November 01, 2012

(++++) THE USES OF CARTOONS


Think Like a Shark: Avoiding a Porpoise-Driven Life—The Seventeenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

The City of Ember: The Graphic Novel. By Jeanne DuPrau. Adapted by Dallas Middaugh. Art by Niklas Asker. Random House. $18.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Rose. By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

Superman: Attack of the Toyman. By John Sazaklis with John Farley. Illustrated by Andy Smith. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Batman: Batman Versus Man-Bat. By J.E. Bright. Pictures by Steven E. Gordon. Harper. $3.99.

Little Critter: Phonics Fun. By Mercer Mayer. Phonics scope and sequence by Cathy Toohey. Harper. $12.99.

      Cartoons are ubiquitous these days, and used in a variety of ways for adults as well as for children. Sherman’s Lagoon is a traditional newspaper comic strip, but like many strips today, it reaches more toward an adult audience than toward a young one. And Jim Toomey’s comedy, which varies from character-driven to slapstick, is decidedly offbeat – from the “can I eat this” flow chart on the cover of the latest collection to self-aware comments by the characters, as when one complains of being cold, another says fish aren’t supposed to get cold, and the first remarks that fish aren’t supposed to talk, either. The usual characters are here: Sherman, the bumbling great white shark who needs to have one for the road before going on a trip (“one” being a hapless beach ape – that is, a human swimmer); his domineering wife, Megan; Fillmore, a sea turtle given to bad poetry and intellectual pretensions; Hawthorne, self-important hermit crab and perpetual schemer; Ernest, computer whiz and, until this collection, the only fish wearing glasses – except that a whole school of them shows up in one Sunday strip this time; and Kahuna, the sunken idol with a penchant for turning the fish into humans now and then. Toomey never seems to run out of silly ideas: Kahuna gets a girlfriend, a statue of Aphrodite, but it doesn’t work out, so he crates her up and sends her to a museum – on Mars; Hawthorne gets to perform a big death scene when hit during a paintball game, but when he asks for violins, Ernest can only supply light rock; Sherman and Ernest visit the Sargasso Sea, where they meet Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster (who is in the middle of a golf game); Sherman grants an about-to-be-eaten fish one phone call, and the fish then insists on also having one tweet, one blog update and a photo for his Facebook page; Hawthorne improbably finds himself in a dog pound; Sherman, as a human, tries to befriend his nemesis, fishing-boat captain Quigley; jellyfish stings cause several personality reversals; and so on. The unpredictability of the plot of Sherman’s Lagoon is one of its charms; another is its fearlessly old-fashioned sense of humor – there is some social consciousness here (Toomey is concerned about the state of the oceans, as the Sargasso Sea strips and some others make clear), but by and large, the main purpose of Sherman’s Lagoon is fun. Not a bad idea.

      Things tend to be more serious in the more-elaborate cartoon world of graphic novels, and that is certainly the case with the excellent adaptation of Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember by Dallas Middaugh and Niklas Asker. This first and best of the four Ember books has traditional elements of a dystopia: a city where it is always twilight, services are failing, and the power structure is corrupt. But it is essentially a book about hope and about being willing to search for something good instead of just accepting a dreary, humdrum life. And it is about being willing, after finding someplace better, to offer a better life to those you have left behind. The two young protagonists, Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet, run afoul of authorities when they manage to figure out a way to get out of Ember, where life is getting steadily worse for everyone except the leaders. The two, along with Lina’s little brother, Poppy, make a dangerous journey that eventually leads them to a better place and a startling discovery about what Ember really is.  The post-apocalyptic setting is scarcely a new one, but DuPrau portrays it vividly and believably, and Middaugh carries it through admirably in this adaptation and simplification – which puts the focus even more strongly on Doon and Lina than DuPrau did.  The art is exceptionally well-tailored to the story, with Asker working almost entirely in a palette of browns until he introduces a few brighter colors after Doon and Lina make their escape. The result is pictures that capture and enhance the mood of story and draw readers into it as effectively as the words do – which is just about all anyone could hope for in a graphic novel.

