October 13, 2016
(++++) CARTOON FANTASIES
Big Nate: Revenge of the Cream Puffs. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Cat vs Human: Fairy Tails. By Yasmine Surovec. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Some cartoonists have come up with characters whose adventures seem to unfold naturally, so carefully have the characters’ personalities been established over the years. Big Nate and his friends in Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate comic strip are just everyday sixth-graders with few outlandish elements in their lives – the cats and dogs in the strip may not be totally realistic, but they do not talk or fly, and there are no supernatural characters or occurrences driving the action. Instead, the strip’s humor evolves naturally from the characters’ personalities and the kids’ interactions among themselves and, in particular, with Nate. There is nothing new in this approach to cartooning – Walt Kelly perfected it decades ago, and it even predates his unequalled Pogo – but Peirce uses this storytelling form particularly well, so that the episodes unfold in ways that seem inevitable. In the latest Big Nate collection, for example, Nate’s admiration for Brad Linsky, the artist who draws Nate’s own favorite comic, “Femme Fatality,” leads naturally to Nate wanting to use better materials for his own cartooning endeavors (which, unfortunately, get short shrift in this book and even within this specific sequence). Nate’s desire for self-improvement – which is at best intermittent, but does show up in this specific area – leads him to ask his feckless father to provide “a super heroine-ish nude model or two” for an anatomy study, and to discover that professional drawing tools are a lot harder to use than he thought. In another set of strips, Kim Cressly, the large and aggressive girl who has a crush on Nate – much to his annoyance – discovers that she has a bigger crush on the even larger and even more aggressive Chester Budrick, one of those comic-strip characters who are never seen but whose effects are quite apparent (an approach recalling Charles Schulz’ handling of adults in Peanuts). Elsewhere, Nate hatches one of his usual over-ambitious plans, this time to make a movie that will bring in as much money as The Hunger Games, and this means he recruits plump and gentle Chad to be transformed into a fearless warrior – although Chad would prefer to spend his time playing with “Andy the Acorn” and “Mr. Mushroom.” There is more to Chad than appears on the surface, as Peirce makes clear in a sequence in which Chad is the only remaining player on Nate’s unfortunately named Cream Puffs baseball team who can pitch, and manages to surprise everyone, including Nate, by winning the Little League championship game. None of these sequences is especially notable in terms of plot – what makes them work is the way they revolve around Nate, depend on his personality for their effect, and deepen Peirce’s development of his character. Peirce (pronounced “purse”) gives the supporting cast plenty of personality as well, but most of the non-Nate characters are comparatively one-dimensional: Nate’s friend Francis is a typical fact-spouting nerd; Nate’s older sister, Ellen, is a thoroughly typical foil for Nate, being as responsible and hardworking as Nate is lazy and inclined to cut corners; Nate’s rival, Gina, is the annoying school know-it-all; and so on. Nate himself, though, for all his lack of self-awareness and inflated sense of self-importance, has some genuine intelligence and ability beneath all the bluster – the way he beats Gina at chess in this latest collection is a perfect example. Walt Kelly once said that Pogo was the glue holding the Pogo strip together. In Peirce’s Big Nate, Nate is more like the sun around which all the other characters revolve – although it would be overdoing things to say that Nate casts light on the others in the strip. Heat, maybe, but not light.
The central characters in Yasmine Surovec’s Web comic, Cat versus Human, are cats – well, duh. Humans are never the primary focus of a “versus” sort of comic. Surovec’s cartoon world is filled with the many-faceted perfections of felines – the opposite, in this way, of Nate’s world, since Nate is afraid of cats and constantly tries (unsuccessfully) to show that dogs are better. Unsurprisingly, the felines are the stars in Surovec’s collection, Cat vs Human: Fairy Tails, in which humans exist primarily to admire, feed, care for and dote on cats – making these stories not all that unlike the real world. In this version of “Rapunzel,” for instance, there is no witch – how Rapunzel got into the tower is never mentioned – and the prince who climbs up is looking for his cats, which he and Rapunzel take back to his castle so everyone can live purringly ever after. In “Goldilocks,” the title character is a cat looking for a place to sleep and finding all the bears’ beds unsatisfactory – ending up happily resting in a cardboard box instead. “The Princess and the Pea” is another sleep story – the crown-wearing cat can finally fall asleep after finding the pea under a pile of pillows and eating it. “The Pied Piper” in this version gets the rats out of town and, after the chintzy mayor refuses payment, gets even by taking away all the town’s cats – so of course the rats return. “The Little Mermaid” wants to live on land and play with kitties – which turn out to be mer-cats, so she is unhappy until one comes back on land to stay with her. The prince in “The Sleeping Beauty” fails to wake the title character with a kiss and leaves in a huff, declaring the whole story “a waste of time,” but a kitty’s kiss awakens the princess successfully and proves that the cat is “her true love.” The variations on classic fairy tales here are predictable and in most cases mildly humorous, but the (+++) book will be fun for cat lovers – although of no real interest to anyone else. Surovec’s art is simple to the point of being simplistic, and while it is pleasant enough, it fits somewhat better on the Internet than between the pages of a book, where its lack of detail and much-simplified renderings and colors are appealing enough on first reading but do not invite many return visits. Cats have been Internet video sensations pretty much forever, and still are, but not everything feline translates perfectly (much less purrfectly) to the printed page.