November 07, 2013
(++++) AT THE TOP OF THEIR GAME
Here We Go Again: The Eighteenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Cat Crazy: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
Desmond Pucket Makes Monster Magic. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.
I Sense a Coldness to Your Mentoring: A “Dilbert” Collection. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
There are only about 200 syndicated cartoonists in the United States, and they need to stay at their best all the time in order to preserve their positions and keep their fan bases – which vary widely – happy. Fortunately, the best cartoonists develop niches and then remain comfortably in them, while occasionally pushing things a bit in one direction or another so they can try out "line extensions” of a sort. For example, Jim Toomey and Patrick McDonnell are two always-reliable cartoonists with very different approaches to the medium in almost every possible way – yet both have pushed out from their basic approach in similar ways, turning their strips (to some extent) into advocacy productions for ocean preservation and animal adoption, respectively. The ways Toomey and McDonnell have done this, though, are as different as their drawing styles and sense of humor. Toomey shows in Here We Go Again that he has perfected character-based ensemble comedy with a large cast into which he constantly introduces new characters and just as often kills them off. This 18th collection starts with Sherman the shark rescuing his arch-enemy, a dolphin, from a lobster trap – after which the dolphin gets entrapped into typical Kapupu Lagoon scams, courtesy of Hawthorne the hermit crab, after which the dolphin simply disappears from the strip (possibly to return sometime, or possibly not). Later, there is a vampire squid that passes through the lagoon, “giving zee occasional death hickey” until he makes the mistake of bothering Megan, Sherman’s better half. Also here are the usual business scams, as always courtesy of Hawthorne, and the usual bizarre adventures (such as getting stuck inside a whale), and the usual self-contained color Sunday strips with a heaping helping of absurdity (as when Sherman casts for a “hairless beach ape” and ends up reeling in a woman’s teeth, then her hair, then her bathing suit – and then realizing she is a he, with Toomey as usual not showing anything but having his characters’ reactions tell the story). There are also occasional witticisms that are worth more than a moment of thought: “At what level of income does weird become eccentric?” And Toomey manages to bring in his genuine, real-world concerns in ways that fit the strip’s make-believe world, as when Sherman and eyeglass-wearing piscine hacker Ernest are turned temporarily into humans so they can lobby to save the Aquarius Underwater Lab – with Ernest explaining to Sherman that paper petitions for this sort of issue are no longer used in these days of social media. One of the best things about Toomey is that he knows exactly how far he can push his advocacy: after the “lobbying” sequence, Ernest continues to give information to Sherman, then comments, “We’re starting to sound like one of those boring educational comic strips, aren’t we?” So far and no farther – then back to shenanigans. That is the Sherman’s Lagoon success formula.
McDonnell is a much better artist than Toomey – one of the very best cartoonists around – but sometimes tends to overdo the warmth, beauty and environmental advocacy of Mutts. The strip is so good that McDonnell can be forgiven almost anything, though. The “sub-strips” in which he celebrates various environmentalists and ecological causes, creates “Shelter Stories” to advocate adoption, and otherwise turns Mutts into a soapbox (albeit a beautifully decorated one), exist alongside strips that are pure fun, showing the antics of Earl the dog, Mooch the cat, and the people who own them (or think they do; ownership is a fungible concept here). McDonnell is often at his best when he takes artistic chances: for example, in one Sunday strip in Cat Crazy, he presents a single panel showing Earl standing on the chest of his still-in-bed human, Ozzie, pointing toward Ozzie’s face and with his tail happily wagging – and the caption is from Shakespeare: “My heart is ever at your service.” In general, McDonnell uses quotations to wonderful effect: Cat Crazy includes strips built around the words of William Carlos Williams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ray Bradbury, Bob Marley and others. Elsewhere, in a daily strip, McDonnell marks Memorial Day by showing a dog joyfully running toward his just-returning serviceman human. In another strip, a Sunday one, McDonnell makes brilliant use of color to show the coming of autumn, as the tree beneath which Earl and Mooch are standing changes from summer to fall shades and the leaves all come down at once in the last panel. And then there are the recurring themes, such as bewigged Mooch as “the wise Shphinx”; Prof. Mooch and other characters in class (Mooch teaching history: “When was my litter box last cleaned?”); the antics of squirrels Bip and Bop, always beaning other characters with acorns; the ongoing story of ever-chained Guard Dog; and more. Into these beautifully rendered and gently emotional environs McDonnell brings such mini-sequences as “Farm Animal Sanctuary” and a series about dog rescue groups. McDonnell’s advocacy strips, when at their best, work both as viewpoints and as pure comics: a wonderful Sunday “Shelter Stories” example in Cat Crazy shows a man finding a really ugly, sad-looking dog at a shelter and commenting that no one will ever adopt that one – at which point the man and his surroundings turn into black-and-white rather than color art, as the man realizes the implication for the dog of what he has just said; and the final panel has man and dog happily leaving the shelter together. McDonnell is a remarkable artist whose deep knowledge of historical cartoons thoroughly informs his own work: for example, he uses Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland for a caterpillar-to-butterfly strip, and in one remarkable Sunday offering places “Deli-Man” in exactly the position that Superman was in when the Man of Steel first appeared in a comic in 1938 – a kind of artistic “in joke,” since McDonnell does it without in any way indicating to readers what he is doing. And McDonnell’s care and sensitivity pervade Mutts and provide balance for the strips that are done purely for amusement – such as a Halloween sequence in Cat Crazy that is laugh-out-loud funny.
