April 18, 2013


The How-To Handbook. By Martin Oliver and Alexandra Johnson. Zest Books. $10.99.

Liō: Making Friends. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Here are a couple of very different books whose positioning in the real world has a certain unreal feel about it. The How-To Handbook is, on the face of it, as real-world as they come. It is a very short (128-page) guide to doing all sorts of things that are part of everyday life but that young people – and, to be honest, allegedly full-fledged adults – may not know how to do…or how to find out how to do. What is the right way to catch a spider without harming it or yourself? How do you pitch a tent? What if you need to tie a bow tie? Is there a good way to pop a pimple? What do you do if you have a ring that just won’t come off? What is the best way to wash a car? Fold a fitted sheet? Unstick chewing gum? Extract a splinter? Make your own trail mix? Officially targeted at teenagers, The How-To Handbook is one of those items at which adults, if they are honest with themselves, will want to sneak an occasional peek. Martin Oliver and Alexandra Johnson boil down the information here to bare essentials, including very useful diagrams (for wrapping a package, for example) in addition to lots of purely illustrative pictures that break up the text and keep the overall feel of this essentially serious book on the light side. What gives the whole thing a slight air of unreality is the juxtaposition of such different information, all of it treated in matter-of-fact snippets. There are, for example, two pages on how to chop an onion – with six helpful illustrations and a warning box about paying attention when using sharp knives. Later, there is a single page on how to take a pulse to find out whether someone is alive or dead – and to determine how seriously injured the person may be. From pulses to produce, the information is given in a straightforward, accessible manner, but the amount of space devoted to each item seems a trifle odd when looked at from an “importance” perspective – fixing a flat bike tire, for example, gets four full pages, with diagrams, and involves 22 separate steps, while “help a choking victim” gets one page, four steps and no pictures. Of course, the real world itself is not always perfectly balanced, to put it mildly. So at least in some sense, the highly useful information in The How-To Handbook is simply presented in a way that reflects the organization, or disorganization, of everyday life.

     The extent to which Mark Tatulli’s pantomime comic strip, Liō, does or does not take place in some sort of real world, is another matter altogether. And it is part of what makes this often-dark strip so much fun. Tatulli plays with reality constantly here, and plays with concepts as well: the new Liō book, Making Friends, actually has the title character assembling buddies by manufacturing robots. Many elements of Liō clearly take place in a real world of sorts: Liō encounters bullies, goes to school, has homework, lives with his father (whom Tatulli usually shows with one toe protruding through a sock), and has an unrequited crush on a girl named Eva Rose. And many of the odd elements of the strip are clearly intended to occur in the strip’s “real world”: Liō’s pet cephalopod interacts with many people, his father comforts him when one of Liō’s destructive robots self-destructs, dad insists Liō wear a helmet before taking off using his homemade jet pack, and Liō’s favorite TV channel – the Weird Kid Television Network – can be viewed by anyone so inclined. But what about items in Liō that cross some clear but unspecified line? How about the bomb that Eva Rose arranges to have dropped on Liō on his birthday (she is upset when it doesn’t go off)? Liō as Pied Piper, rescuing seafood from a restaurant – with lobsters, crabs and other water dwellers following him out the door? Liō selling tickets to kids for a climb up the magic beanstalk – while the giant stands menacingly behind him? Liō aboard a giant ant, leading other giant ants to a picnic? Liō being picked up and menaced by an angry plant that he is about to attack with weed killer? Liō driving a jingle-jangling truck with a brain mounted on top and being followed by eager zombies waving money? Liō taking payment from a witch to use his jet pack to fly around trailing a sign that says “Surrender Dorothy”? Liō’s “undead bunny” stuffed toy swallowing a bully whole and then needing “alka-tummy” for an upset stomach? How much of this happens in the world of father, school, stores and restaurants, and how much is entirely in Liō’s head? Tatulli isn’t saying, which is all to the good, because in addition to the many oddities of Liō, trying to figure out just what sort of reality, or alternative reality, or unreality the strip occupies is a major reason for reading and enjoying this very unusual comic creation.

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