October 08, 2009


Liō’s Astonishing Tales from the Haunted Crypt of Unknown Horrors. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Pearls Sells Out: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     There was a time, not so long ago, when the oversize Andrews McMeel “Treasury” volumes presented a real quandary for comics fans. They were simply reprints of strips already issued by the company in smaller-size books – with the Sunday strips offered in color, although cartoonists do not always pick their Sunday colors themselves. This made it tough to decide whether or not to buy the “Treasury” volumes if you already had all the strips in smaller books. Was the color alone worth it? Was the bigger size of the “Treasury” books an advantage (greater heft) or disadvantage (harder to carry around to read while on the go)? Unless your smaller-size collections were falling apart, it was hard to justify buying the “Treasury” books.

     But that was then; this is now. Whether by brilliant planning or by stumbling onto a very good idea, Andrews McMeel now has a genuine value-added proposition in its “Treasury” collections: substantial commentary by the cartoonists. This has been around in hit-or-miss fashion for some time – in many Scott Adams Dilbert “Treasury” books, for example – but as it becomes a more important feature of the “Treasury” collections, it differentiates them significantly from the smaller-size collections of strips and lets readers see those strips in a new light. This may not make the “Treasury” books indispensable, but it’s a big step in that direction. It’s an especially welcome approach in a strip as dark and unusual as Mark Tatulli’s pantomime, Liō, which springs from the same mind that created the far more conventional and cutesy (if slightly offbeat) Heart of the City. Tatulli’s Liō is a boy with an extremely active fantasy life – he would be right at home in the wonderful old E.C. horror comics that were destroyed in the 1950s when the Comics Code was created. And lo and behold, Tatulli’s “Treasury” has a title that is a portmanteau of several E.C. comics – this cartoonist knows whence his work comes. The cover here is enormously clever, looking as weathered and damaged as a 50-plus-year-old comic book would (but don’t expect to pay 12¢ for this volume, no matter what the cover says). The back cover is Tatulli’s update of the old “art school” ads from comics of yore – and the inside front and back covers reproduce actual ads from the old comics, completing a very clever blend of past and present. Tatulli’s discussions of specific strips are revelatory of his thinking process and really do show how carefully Liō is constructed – although we never learn, for example, why the name “Liō” is spelled that way, why Liō has no mother, and why his father almost always has one of his big toes sticking through one of the socks he perpetually wears. Still, when it comes to a strip in which Liō raises a huge reptilian beast that becomes too much for him to handle, and tearfully has to let the creature go to his destiny of destroying a city, Tatulli explains that “for all its horror of the tortured souls in that city, I think this strip is sort of sad. I’m much too wrapped up in the human/animal relationship to care about the burning city.” Tatulli also explains which strips he used to pitch Liō to Universal Press Syndicate, and which ones angered readers and nearly cost the strip newspapers: “Lesson learned! Don’t even think about suggesting cute little puppies get fed to snakes! Very, very bad!” Well, okay – but what makes Liō so special is not only the absence of dialogue but also Tatulli’s willingness to explore the dark depths of a child’s soul, not to mention occasional forays into Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens. Tatulli tells what strips he thinks worked (and why), which didn’t (and why not), and how his own childhood is reflected in some of the strips – from the hair sported by a girl character to Tatulli’s memory of ripping off a mattress tag and fearing arrest. We also get plenty of insights into what Tatulli finds funny: “I love platypuses. They are goofy and cool at the same time.” All this, plus more than 200 pages of Liō cartoons – what a deal!

     You get a similar deal from Stephan Pastis in the latest “Treasury” volume of Pearls Before Swine, but here the commentary is more snide and sarcastic, as befits the strip and the fact that Pastis has done other “Treasury” volumes, while Tatulli has not. Pastis makes comments on one page and retracts them on a later one – for instance, explaining that he stopped bringing the Danny Donkey character into the strip’s “real” world, then noticing that he didn’t stop, then saying he’s too lazy to go back and correct his erroneous comment. He remarks on the frequency with which he draws caricatures of himself in the strip (at least one hopes they are caricatures); he explains which drawings he likes so much that he made them into covers of calendars (no subtlety to the self-plugging there); and he creates verbal juxtapositions that are as much fun as his drawings. On one page, for instance, after an unusually tender strip about Junior (a young crocodile) saying goodbye to his girlfriend, Joy (a young zebra), Pastis says this sort of work “shows that the strip is not always acerbic or about death.” Then, on the very next page, he writes, “Oops. Spoke too soon. One day after being so touching, I decided to throw a lawyer off a cliff. So much for the touchy-feely stuff.” The recurring theme of Pastis’ commentary is, “It remains impossible for me to predict which [strips] will resonate with people.” He tells us of all sorts of misjudgments – ones he thought would do better than they did and others that he thought ordinary but that readers really liked. Along the way, he offers some insight into how he works on the strips: often while wearing only boxers (maybe too much information there); and, as a general rule, “many months in advance, and when they finally appear in newspapers, they do not appear in the order in which I drew them.” This is highly unusual – few cartoonists get far ahead of their deadlines – but it lets Pastis throw out strips he considers weak (some of which, however, appear in a special section of this book), put others on Saturday (the lowest-circulation day for newspapers), and otherwise try to manage his output and his readership. Does it work? There are more than 260 pages of Pearls Before Swine in this “Treasury,” which should be plenty for anyone to decide whether the strip – and Pastis’ approach to it and to humor – are a breath of fresh air or of fetid gas. Opinion remains divided. Buy the book and feel free to form your own.

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