      Most cartoon art is considerably more mundane than this, although young readers will still get some enjoyment out of the latest (+++) entries in the “Old Lady” and Superman series. In the first of these, Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee turn their attention to Valentine’s Day: the inexplicably ever-hungry and ever-smiling old lady swallows a rose, lace, glitter, candy and other thematically appropriately objects, then laughs out loud, blows a big kiss and produces a Valentine greeting, complete with card. Based on the old nonsense song about the old lady who swallowed a fly (and many other things, up to and including a horse – which, in the song, proved fatal), these short, amusing books get more far-fetched all the time. But they are certainly entertaining for kids who will want to find out just what the old lady swallows next, and how her ever-present little dog (a nice feature of Lee’s art) will react.  As for Attack of the Toyman, it is slight even by the standards of old-fashioned Superman stories: will kids really believe that a bunch of toys could be any sort of threat at all to a superhero who can fly, move mountains and produce searing heat vision?  Impossible to take even a little bit seriously – and clearly not intended to be taken that way – this story of a toymaker gone bad features the newer, craggier appearance given these days not only to Superman but also to Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, who have cameo roles here.  All that happens is that a disgruntled maker of old-fashioned toys decides to attack the companies that put him out of business by selling digital devices, using his toys as weapons; and Superman stops him, to the surprise of absolutely no one.  This is strictly for kids who think language such as “a platoon of perilous playthings” is funny, and who enjoy watching Superman’s eyes blaze red. Cartooning can be much better than this; and, thank goodness, it often is.

      For example, it is better in Batman Versus Man-Bat, another silly story, but one that has some credibility in the cartoon universe originated by DC Comics. This is a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in the I Can Read! series, and it will be fun for fans of Batman – who remains distinguished among superheroes for his lack of superpowers and, therefore, the necessity that he think rather than rely on brute force to solve problems. Batman Versus Man-Bat features the traditional “mad scientist” plot, except that this time the scientist is not evil – just worried about losing his hearing. So he and his colleague, who is also his wife, create a serum that restores his ability to hear – but also turns him into a man-sized bat with a nasty temper. The notion of Batman fighting a Man-Bat is enough to propel the whole book and make it easy to skip over the manifest absurdities – such as the fact that the scientist’s wife creates an antidote to the original serum after she “worked all day without stopping” (wow; wouldn’t real-world scientists like to develop miraculous cures after so “much” time?).  Anyway, Batman eventually triumphs by his usual method of thinking things through, and the Man-Bat returns to human form, and no one is killed or even hauled off to prison; the former Man-Bat is taken away in an ambulance, not a paddy wagon. Although this (+++) book is thin on plot, it is still a cut above many other comic-book-based offerings for young readers.

      Even farther above – in fact, a solid (++++) production – is the set of 12 small books called Little Critter: Phonics Fun. Here cartoons are used in just about the best way possible: as teaching tools. The dozen brief books are intended to help pre-readers and early readers, ages 3-5, understand how vowels and vowel combinations sound, and they do the job admirably – indeed, they are reminiscent of the top-notch Bob Books sets from Scholastic.  These Little Critter books are simply and intelligently arranged, with two apiece for each primary vowel sound: long and short a, e, i, o and u. The very first book is an introduction presenting sight words, and the last one is a review. Each book has a story with ample Mercer Mayer illustrations, making the learning easy and enjoyable. Just Saving My Money, for example, teaches long “a” by using words such as breaks, skateboard, game, lemonade, papers and saved; Just a Little Sick, which features short “e,” includes such words as bed, rest, better, checks and medicine. And so on. Cathy Toohey has done an excellent job incorporating Mayer’s characters into a learning sequence, and Mayer himself has wonderfully adapted his tale-telling skill and ability to make Little Critter amusing and interesting into a set of very short stories that work well from a plot standpoint while remaining focused on words that teach specific phonics skills. As an early-learning aid incorporating cartoon characters that genuinely help children in ways that Superman never helps Metropolis or Batman Gotham City, Little Critter: Phonics Fun proves itself “super”-ior.

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