December 22, 2016
(++++) IT’S ALL ABOUT THE ART
Dog Man #2: Dog Man Unleashed. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Nobody Is Perfick. By Bernard Waber. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.
The whole point of these books is to be fun to look at – and it’s a pretty good point. Yes, Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man Unleashed has a plot – a convoluted, over-complicated one, in fact – and yes, Bernard Waber’s Nobody Is Perfick has some points to make, rather gently. But neither the story nor the homilies will be the main reason kids will enjoy these books: it is the art that will attract young readers and keep them interested. Pilkey is best known for the Captain Underpants books, “created” by made-up kids named George Beard and Harold Hutchins – this explains the drawing style and a lot of the plot elements. Dog Man Unleashed, a sequel to Dog Man, is cut from the same cloth, then woven and raveled or unraveled to provide much the same level of coverage of all things silly. Dog Man is a dog-headed cop – the stitches holding his head to his body are seen clearly – created when a bad-guy cat blew up a top cop and his top-dog canine helper, killing the man’s head (but not his body) and the dog’s body (but not his head). A touch of magical mystery surgery later and, ta da! Dog Man. In Dog Man Unleashed, our hero has to try to cope with his doggy instincts, which include licking all the bones in a pet shop and preferring smelly dead fish to live ones – and inevitably, one of his instincts, playing with a ball, eventually saves the day. He also has to deal with reporter Sarah Hatoff, rescue dog Zuzu, an evil fish, the continued depredations of Petey the Cat (the evil mastermind who inadvertently led to the creation of Dog Man in the first place), a new and completely flat Petey based shamelessly on Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley, a reanimated carnivorous dinosaur – well, the list goes on (and on), but rest assured that Dog Man is equal to all challenges, even those coming from Dr. Boog E. Feeva, the local witch doctor, whose prescriptions include “living spray” and “obey spray.” The puns and ridiculous plotting spray pretty much everywhere, and that makes Dog Man Unleashed fun for parents as well as kids (assuming kids will give up this graphic novel long enough for parents to read it). Pilkey channels his inner George and Harold so well that it is hard to be absolutely, 100% sure that Pilkey is real and George and Harold are his creations. It just might be the other way around. We ought to put Dog Man on the case: something about all this smells fishy.
Like Pilkey, Waber (1924-2013) is best known for something other than the newest release under his name: he was the author of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile and the series that followed. But back in 1971, in the days well before graphic novels, Waber created a kind of proto-graphic-novel – actually a series of stories – called Nobody Is Perfick, in which every page has a mixture of cartoon drawings and words, and the stories are told through the combination. Waber’s style here is vaguely reminiscent of Jules Feiffer’s: his characterizations come through clearly in these black-and-white drawings, in which the kids tend to be shown in less detail than their surroundings. The expressiveness of the characters’ faces is one wonderful element here. Another is the way Waber captures some of the not-wholly-intentional cruelties of children to each other. “Say Something Nice,” for instance, involves a boy named Arthur talking to a girl named Harriet and saying only things that he knows she feels are not nice, starting with “lizards,” “spiders,” and “creepy things,” and eventually escalating to “monsters” that “are crawling out of caves” and have the kids surrounded. Harriet gets more and more frightened, or seems to – but when her mother calls her to come inside, Harriet tells Arthur how much fun he is and says she wants to get together again the next day, leaving Arthur at the end with nothing to say but, “Grrr.” In “That Was Some Daydream,” a girl doing math homework is determined to focus and not have a daydream, and goes through a series of contortions (some literal) to avoid the daydream that, inevitably, she has anyway. “No Rain Again Today” is a complaint against sunny weather by a boy with new rain gear. In “Sitting Up Straight,” a boy says – and shows – how his best intentions to sit alertly in class gradually turn into a slump. These and the other stories here explore the everyday trials and tribulations of childhood in a way that makes the mundane special. And Waber’s wry humor is everywhere, most clearly in “Peter Perfect: The Story of a Perfect Boy,” which goes on and on telling about and showing all the ways in which Peter is 100% perfect, only to reveal at the end that no such boy is or ever could be real. That will be a relief to readers who rediscover Nobody Is Perfick – or, more likely, discover the book and all its charms for the first time in this new edition.