September 18, 2008


Dog eat Doug: It’s a Good Thing They’re Cute. By Brian Anderson. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Cul de Sac: This Exit. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

The Elderberries. By Phil Frank and Joe Troise. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     From the nearly newborn to those near the end of life, there are places for people of many ages in comic strips today – a welcome diversity. Dog eat Doug, despite its odd title (which includes a small “e” in “eat”), is not about a voracious canine. It’s the tale of a thoroughly lovable one named Sophie whose world is upended when the man and woman of the house (whose faces are never seen) bring home a baby. That’s Doug, who is of indeterminate age – but is definitely still in diapers and pre-verbal. Initially put-upon and jealous, Sophie soon comes to see Doug as a partner in crime (stealing socks, grabbing cheese) and a convenient fall guy. Doug finds Sophie someone to share the floor and furniture with, someone to hug, and someone to blame when necessary. This is a simple setup, but one allowing endless variations, and Brian Anderson certainly comes up with plenty of them. Sophie tries, nonverbally of course, to say “no” when Doug grabs her bone, eats from her food dish and pulls her tail – only to remark in the final panel, “I sound like my parents.” Sophie and Doug find many uses for the toilet bowl, from watering hole to bathtub. Neither of them knows what a squirrel looks like, and there are several strips in which they try to catch something they cannot identify – in one, for instance, a “helpful” squirrel points them toward a skunk, leaving the reader to imagine what happens next. Doug’s parents spell words around Sophie – who, however, knows what they are doing (“it’s so cute the way they spell stuff in front of me”). Doug’s cousin Emily and Sophie’s cousin Tiger make a few appearances, as do Doug’s grandparents, but most of the strip is about the interplay of baby and dog, and most of it is endearing in a very offbeat way – for example, Doug smiles broadly as Sophie licks him all over while thinking, “I just love fried chicken night!”

     Slightly up the age scale is Cul de Sac, which revolves around four-year-old Alice Otterloop, her older brother Petey, their put-upon parents, and assorted friends and hangers-on – including Mr. Danders, a scene-stealing guinea pig who at one point tells Alice, “The two things I do not discuss are celebrities and politics.” Richard Thompson’s art is a big attraction here: there is something not quite of this world about all the characters, and that fits the strip’s theme of suburban angst just perfectly. The dialogue can be out-and-out hilarious, too, as when the Otterloops play miniature golf while Alice, examining the course, asks such questions as, “Why is Dracula fighting a monkey?” This is a strip in which kids try to deal with adults who tousle their hair, flashbacks to being a cow the previous Halloween, and grandparents who smell like crabapple-lye shampoo. A Sunday strip in which Petey tries unsuccessfully to explain comic strips to Alice is hilariously self-referential, and one in which Alice and Petey dress cicadas in paper outfits – leading to a news story about “a possible species of super-intelligent cicadas” – is just surrealistic enough to come true. Hopefully Cul de Sac is nowhere near the end of the line, but is just getting started.

     The Elderberries, unfortunately, is at – and past – the end of the line. This is not because it focuses on 60-to-90-year-olds living in Elderpark (“a good place to park your elder”), but because artist Phil Frank died last year, after writer Joe Troise had already retired from the strip. So the first The Elderberries collection is probably the last one, too, which is a shame, because this is a strip filled with fun, dealing with a demographic that is all too often invisible in comic strips even though older people are more likely to read newspapers than are younger ones. The strip itself tends to some repetition and does not seem fully developed, so the book gets a (+++) rating. But when The Elderberries is on target, it is very funny indeed. The central character, a cowboy named Dusty whose daughter stopped him from driving by taking the wheels off his Cadillac (which is upholstered with the hide of a steer he once hit and has the steer’s horns as a hood ornament), is a curmudgeon with sensitivity; his forays away from Elderpark lead to his being fitted with an ankle bracelet, which in turn leads him to E-mail Martha Stewart to ask how to get rid of it. Other characters, though, are more stereotyped, such as the General (a retired general with a military attitude toward life) and the Professor (who is merely 60 but is at Elderpark because he has significant memory problems; yes, he is an absent-minded professor). Elderpark adventures sometimes deal with real-world issues (going to Canada to buy less-expensive prescription drugs), but usually are just for fun (regular meetings of the Elderpark Gossip Club). Elderpark’s director, Miss Overdunne, really is overdone, and her assistant, Ludmilla, is a throwback to Soviet Union days (which is funny, but only up to a point). The Elderberries is a bracing tonic in some ways but as heavy as castor oil in others. It is a shame that it will not have the chance to develop further.

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