50,000,000 Pearls Fans Can’t Be Wrong: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
FoxTrot Sundaes: A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Big Nate: In a Class by Himself. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $12.99.
Start with your basic four-panel storytelling comic presented daily in a format consisting of ink on dead trees. Then modify, to a greater or lesser extent, and you get these books – each of them outstanding in its own way. 50,000,000 Pearls Fans Can’t Be Wrong is outstanding for its hyperbole and confusing title. The title has an asterisk after it, which refers to tiny type on the cover, “Actual number closer to 5 or 6, but you get the idea.” The title also has a subtitle, “Stephan’s Gold Records – Volume 13.” It is an elaborate Elvis Presley parody, with a list of “songs” also appearing on the super-cluttered cover, and it is also the 14th (not 13th) Pearls Before Swine book, although maybe Pastis’ one small-format gift book doesn’t count, but who’s counting? The inside front cover shows a vinyl record broken into pieces; the inside back cover shows the same pieces, but with white glue oozing from between them after an apparent attempt to mend the record. Oh, and there’s content, too. Pearls Before Swine content, which means – among other things – that the individual daily strips have three panels rather than the traditional four (except when they do have four, one of which is frequently unbordered and squashed). Oh yes…content. Well, it’s typical Stephan Pastis stuff, including one series in which the cartoonist decides it is time to kill off a character in the strip and manages to kill himself off (after rejecting Rat’s plan to kill off a character from The Family Circus, a frequent target of Pastis’ humor). And then there is the sequence in which Guard Duck declares war on Venezuela. And the continuing sad story of Andy, the small, chained-up dog whose chained-up girlfriend is just slightly too far away for them to embrace – until Andy wakes up one morning and finds her gone (this is Pastis pathos). And the eternal imbecility of Zebra’s neighbors, the crocodiles, who at one point write Zebra death threats in a letter signed “anoneemiss” and having their return address on the envelope (this is Pastis pathetic-ness). And there are Rat’s children’s books about Danny Donkey, who hates everyone and spends all his time being antisocial and/or drinking beer. And the horrendous puns that Pastis offers in some Sunday strips – strips that end with Rat confronting him in the final panel with endearments such as, “Please, please retire early” or “You’re a nausea-inducing embarrassment.” Peanuts this isn’t. But there’s a Peanuts baseball-game parody here, and lots of other strange and wonderful stuff to enjoy. Or strange stuff, anyway
Life is a trifle less peculiar (or at least differently peculiar) in Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, but here too the strip is highly nontraditional – because Amend took it to Sundays-only in 2007, presumably so he could spend more time playing video games or something. FoxTrot Sundaes is the first collection since Amend’s not-entirely-appreciated decision, and it shows something interesting: just as the daily strip worked especially well when read in book form, so does the Sunday one, because even though the individual weekly drawings are unconnected to each other, the sequence of them lets readers enjoy what is essentially character-driven comedy. Included in the new collection are dad Roger commemorating the strip’s 20th anniversary by telling mom Andy about other cartoon couples who have been around much longer: 30 years for the Pattersons, 50 for the Flagstons and Mitchells, and 75 for the Bumsteads. A political strip – a type that never wears well – manages to stay amusing here because it involves Andy watching TV shows in which various candidates discuss themselves and their policies as elements of the Superman legend, with Barack Obama proclaimed as Kal-El (Superman’s real name, for anyone who may not know). And of course there is the ongoing war between super-nerd Jason and his older sister, Paige: he identifies her as an Imperial Walker from Star Wars and encircles her legs with twine, hacks “Wheel of Fortune” so the puzzle solution is “Paige Fox Is Ugly,” and so on. Jason also turns a Christmas tree into an Ent; figures out how to change long division into longer division; insists on playing football in the metric system with sports-obsessed big brother Peter; and opens a Fudgsicles stand that, as the hot day wears on, sells chocolate slushies, then chocolate milk, then hot cocoa, then chocolate syrup. It’s hard not to miss Amend’s dailies when his Sunday strips read so well in book form, but given the way newspapers are shrinking comics and limiting the number they print, readers just have to be grateful for what they can get.
And in the case of Lincoln Peirce’s (not "Pierce’s") Big Nate, they can definitely get more than the strip that appears in some 200 papers – because now Big Nate, the story of a sixth-grader with an outsize ego and more than a little talent for sarcastic cartooning, has become a six-book series of novels. The first, In a Class by Himself, is a real winner, introducing Nate, his friends, his enemies (mostly teachers), his peculiarities (many), and his hangers-on (such as a neighbor’s hilariously inept dog, Spitsy) to anyone unfamiliar with the cast while providing enough of a story line to keep the interest of anyone who already knows Nate and his foibles. The inside front and back covers are a hoot even before (and after) the story, offering Peirce’s drawings of various characters, coded information on the book’s contents, even a full Nate-drawn strip about “Ultra-Nate” and the archest of his arch-enemies, teacher “Mrs. Godfrey, aka Godzilla!” The story arc itself takes Nate through a typical day at P.S. 38, which becomes an atypical day when Nate manages to gather a record number of detention slips. (Individual chapters show how each slip comes about.) Peirce tells the story with equal parts narrative and cartoons, which turns out to be a great way to keep things moving. This is not a graphic novel but a novel jam-packed with graphics – a quick glance at any page shows the difference. For example, in prose, Nate (who narrates the book) complains about his good-student older sister, Ellen; then there is a drawing of Mrs. Godfrey asking why Nate isn’t more like his sister; then Nate says, in prose, that his goal in life is not to be more like a high-school cheerleader; and then there is a drawing of a very unhappy-looking Nate in cheerleader costume. Peirce’s narrative technique is a little hard to describe but is instantly accessible and clear when you see it. And Nate’s misadventures fit his character (and, by the way, the comic strip’s) perfectly. They mostly revolve around a fortune-cookie fortune that tells him, “Today you will surpass all others,” which of course he eventually does through his many suspensions. Nate’s unremitting cheerfulness and optimism, his certainty about his own greatness no matter how obvious his failings are, make him an endearing character – not a braggart so much as someone thoroughly misinformed about himself. He is a great comic-strip protagonist – and now, for other sixth graders, soon-to-be-sixth-graders, and once-were-sixth-graders, Nate is…well, not a role model, exactly, but a great model to turn to when there isn’t quite enough laughter in your day.