

      The cartoons by Voutch – a Paris-born cartoonist who uses a single name – were originally published in France between 1997 and 2000, but their slightly weird worldview (akin to what Americans regularly encounter in The New Yorker) shows few signs of age. Voutch’s art is a big part of the single-panel cartoons’ attractions. For instance, there are two men tied tightly to a railroad track, with one telling the other, “You are beginning to get on my nerves, Maloney, you and your eternal optimism.” But the men are quite small, in a drawing that shows them in a mountain pass, the track invisible as it goes around a curve a few feet away – so you don’t know just how close a train might be. Then there’s the small man kneeling atop a hill to which he has flown by helicopter (it is visible in the background), praying, “O Almighty, reduce my enemies to dust. As well as some of my friends. I have too many.” Voutch tackles many subjects, but he does have some recurring themes, such as clones. One example features two identical men at a restaurant table, where one is telling the waiter, “And exactly the same thing for my clone.” This works for an American audience, but not everything does. One panel features a goose beside a farmer who is holding a force-feeding gadget as the goose says, “I’m warning you. I’m writing a tell-all book: names, places, dates, everything.” If you don’t know how pâté de fois gras is produced, this falls flat. Then there is the family near a plaque on a barren landscape, where tanks are in the background, with the father saying, “I was closest. I guessed 1644 and the correct answer is 1944.” This could be a critique of Americans’ lack of knowledge of history, including D-Day, but in fact it is more general – yet it will only work for people who do know at least a little about World War II. Some Voutch works are mundane, some hard to figure out, and some silly: large landscape picture with small dog embracing smaller cat in the foreground and saying, “And the other problem, my love, is that you, too, are a male.” Or: two hermit crabs on the ocean floor, with one saying, “OK, Venice it is. But I’m warning you: It’s far.” Some of this is genuinely sophisticated humor; some is just trying to be.

      There’s nothing sophisticated at all about John McPherson’s Close to Home, the perennial sendup of a wide variety of uniquely American foibles. McPherson does have a tendency to seem to repeat himself – you may not have seen the specific cartoons in his latest collection before, but you’ll get the feeling that you have seen many like them, and you’ll be right. Still, McPherson’s determinedly ugly people doing unerringly weird things are often very amusing. In the new collection, which is entirely in color (a feature that does not make the people any more attractive), you will find the office pool that will award a worker $200 if he eats every bit of crud from inside the break-room microwave oven; the suburban Trojan horse used by adult children to get their parents to allow them to move back home; the “Duct Tape Diet,” which simply involves putting duct tape over your mouth; the super-large coffin for the man who suffered all his life from claustrophobia; the accused polygamist who ends up with three of his mothers-in-law on the jury; the nervous speaker at a nudist convention, who calms himself by imagining audience members with their clothes on; the “Share-o-Matic,” to force siblings to cooperate with toy use at playtime; the two people who do so well in marriage counseling that they end up embracing passionately on the floor while the counselor vainly tries to distract them; and many more situations and characters that probably don’t exist, but maybe do. McPherson doesn’t exactly have his finger on the pulse of the everyday world, but he has it on the pulse of some everyday world. Much of the fun is in figuring out just how close to home his cartoons really come.

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