July 30, 2015


Wumo: Something Is Wrong. By Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Friends and Frenemies: The Good, the Bad, and the Awkward. By Jennifer Castle and Deborah Reber. Illustrations by Kaela Graham. Zest Books. $11.99.

     Guidebooks for life come in many forms. Sometimes they are serious; sometimes they are humorous, skewed ways of looking at the world – ones that elicit a chuckle or outright laugh, helping you see things a bit differently and maybe get through your day a touch more easily. The latter angle, using humor to highlight everyday situations, is a very common one in single-panel cartoons: Close to Home, The Argyle Sweater, F Minus, Speed Bump and others have refined the approach, each in its own way. A new entrant in the field, named for the first two letters of each of its creators’ names, is Wumo, and like the nonsensical title, the comics are high on the nonsense scale. But they have enough perception and social commentary to be more than “merely amusing.” And Wumo has a European sensibility that helps set its panels apart from those originating in North America: the strip is popular in Germany, Denmark, Norway and elsewhere. One panel shows a man putting a costume on a microphone-holding robot; the caption is “the reason all pop music sounds alike,” and costumes on the wall are labeled “50 Cent,” “Madonna,” “Justin Timberlake” and “Milli Vanilli.” Think about it. Elsewhere, “Murphy’s first attempt at writing his law” shows a man trying to do just that with a badly leaking fountain pen. More samples: a pod of whales is seen beaching itself and struggling to get to a seaside Weight Watchers location. In the nonfiction section of a bookstore, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse and Yoda are standing and talking: “I love these kinds of books. They’re like a whole universe that you become totally absorbed in!”  Two woodpeckers are on a tree, one pecking in the usual way and the other using a power drill. Frightened lions, riding in a locked vehicle, observe corporate smartphone users during a “Safari on Wall Street.” A “DIY leather sofa” from Ikea comes with a heavy mallet and a cow. Some of these panels require more than a moment’s thought to get the point – and that is all to the good, since the extra time usually results in louder-than-usual laughter. Wulff, a stand-up comedian, encapsulates modern-life absurdities with skill, and Morgenthaler’s distinctly odd-looking drawings fit the often-peculiar concepts very well – as in the panel featuring “12 Tykes Demolition,” which shows toddlers starting to dismantle a building as their adult supervisor comments, “In 10 minutes, these babies will have the whole thing torn apart!” That concept itself is funny – but for parents who have seen what even a single little one can do to a house, it is twice as amusing. Much of Wumo is like that: it is not just the fact that something is wrong that is amusing – it is how the thing is wrong, and what that implies about modern society. Just imagine, for example, “if people had acted like they do on Facebook when Facebook didn’t exist.” The scene is an ordinary street, with a man yelling about his latest relationship, another calling out through his window that he just stepped out of the shower, and a woman telling the world, “Cookies taste good!” That is funny in itself – and much more so in Facebook context.

     “Friending” on Facebook is an easy thing to mock, but the difficulties and pains of friendship, especially in the already angst-laden middle-school years, are not at all funny for those experiencing them. Friends and Frenemies explores this territory with seriousness and a heaping helping of good intentions – rather too earnestly, true, but in as well-meaning a way as possible. Jennifer Castle and Deborah Reber describe what friends are, how to make them, what happens when friends fight, what to do about gossip and rumors, how to help a friend, and how to manage the thorny issues of opposite-sex and long-distance friendships. To avoid seeming preachy or appearing to give lectures, they enlist comments from “mentors,” teenagers who remember their recently passed years as preteens (at whom the book is aimed). Castle and Reber also include stories, quizzes, polls – lots of elements intended to make the book interesting and “interactive” to the extent that that is possible in print. Much of the material is simplistic or clich├ęd (“friends are the family we choose”), but it is presented clearly and with empathy for preteens already involved in all sorts of socially difficult situations. Castle and Reber try hard, sometimes a bit too hard, to accommodate differing views about friends: “Because we’re all different, we all want different things from our friendships, but there are several qualities that rank pretty high on everyone’s list of friend ‘must-haves.’” Although the authors repeatedly recommend that friends work things out together, they also state many times that when matters get serious, adult help is needed: “If it feels like you and your friend have hit a wall or are going around in circles, it’s time to call for backup. Talk to a teacher, school counselor, or other neutral authority figure about helping you and your friend work out your differences. …Your parents or older siblings can be leaned on, too.” This will be a bit of a tall order for some readers, especially introverted ones and those with a dispiriting family life. And suggestions from the “mentors” are not much better: “Usually what I do to resolve a problem is give my friend and myself some time to cool down.” Still, the authors try to point out ways in which preteens can handle not-too-serious friendship matters on their own – and even some genuinely troubling ones, such as rumor mongering, which Castle and Reber point out is a form of bullying. If victimized, they recommend, try to find out where the rumor comes from and why; see if someone you know is willing to take a stand by saying he or she knows the rumor is not true; ignore the rumor-creating bully and stay calm if at all possible; and then, predictably, if the rumor is a serious one, “it’s time to get someone with authority, such as a school counselor or a teacher you really trust, to help cool things off.” Friends and Frenemies is a solid (+++) advice book that tries a little too hard to find entertaining ways to present real-world issues: Kaela Graham’s illustrations are too sweet, the “journal kickstart” sections are rather lame, and in terms of identifying response patterns, would you, for example, rather be a “dirt deflector” or “muddy waters” when it comes to gossip and rumors? However, the chapter on helping friends is a particularly valuable one, and some significant issues are raised throughout the book, although often only in passing: in the chapter on opposite-sex friendships, for instance, there is a paragraph about crushes on same-sex friends. It is hard to see this book as a guide to making friends and becoming a friend, but comparatively easy to see it as a place to turn when friendships become difficult and young readers do not feel comfortable going to a “neutral authority figure,” or do not have one they trust.

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