Mangaman. By Barry Lyga. Illustrated by Colleen Doran. Houghton Mifflin. $19.99.
Reheated Liō. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Larry in Wonderland: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Sunday Brunch: The Best of “Zits” Sundays. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
A graphic novel so clever that it can be enjoyed purely for Colleen Doran’s wonderful illustrations, then re-enjoyed for Barry Lyga’s perfectly nuanced story, Mangaman represents something genuinely new: an intermingling of the world of manga and anime with that of reality – or, to be more precise, reality as portrayed in comic books. This gets complicated (which is what makes it so good). The essential story line is a simple one, used equally often in manga and traditional comics: people from two worlds meet, discover ways in which their worlds intersect or are hopelessly incompatible, fall in love, and are eventually united. But Mangaman is much more than the umpteenth digital-universe version of Romeo and Juliet. It is a graphic novel about graphic novels, and a comic book about comic books, and an altogether exhilarating experience. The idea is that Ryoko Kiyama, the title character, is propelled into our world from his manga universe because of an unexplained rip in the fabric of reality – a time-tested and obvious device that exists purely to set up the story (and that’s just fine). Helped by the prototypical scientist who keeps Ryoko out of government hands while seeking to repair the reality rip before monsters from the manga universe get through, Ryoko attempts to fit in during his short stay on Earth by attending high school – where he meets and falls for Marissa Montaigne, coolest and hottest girl in school. But enough of plot points – what matters here is how the story is told. And it is told just marvelously, with Ryoko doing manga things because they are in his nature: distorting his head and mouth to swallow food; answering a not-yet-asked question because in his world, reading is done from right to left rather than left to right, so the future in our world is the past to him; erupting with “speed lines” when he moves quickly – only to find that the lines now have physical reality and can hurt people; turning into a stylized line drawing with hearts for eyes when he first sees Marissa; almost making the kaiju (monsters) real because when he thinks about them, they appear around him (as thoughts do in manga) and seem to people in our world to be part of reality; and much, much more. And then things get weirder and more complicated when Ryoko, who can see panel borders, reaches through one at the right to touch Marissa from the left, completely freaking her out. And then he figures out how to get Marissa herself to see the panel borders – since really, all this happens not in the real world but in a depicted real world that is actually a comic strip, meaning it is as artificial as manga even though it is bound by different conventions. And then Marissa figures out how to move between panels, but almost runs afoul of the kaiju, and – well, everything just gets more and more interesting. Sometimes hilarious, too, as when a makeout session between Ryoko and Marissa leads to him being naked, but with genitals obscured (as they invariably are in non-pornographic manga) because of “article 175,” which manga lovers will know refers to the Japanese rule under which purveyors of pornography can be prosecuted. Even Marissa’s and Ryoko’s laughs are distinctly different, in sound and type style, in this marvelous mixture of manga and “reality” comics. A violent climax in “our” world – in which Ryoko’s expectations of violence conflict with those that prevail in traditional comic books – eventually leads to a reuniting of Marissa and Ryoko and a thoroughly upbeat finale. It is Ryoko’s self-awareness, his knowledge that he is a manga character existing in a world of “words and images on paper” where “we follow our stories right to left, not left to right,” that ties Mangaman together and keeps its collision-of-worlds theme so fascinatingly inventive. This is a graphic novel unlike any other, and it is hugely enjoyable from the first page to the last.
Mark Tatulli’s Liō is also fun from start to finish, and it too depends heavily on art, being a pantomime strip containing few captions and almost no dialogue. And Liō also takes place in a world that is recognizably ours – almost. But Tatulli’s way with words (or without words) and pictures is quite different from that of Mangaman, being on the weird side throughout. Liō has a would-be girlfriend, the always-unavailable Eva Rose, for whom he sets a snare (literally) and who uses a tennis racquet to smash his profusion of hearts (traditional comic-book love symbols) back at him. Most of the time, though, Liō is not unrequited – he is just strange. He spills salt while eating, so he tosses some over his shoulder for luck – inadvertently injuring a snail sitting at a table nearby. He sets a leghold trap for the customers of a fur store. He sees Peanuts characters running by and realizes that Charlie Brown is trapped in a huge spider web. He hauls back a multicolored monster that is eating the comics page, having already peeled back the paper to reveal characters from Dilbert, Mutts, Beetle Bailey, Cathy and FoxTrot. He finds his “genuine human skeleton” box empty and walks out of his strip to stop Marmaduke from crunching the bones. He invents a force field to protect himself from dodgeball. He becomes part of the famous Lady and the Tramp spaghetti-eating scene – just long enough to hand them the check. He sits side-by-side with Death – Liō chuckling at the comics while Death laughs at the news pages about “World in Turmoil.” Liō is a comic strip unlike any other, using its mixture of odd art and decidedly peculiar concepts to produce chuckles (or gasps) that are as likely to come from being startled as from being amused.