There is plenty of laughter in Desmond Pucket Makes Monster Magic, and not a heck of a lot of sentiment to clutter it up. Mark Tatulli is a cartoonist who does not rest on his laurels: he created Heart of the City, a pleasant if conventional urban-child strip, and then moved on to Liō, a dark and surreal pantomime strip in which reality and fantasy nervously coexist. And now he has created a novel/comic hybrid – the first book of a planned series – featuring a self-proclaimed “gourmet of gore” who intends to create horrifying amusement-park rides when he grows up but at the moment has to figure out how to avoid being thrown out of Cloverfield Memorial Junior High School. Accompanied by his best-friend-since-fourth-grade, budding cartoonist Ricky DiMarco, Desmond plays a series of faux-gruesome pranks that get him into more and more trouble, especially with his nemesis at school, Mr. Needles, who gives Desmond three chances to “adapt to a normal scholastic existence” or be suspended. Desmond quickly runs through his first two chances, then undergoes a self-administered personality transplant so he will get to stay in school and, more important, go on a field trip that he really wants to go on. But even when Desmond is on his best behavior, Desmond-like things keep happening – so Desmond has to go into detective mode to find out who is framing him. And he does find out – but Mr. Needles, who has it in for him, doesn’t care. And things get more and more complicated in a story told partly as narrative, partly in illustrations, and partly in comic strips (such as the one Desmond draws to show Mr. Needles the real culprits – which Mr. Needles promptly tears up). The whole book builds to an exceptionally messy climax at Drama Club, featuring Desmond’s greatest dramatic moment ever – which turns into a huge success in which the principal praises both Desmond and Mr. Needles and decides that they need to spend more time together. Well, Desmond can’t win them all, but he wins this one, and although Desmond Pucket Makes Monster Magic is not as cleverly offbeat as Tatulli’s Liō strip, it is effective storytelling (both verbal and visual) that will have readers looking forward to the inevitable sequel.
If Tatulli is constantly creating new characters and new settings for them, Scott Adams has taken the opposite approach – and become hugely successful with it. Dilbert is a genuine phenomenon, its popularity and reach seemingly growing without pause for more than 20 years. The strip is neither especially well written nor especially well drawn – Adams himself makes fun of his own shortcomings from time to time – but to say that it has hit a nerve among those in the business world is a tremendous understatement. Dilbert taps into all the absurdities of large-company life in the United States and around the world, turning everyday frustrations into a skewered vision of reality that is run through Adams’ skewed brain (which is the real strength of the strip, many of whose ideas come from its readers’ experiences). Every collection of Dilbert – the latest is the 41st – contains absurdities that somehow seem more real than the real world from which they are drawn. In one strip, Dilbert shows up at work dressed as an angry cat in lederhosen. In another, both the CEO of the company and the notorious Pointy-Haired Boss are visited by the Ugly Truth – an actual ugly character saying truthful things. Elsewhere, someone who is always late for meetings explains, “I make people wait for me because I enjoy the power and I don’t care about anyone’s feelings.” Working at home one day, Dilbert gets absolutely nothing done because Dogbert is determined that “this madness must stop” and finds ways to prevent any accomplishments. In the office, Wally is replaced by “a robot that drinks coffee and looks at inappropriate websites all day,” but that’s all right, because the engineers hack into it and make it disgruntled. The bottom line to all this is something that Dilbert tells Dogbert at the end of one strip: “My work has meaning, but it’s not the good kind.” But the unending comic-strip frustrations faced by Dilbert and his coworkers help relieve the real-world frustrations of untold numbers of office workers around the world – and Adams’ consistency in providing that sort of pressure-release valve for the workplace is a singular service that also has the distinction of being amazingly funny an amazingly high percentage of the time.