October 07, 2010


There’s Corpses Everywhere: Yet Another “Liō” Collection. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Discover Your Inner Hermit Crab: The Fifteenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     When you think about it, it is amazing that the old-fashioned gag-a-day comic strip retains such staying power. Many of the most popular strips among older readers – who are the most avid devotees of newspapers – have changed little, in terms of format (and sometimes characters), since as far back as the 1920s. Newspaper editors ignore this fact at their peril, especially now that newspapers themselves seem like something of an endangered species and need to retain all the readers they possibly can. Still, there is room in papers for at least some strips whose cartoonists push the boundaries of the comic-strip medium – and hey, even the boundaries of taste from time to time. Those would be cartoonists such as Mark Tatulli and Jim Toomey.

     Tatulli is perfectly capable of creating a fairly traditional, fairly amusing strip: Heart of the City, about an energetic little girl growing up in Philadelphia. But where Tatulli really hit his stride was in developing the genuinely odd Liō, whose very title is peculiar (what exactly does that line over the “o” mean, and how exactly is the name pronounced?). Liō can be read on many levels: is it the adventures of a boy living in a world that only he experiences (akin to Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes?), or is Liō simply a “weird kid” (he watches the Weird Kid TV network), or does the strip exist in some peculiar area between a real (or real-ish) world and one that would do Lewis Carroll proud? One of the great things about Liō is that Tatulli refuses to answer these questions. Sometimes Liō is simply a nerdy kid, an outsider tormented by bullies – one strip in the new collection shows him sighing as he totes up the current score: Bullies 32, Nerds 2 – but he does often have creative ways of evening things up (the kid who steals his lunch gets a bag containing dynamite, which Liō is set to blow up in the last panel). Sometimes Liō deals with typical childhood problems, such as his infatuation with Eva Rose, who does not return his feelings and constantly gets the better of him (and who has her own oddities, such as use of a switchblade that makes the sound “chick” whenever she opens it). But most of the time, Liō interacts with some very peculiar creatures indeed, from a cat named Cecil that is fond of blowing things up, to a series of zombies and aliens and other supernatural creatures with whom Liō has a very special relationship (for instance, giving Dracula a gag birthday gift of tanning sessions). Liō also gets involved frequently with characters from other comic strips and cartoons, solving one extended “mystery” sequence by finding out that Mark Trail is a cross-dresser, turning Pinocchio into a habitat for termites, and being attacked by felines from four other strips (including the long-gone Bloom County) while opening a can of cat food. The title of the latest Tatulli collection pays homage to the famous Watterson line at the end of the run of Calvin and Hobbes, “There’s magic everywhere,” and the book’s cover (closely modeled on a Watterson original) shows Liō and his pet cephalopod digging up a stuffed Hobbes and a skull that looks suspiciously like Calvin’s. Several elements in the new Liō book specifically involve Watterson’s characters, including a sequence in which Liō brings Calvin back from the dead, Calvin escapes, and Liō eventually captures him and Hobbes within the pages of a collection of Watterson’s works (although Calvin, as Spaceman Spiff, has the last laugh). Clearly, Tatulli’s humor in Liō is out of the ordinary and off the wall – and while the strip is definitely, emphatically, not to all tastes (its absence of dialogue, one of its defining characteristics, takes it outside the cartooning mainstream all by itself), it is fascinating, experimental, odd and about as different from traditional newspaper comics as it is possible to get.

     Sherman’s Lagoon is a more recognizable entry in the comic-strip universe: an ensemble strip with character-driven comedy. Yet Toomey is scarcely mainstream. He deliberately features unappealing characters: sharks, a nasty hermit crab, an ugly and smelly “bottom dweller,” and so on. But he manages to make them both amusing and more attractive than they have any right to be. Even though “hairless beach apes” (humans) are consumed with regularity in the strip (usually not visibly, although legs occasionally stick out of a shark’s mouth), Toomey’s underwater denizens repeatedly confront issues that concern land dwellers, from global warming to the progress of technology. Discover Your Inner Hermit Crab includes “road trips” (well, underwater trips) from Kapupu Lagoon in the South Pacific, where the characters live, to Assateague Island and the North Pole; the discovery of what may be a lost Shakespeare play (which may explain the unfortunate introduction to the book, which takes itself far, far too seriously); a fish-shaped Trojan Horse containing aggressive shrimp; and a couple of sequences in which characters are turned into humans by Kahuna, a stone head in Easter Island mode that resides in the lagoon. There is even a newspaper-vs.-Web Sunday strip – Toomey is certainly well aware of the commercial forces at war out there. Sherman’s Lagoon does have a weakness, though: poor editing. Actually, in a sequence in which Hawthorne the crab creates his own comic strip, Sherman the shark comments that is it “unbelievable…that this stuff is edited at all,” and sometimes it is hard to imagine that anyone checks Toomey’s strips before they are published. Discover Your Inner Hermit Crab includes misspellings (“comradery,” “theorum”); grammatical messes (“of some scientist says it’s so”); erroneous words (“why I shouldn’t each both of you”); omitted words (“a book solid enough bonk him,” “I just fed it Bob”); and extraneous words (“letting it to come to me”). Toomey’s plotting and sense of humor are good enough so he can almost get away with this sort of sloppiness, but really – isn’t anyone reading these strips before they go out to the world? One hopes so – because when they do go out to readers at large, they are far enough off the beaten track to provoke plenty of smiles, more than a few laughs, and sometimes even a surprising insight or two.

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