January 15, 2015
(++++) TAKING THE COMICS SERIOUSLY
Living the Dream: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
Mel’s Story: Surviving Military Sexual Assault—A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Big Nate: The Crowd Goes Wild! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The notion that comics need to be, well, comic, is a long-outdated one, archaic even before the days of serious graphic novels and certainly obsolete today. Comics have long been used to teach serious things through humor – the early days of Mad magazine and the Pogo strips by Walt Kelly are perfect examples, and there are plenty of others. But for many cartoonists in recent years, humor itself has become secondary or even absent as the artists have striven to put significant societal issues within the comic-strip medium. No one has done this better than Patrick McDonnell, an outstanding artist with vast knowledge of comic-strip history and techniques who has put his understanding and abilities at the service of multiple animal-related causes – most notably adoption, but also such environmental issues as habitat destruction and human predation. True, McDonnell sometimes lets the “cause” elements crowd out the gentle, amusing one in his Mutts strips, but by and large, he does a superb job of balancing teaching and advocacy, on the one hand, with warmth and amusement, on the other. The latest Mutts collection, Living the Dream, showcases McDonnell’s skills perfectly. Several sequences within the book, which contains a full year of daily and Sunday strips, are in McDonnell’s now-classic “Shelter Stories” format, in which big-eyed animals plead winningly and nearly irresistibly with readers to take them home. Other sequences incorporate meaningful quotations into art with an animal focus: one Valentine’s Day strip – actually a single panel – quotes Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” The panel shows a woman reaching lovingly toward a caged shelter dog that is presumably about to be adopted by her. Elsewhere, McDonnell mixes erudition with amusement for no apparent reason other than his ability to do so: in a “Mutts Book Club” series, Mooch the cat reads titles on which other characters comment. Thus, Mooch says, “A Farewell to Arms,” and a bird holds up its wings and says “Yup. It’s an evolutionary thing.” In another sequence, Mooch and his best friend, Earl the dog, discuss the removal of wolves from the endangered-species list – a heavy matter handled with considerable delicacy and thoughtful amusement. And then there is the strip in which birds start to sing, but no notes come out – and one of them explains, “A song to Rachel Carson.” And yet Mutts has plenty of room for pure, unadulterated fun. For example, Bip and Bop, squirrels who perpetually bean other characters with nuts, at one point hit Alfred E. Newman and comment, “What, me worry?” At another, they hit the Hulk and say, “It’s clobberin’ time.” And they bonk Spider-Man and aver, “That should knock some spidey-sense into him.” The perfectly drawn renditions of the non-McDonnell characters showcase the cartoonist’s tremendous skill, while the contrast with his own creations enhances a strip in which amusement and education very easily coexist.
Coexistence is more strained in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, a strip that has long since become one focusing more on didactic than entertainment value. Trudeau is heavy-handed and dogmatic in a way that McDonnell is not – but Trudeau’s strips, for that very reason, can be remarkably effective in exploring and explaining societal wrongs that other cartoonists never tackle. Mel’s Story, one of a series of Trudeau books focused on specific troubling elements of military life, is a case in point. Its weakest element by far is the one that is not by Trudeau: a politicized and self-serving introduction by California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier. Indeed, this poor words-only opening of the book only serves to show just how much better it is to have a topic as difficult and complex as that of military sexual assault be handled in what is essentially graphic-novel form – providing that Trudeau is the one handling it. The whole book is aftermath – the assault is discussed but not shown – as Melissa “Mel” Wheeler tries to recover from “command rape,” in which her brigadier general gives her a choice between a sexual relationship and being pulled away from duty she loves and at which she excels and placed on the garbage detail. In the day-to-day sequence of the enormously complex Doonesbury strip, Mel’s story was intermingled with many other story lines involving different characters – Trudeau paints on a huge canvas and bounces about constantly (and often disconcertingly) from topic to topic. In this book, the panels featuring Mel are gathered in a single place, so her story seems far more focused and urgent than in newspaper form. We see her trying to cope with what happened to her, interacting at her military counselor’s office with amputee B.D. – whose physical wounds Trudeau skillfully balances with Mel’s psychological ones – and gradually finding her way back to self-respect and a surprising decision to re-enlist. This part of the book is gripping and dramatic – certainly not characteristics of old-fashioned comic strips – but the portion afterwards shows why Trudeau’s politicized thinking is scarcely to all tastes: after Mel returns to duty, Trudeau moves the story into the next hot-button issue, involving members of the military being able to declare themselves openly gay. Enough is never enough for Trudeau, and that is both a strength and a weakness. But in newspapers, where the “gays coming out” strips were separated from those involving Mel’s recovery from trauma, the change of focus was not as awkward as it is here. So if the newspaper format diluted Mel’s story, it made the transition to Trudeau’s discussion of the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” less jarring. There is nothing funny in Mel’s Story, although there is the occasional wry comment or ironic twist. Trudeau is long past the point of seeing comics as comic: to him they are a platform, one that he mounts regularly with considerable oratorical and artistic skill.
After one reads Trudeau, a foray into lighter fare is often welcome, and of course many comics today continue in the vein of amusement rather than that of argumentativeness and intensity. There is still a rich lode of humor to be mined with this old-fashioned approach, and cartoonists such as Lincoln Peirce extract the fun effectively. Big Nate, the adventures and mishaps of an 11-to-12-year-old self-proclaimed sixth-grade genius with a penchant for creating, yes, comics (as Peirce says he himself did at that age), is a strip that draws on many traditional cartoon elements but manages to make them seem fresh and new. Nate is clueless about many things, including his own cluelessness, but his willingness to press on despite repeated putdowns from his friends (jokingly), his crush Jenny (seriously), and unseen school monster/bully Chester (painfully) is what gives him his considerable charm. Nate’s strengths lie in not minding detention (which is good, since he gets it so frequently); in setting up highly creative events for Prank Day (“releasing a pack of raccoons in the faculty lounge,” for example, and using the Internet to set up his nemesis Mrs. Godfrey on a date with a lovesick rodeo clown); and in trash talk, at which he is the undisputed school champion. There is, unfortunately, little of Nate’s own cartooning in the latest Big Nate collection, The Crowd Goes Wild! But there are plenty of Nate-isms here. For instance, Nate worries about the highly advanced younger student who is his book buddy, and who is reading a work by Flaubert – Nate feels obliged to tell the teacher that Peter is using the inappropriate-sounding word “Bovary.” Also, Jenny – like the rest of the school – is delighted at the return from a six-month absence of Artur, Jenny’s super-competent and super-likable boyfriend; but Nate, whose jealousy knows no bounds, cannot help what Artur calls his “facial expressings” as he watches Jenny and Artur together. Whether worrying about his legacy as class president, admiring the looks of an older woman (a college-age lifeguard), or enduring the inept sports aspirations of his father (a character right out of many decades of feckless dads), Nate manages to retain a sense of buoyant optimism that fans of Peirce’s strip are certain to enjoy – especially as a refreshing change of pace from some of the much-more-serious strips out there.