February 19, 2015
(++++) THE USES OF FAMILIARITY
Lunch Wore a Speedo: The Nineteenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Pieces and Players. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $17.99.
Giving readers what they expect in terms of character and plot can be a great way to build a fan base and keep it satisfied. This is a staple of forms from detective fiction to character-based comedy, and it certainly works in cartooning – comic strips such as Sherman’s Lagoon rely on readers’ knowledge of the basic setting and characterizations, with Jim Toomey using that familiarity to produce theme-and-variations strips that may take some getting used to for those who have not seen his work before but that are instantly recognizable (and very funny) for those who have. The latest Sherman’s Lagoon collection, the 19th, has an in-joke in its title and on its cover: you have to know that Sherman, the dim-witted shark, often calls human beachgoers “lunch” because that is, after all, what they are to a shark (this shark, anyway). Less happily, the collection also has a typical element on the back cover: the strip shown there, about multiple unlikely occurrences happening all at once, talks about someone on the beach being “struck by lightening [sic]” – Toomey is not always the world’s best speller, and apparently his editors did not notice that he meant “lightning.” It is easy to forgive the occasional faux pas like this, though, because Toomey has now honed and refined his characters to a point at which their misadventures are always worth at least a chuckle and often a guffaw. In the latest collection, perpetual schemer Hawthorne the hermit crab creates “Crab Growth Formula” to help other denizens of Kapupu Lagoon bulk up – but it also gives them crab claws and antennae. Sherman, Hawthorne and Fillmore (the sort-of-intellectual sea turtle) are temporarily turned into humans by Kahuna the Easter Island god statue (hey, you have to be there!) – so they can go to the Super Bowl. Later, back in the lagoon and their usual forms, the three take a ride in an undersea Volkswagen left there as part of an “art installation” on the sea floor. Ernest, the eyeglasses-wearing fish who is the strip’s computer whiz and hacker, reprograms a data-collecting robot so it can, among other things, operate a blender for perpetually lazy polar bear Thornton during his never-ending beach vacation. Later, Hawthorne accompanies Thornton to the North Pole, where Thornton’s mom has arranged a marriage that of course does not come about. Also here are Sherman and Hawthorne’s visit to Lake Nicaragua to see the freshwater sharks and incidentally join an armed uprising, a visit to Kapupu by a bluefin tuna that Hawthorne wants to sell as sushi, a touch of cloning, Sherman’s interpretation of the term “flash mob,” and various other forms of silliness that are amusing precisely because the characters and personalities here have been formed and polished (well, maybe not exactly polished) in 18 previous collections. Toomey’s undersea world takes some getting used to for those not yet familiar with it, but those who, umm, take the plunge will soon find themselves, err, sucked into a great deal of hilarity.
The use and reuse of familiar characters is not, however, enough, in and of itself, to make a story work. The limitations of the approach are apparent in Blue Balliett’s new novel, Pieces and Players, which gathers characters from several of her earlier books and sends them into an adventure reminiscent of ones that Balliett has offered before. The plot involves the theft of 13 art masterpieces – one of course being a Vermeer, recalling Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer – and the assembly of a group of five preteens to figure out what has happened and recover the art. The young sleuths include Calder, Petra and Tommy from The Wright 3 and The Calder Game, Zoomy from The Danger Box, and Early from Hold Fast. And there is the requisite mysterious adult who may be playing a game of her own (Mrs. Sharpe): she has not appeared before, but her type is familiar from earlier books. Balliett reintroduces her young characters clearly, so there is no need to have read the earlier books to understand who is who – and in fact, readers of the earlier books may find the reintroductions rather dull. But Balliett is clearly going for some sort of resonance here by reusing existing characters from her books rather than creating new ones – and, for that matter, reusing plot elements that she has explored before. The importance of art comes through as clearly in Pieces and Players as in other Balliett books, although the passages emphasizing this may be a little heavy-handed for some readers; and the descriptions of museums and settings in Chicago are nicely done, although, again, may not be to the taste of those unfamiliar with or not particularly interested in details about the city and its landmarks. The real flaw of this (+++) book, however, is that much of its effect depends on the interaction of characters who are, in this context, only mildly interesting and not always well differentiated. Because their personalities were formed in other books, readers looking to read more about them in a different-but-familiar mystery environment will have fun visiting with them again and seeing how, again, they piece clues together to solve a mystery that itself has many echoes of those in earlier Balliett books. Readers new to Balliett’s work will, however, finds Pieces and Players rather pale in plot and its characters something of an “in” experience – not an “in joke,” since this is not character comedy, but more of an “in mystery.”