April 04, 2013


Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out: A (Freaky) “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You. By Matthew Inman. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     One of these books shows the continuing strength of “old media,” while the other shows the sometimes-dubious value of “new media.” Pearls Before Swine is as close to the edge as you can get in newspaper pages, and one pleasure of the strip’s latest “Treasury” collection is Stephan Pastis’ commentary on just how close that is: why he writes only part of the word “sucks” in one sequence, for example, and why his editor forbade use of the word “banana” in another. Andrews McMeel “Treasury” books are combinations of two smaller-size “Collection” books, but in the case of Pearls Before Swine, they are more, since Pastis provides a running commentary on the strips that at times is funnier, or at least more wry, than the comics themselves. Indeed, Pastis is a showoff, something of a ham on wry, and if that sounds like a groaner, it is nothing compare with Pastis’ own pun strips, which range from ridiculous to ridiculous-er and which he says are always popular (except with the cartoon characters themselves, especially Rat, who tends to visit some sort of mayhem on Pastis’ cartoon alter ego at the end of most pun strips). The freak-show cover of Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out is quite something in and of itself, featuring ringmaster Pastis with the requisite reclining pretty woman (“Gwen, paid model who otherwise wouldn’t spend time with us”) and five of the strip’s cartoon characters in their own display booths, which have labels such as, “See the boringest Goat – be amazed! Watch him read a book!”  Goat can’t be reading this book, though, because he looks altogether too serious. In Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out, Pastis reveals that before one of the times he killed Dilbert, he checked with Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams (who is largely responsible for getting Pastis his big break into cartoon syndication) about which characters in Adams’ strip would care the least if Dilbert died. Pastis points out that he repeatedly changes the names of newspapers his characters are reading, to pay tribute to papers that carry Pearls Before Swine, but in one strip he singles out an area for ridicule because the paper there does not carry the strip. In several strips, he explains that he doodled a new character of some kind and liked what he had drawn, so he built a strip around that character. Other times, he explains, he did not like the dialogue he created, but did not want to throw out the art, so he kept reworking the words – resulting, sometimes, in speech balloons much larger than they need to be. And then there are comments like this, after a Sunday strip in which Rat argues fervently for self-interest and laziness: “I have to admit I don’t give a lot to charity. But I do drink beer. So at least I’m doing something.” In addition to all these snarky self-revelations, Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out includes all the cartoons from Larry in Wonderland and Because Sometimes You Just Gotta Draw a Cover with Your Left Hand, which means everything from the “wonderland” sequence (which was far more elaborately drawn than anything Pastis usually produces – a fact about which he complains in this “Treasury”) to Pig’s creation of the superhero “Gym Sock Nose Guy” to several strips commenting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (which would be thoroughly dated by now if court cases didn’t go on for years). Newspapers may be fading (as Pastis sometimes remarks in the strip), and comics shrinking even more than in the past (as he also remarks), but there remain a few bright spots among newspaper comic strips, and it is ironic that one of the brightest is, in terms of content, one of the darkest – since Pastis never hesitates to kill characters, especially cute or amusingly named ones, in Pearls Before Swine.

     Pastis’ strip, like many others, is also available on the Internet, but it was not designed for the Internet and therefore remains, in a sense, resolutely old-school. Not so the drawings of Matthew Inman, who calls himself “The Oatmeal” and runs a Web site called www.theoatmeal.com. And on this site he has some cats (e-i-e-i-o)…with a killer cat here and a killer cat there, here, there, everywhere a killer cat…and so it goes. Some of Inman’s work does appear in print – obviously, since there is a book called How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You, which contains a handy pull-out poster indicating signs of incipient feline humanicide – but Inman creates primarily for the Web, and his juvenile and anything-but-compressed humor reflects the flavor of the online world and the ease with which even the smallest joke can be spun out and out and out and out some more online. The title sequence in the book is pretty clever, actually, with comments such as “Bringing you dead animals – this isn’t a gift. It’s a warning.” But much of the book is trite (how you see your cat and how your cat sees you) or is a one-joke panel expanded far beyond the funny (“The Bobcats,” two cats imagined as workers in an office among humans, runs nearly 50 pages and is worth about two). A few of the longer entries in How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You are amusing, such as the 20-page “Cat vs. Internet,” which starts with behaviors that all cat companions (one does not “own” a cat) will recognize and moves seamlessly into absurdity that actually makes sense. But by and large, How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You isn’t nearly as funny as Inman presumably thinks it is. The drawing is all right: Inman can do realistic fighter planes and office equipment when he wants to, so presumably all the blank sticklike figures of people and (most of the time) of cats are deliberate forays into crudity. And in a Web context, where people visit a site’s pages quickly and then rapidly move on to other places and other sites, much of the humor would work reasonably well, and the use of language that is far beyond the permissible in newspapers would be considered, if anything, mild. As an old-fashioned book to be, you know, read, though, How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You falls short – although there is enough amusement here to get it a low (+++) rating.

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