Art is not generally the strong suit of Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, but the new Larry in Wonderland collection is something different. For the first time, Pastis has here created a sequence that depends on drawing – and if his skill is scarcely at the level of Doran’s (or, for that matter, Tatulli’s), his writing is so good and so in-character for all the denizens of his strip that the sequence (from which the book gets its title) makes an unusually strong impression. Larry, the strip’s lead crocodile, falls through the traditional rabbit hole and emerges in Wonderland, where he drinks from a bottle, shrinks and ends up being eaten by Zebra – the character Larry normally spends all his time trying to catch and consume. There follow several increasingly ridiculous scenes that eventually lead to the Raterpillar, who ends up eating all the other characters in the strip, including Pastis himself. Sounds like one of Rat’s bizarre fantasies – which is just what it turns out to be. Elsewhere in the book, matters are more or less as they always are; which is to say, weird, but weird in a different way. Rat crosses out parts of Walt Whitman’s poetry to “twittify” it, and stays behind a huge fence labeled “Cool” while Pig is stuck behind a much smaller one labeled “Uncool.” Pastis (the character) introduces a broadly smiling “licensable” character named Bippy, who gets punched in the head and used as a dodgeball. Sunday strips often consist of buildups to atrocious puns, leading to final panels in which a typical Rat comment to Pastis is, “You’re why newspapers are shrinking the comics page.” Katie the Drama Cow is introduced, speaking in circles and with mouth always wide open, leading Guard Duck to call in a series of Black Hawk helicopter strikes. Danny Donkey, seeking enlightenment, climbs a mountain with a group of strangers – and pushes them off. Rat leads a pledge drive after deciding that PBS stands (or should stand) for “Pearls Before Swine.” Goat and Zebra discuss Pig, and then Goat calls Pig with the clichéd question, “Are your ears burning?” – and it turns out that Pig just shampooed with gasoline and his ears are indeed on fire. Larry in Wonderland is not great literature, but Pearls Before Swine is a wonderful strip no matter what title its collections carry.
For a comic strip whose art is a major attraction day after day, week after week, year after year – and, more to the point in this case, Sunday after Sunday – there is Zits, the teens-and-parents exploration whose artistic range is immediately clear from the 70 or so small drawings of characters’ expressions on the back cover of the latest compilation, Sunday Brunch. Jim Borgman is an editorial cartoonist as well as a comic-strip artist, and his finely honed depictions of 15-to-16-year-old Jeremy Duncan, parents Walt and Connie, girlfriend Sara, friends Hector and Pierce, and all the other Zits characters, are a constant delight. Even more wonderful is the way Borgman brings an editorial cartoonist’s sense of the absurd to suburban family life: Jeremy staring at Sara and getting so “lost” in her eyes that he goes through them, into the world and universe beyond; Jeremy and Walt as sumo wrestlers, battling over taking out the trash cans; crowded high-school hallways interpreted as a cattle drive (with Jeremy’s and Hector’s faces on two of the cows); Connie turning into Edvard Munch’s famous 1893 painting, “The Scream,” while Jeremy drives and she sits in the front passenger seat; and on and on. Of course, no matter how striking the visual representations, the ideas have to come from somewhere, and that is where Jerry Scott (also the writer of Baby Blues) comes in – constantly feeding Borgman material that lends itself to personality delineation with a great deal of artistic license and a fine eye for the surreal. Sunday Brunch, a thoroughly wonderful collection, not only includes hundreds of full-color Sunday Zits comics but also presents commentary by multiple cartoonists, including remarks by Scott and Borgman on specific episodes – and, in one revelatory three-page sequence, an extended discussion of “The Process of Creating a Zits Sunday strip.” Here, Scott explains that “it’s not like [sic] I write and he draws” because “Jim has a lot of input on the writing end” while he, Jerry, will “also generate pencil roughs of each strip for Jim to show him what I’m thinking.” So the writer-and-artist separation in Zits is a somewhat false (or at least overstated) one, and in fact there is a third team member who gets due acknowledgment here: colorist Ben Peters-Keirn, “with whom I also now share a brain,” Borgman writes. Also part of the Zits team is the publishing syndicate, says Jerry, where “a squadron of highly-trained linguists will pore over every pixel of the strip looking for the word ‘sucks’ so they can reject it.” Now, didn’t you always want to know that? Sunday Brunch is a real fount of information – in fact, it is sort of like one of those chocolate fountains, where all this gooey and sticky deliciousness emerges so you can dip a finger in and suck…err, lick the lusciousness off. And if that image is disturbing, wait until you see the one of Jeremy in the kitchen, 15 minutes before dinner, with his mouth open so wide that his lower jaw is actually on the floor. The visual impact of Zits is as great in its own way as the visual impact of Mangaman, and well beyond that of Liō and Pearls Before Swine. And the melding of narrative and pictures in Zits is on such a high level that it is remarkable to realize how long Scott and Borgman have been producing something of this quality – in fact, since those ancient, deep-in-the-dim-past days of 1997.