April 23, 2015
(++++) COMICS FOR THE AGES
King of the Comics: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Big Nate’s Greatest Hits. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Whoever came up with the idea that comics are for kids never encountered strips such as Pearls Before Swine, Stephan Pastis’ compilation of death, misery, beer, innuendo, bad puns and surrealism (the fact that Pastis was trained as a lawyer probably contributes to that mixture). Pearls Before Swine is distinctly not for children, and in fact, when Andrews McMeel put together some of Pastis’ strips for its kid-focused AMP! Series, it was hard to believe that the editors could find enough young-person-oriented material to make a book. Certainly the latest Pastis collection, King of the Comics, needs to be rated “mature” for its sheer immaturity – of an adult type, that is. It starts with virtually the entire cast of the strip being put in jail for one reason or another (one being that Zebra and one of the crocs are found in bed together by a police officer who says “this has to be illegal in some state”). Interspersed with the jail strips are ones in which lemmings are committing suicide in various creative ways. Later, cartoon Pastis – who frequently appears in his own strip – is melted by a bucket of water that Rat throws at him because of a particularly awful pun. Also here are a battle between an orchestra’s first and second violinists, a parody of the heartwarming “Shelter Stories” from the Mutts comic strip, a new character named Gomer Goldfish whose violent tendencies lead to a barbed-wire fence atop his bowl, Rat’s definition of a cruise vacation as “being trapped in a confined space with overweight people [and] broken toilets,” a pair of “peppy penguin morning greeters” with a banjo, a Jumble puzzle whose solution mocks Pastis as having no sense of humor, a series in which the title characters from Calvin and Hobbes have become a bootleg-merchandise seller and a fanatical right-wing TV commentator, Rat taking his pet human to be neutered, a couple of appearances by vigilante deer, cartoon Pastis drawing the missing nose on cartoon Cathy, Rat declaring himself a medical doctor – you get the idea, or if you don’t get it by now, Pearls Before Swine is probably not your sort of strip. Pastis’ humor is dark, skewed, strange, pointed, sometimes right on the verge of vulgar, and offbeat enough to keep readers off balance, without any way to predict where he and the strip will go next. Pearls Before Swine somehow manages to be thoroughly adult and completely immature at the same time. That’s probably another aspect of Pastis’ legal training.
The kids who do appear in Pastis’ world are scarcely childlike – one, for example, proposes that her basketball team be named the Chandraguptas, after “a great emperor in India who voluntarily gave up all his power to become a monk.” But kids in other strips manage to remain recognizably kid-like, which means that strips such as Big Nate continue the long comic tradition of reaching out to younger readers. They also fit much better than Pearls Before Swine does into the AMP! Format, as is clear from Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City, the latest AMP! collection from Lincoln Peirce (pronounced “purse”). Nate is a sixth-grader, age 11 or 12 (depending on which strips he happens to be in), and is clearly modeled in part on Peirce himself: Peirce says he started drawing cartoons in sixth grade, just as Nate does. Unfortunately, Say Good-Bye to Dork City does not contain any “Nate-drawn” cartoons. But it does offer plenty of typical Nate antics: he dresses as Sherlock Holmes (complete with bubble-blowing pipe) to search for his allegedly stolen lucky (and filthy) socks; he gets permission for his band, Enslave the Mollusk, to perform at a school dance (things do not go as planned); he finds himself in conflict, as usual, with his feckless father and his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey (and even with her dog); his friend, Francis, uses him as an object lesson in a science project designed to show that some people’s brains retain certain kinds of information (lots of pop trivia) but cannot absorb other types (anything school-related); and he joins the “cool kids” posse of super-popular Marcus, then backs out after realizing Marcus is just a bully and not as cool as Nate’s real friends, Francis and Teddy. That last sequence is an example of the infrequent “lesson” ones in Big Nate, which usually just chronicles the foibles of a not-quite-adolescent with an inflated view of himself but a basically good heart and some genuine talents (such as chess) that help counterbalance his lack of interest in academic subjects.
Some of Nate’s talents are front and center in Big Nate’s Greatest Hits, but they do not always take him where he wants to go – which is, of course, the point. Nate, for example, is a cut-throat Monopoly player, but when he urges Francis and Teddy to be more intense in their play, they decide to team up to bankrupt him. Nate announces that he has a bond with Vincent Van Gogh, in whose style he is painting, but then Francis points out that Van Gogh was “an emotionally troubled misfit who was a total failure during his lifetime.” Nate gets over 100 people to sign his yearbook, but doesn’t notice that they have done such things as getting his name wrong and writing “Dear Ugly.” But things do go Nate’s way sometimes – otherwise Big Nate would be depressing rather than as amusing as it actually is. In Big Nate’s Greatest Hits, Nate actually gets a girlfriend, whose name is Angie. True, he only meets her when he has to go to summer school because his grades are so poor (she is attending because she has just moved to the area and needs to catch up). It turns out that she loves to draw, so she and Nate connect immediately: he shows her characters such as Doctor Cesspool, stuntman Moe Mentum, and announcers Biff and Chip, and she observes that “they all look like the same character, just with different hair” – which makes Nate happy (“she sees right through me”). Of course, Nate and Angie have rough spots because of his self-image (he lies to her about why he is in summer school, for example), but giving Nate an actual girlfriend (someone to take his mind off perpetual crush Jennie, who is tremendously happy to find Nate paired with someone else) is a neat twist here. The book also gives fans of Nate’s cartoon characters (even the ones that do sort of look alike) plenty of chances to see them – not only the ones he shows Angie but also Dr. Warren Fuzzy (host of “Feelings”), Nate’s big sister Ellen (drawn in “Ellen: The Board Game”), Abe Lincoln (refusing to take off his stovepipe hat while courting Mary Todd), Dan Cupid (“love consultant”), Claire Voyant (“celebrity psychic”), and on and on. Excluding these comics-within-comics, Nate and the characters around him – friends, family, neighbors, classmates, teachers, etc. – are the stuff of which many comic strips have been made over the years. But Peirce manages to keep the formula fresh, the interactions interesting, and Nate himself an example of a character with whom today’s young comic-strip readers can enjoy spending time – at least until they are ready to encounter Pastis’ Rat, Pig, Goat, Guard Duck and crocs.