January 12, 2017
(++++) ONWARD! UPWARD?
The Bad Guys #2: Mission Unpluckable. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.
Bird & Squirrel on Fire. By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series is just settling in for what looks to be a long stay. This delightful heap of ridiculousness posits that four known do-badders want to become do-gooders, led by Mr. Wolf and including Mr. Snake, Mr. Shark and Mr. Piranha. In their first outing, the four managed to make a mess of pretty much everything through a series of missteps that led to the eventual freeing of all the dogs imprisoned in the local dog pound – the point being that the dogs fled out of fear of the bad-guys-turned-good-guys. Mission Unpluckable picks up there, with a rehash of the end of the first book, as intrepid TV reporter Tiffany Fluffit talks about the “crazed gang” whose attack caused “200 terrified puppy dogs to run away in fright.” This does not make Mr. Wolf, leader of this particular pack, happy – nor is Mr. Piranha overjoyed at being described, and not for the first time, as a mutant sardine of some kind. Clearly the gang needs to do something even better than rescuing dogs, and Mr. Wolf has just the thing: break into a local chicken farm and let the poultry out. The idea seems as silly to the other characters as it will to readers – although Mr. Snake proves super-enthusiastic about the job because he, well, eats chickens. He therefore shouts “Let’s go!” no fewer than 13 times, in ever-larger type, before Mr. Wolf reveals that there are some difficulties with the plan: this particular chicken farm, in which the chickens are confined constantly in cages and generally treated cruelly, is heavily guarded; also, it has 30-foot-high steel walls that are eight feet thick, plus floor and wall alarms, plus laser beams, and more. Obviously someone with a high level of technical knowledge would be needed to disarm the place – and luckily, Mr. Wolf knows just such a someone, in the form of yet another bad guy who is willing to try being good: Mr. Tarantula. But…well, it turns out that Mr. Tarantula scares all the other gang members, especially Mr. Shark, who promptly faints with the words “Spider…with no pants…on my head…” Hmm. Clearly this is going to be some sort of team-building thing, along the lines of the best “caper” dramas. And so it is – including scenes of self-sacrifice (Mr. Piranha voluntarily placing himself inside a sardine sandwich), personality turnarounds (Mr. Snake coughing up all the chickens he ate and doing something heroic to make up for following his bad-guy nature), and best-guy-buddy stuff (Mr. Tarantula and Mr. Shark, of course). The books in The Bad Guys series are not quite graphic novels and not quite comic books: the drawings propel the action, but the layout is that of amply illustrated word-driven books rather than comics or graphic novels. Whatever they may be, these books are hilariously silly. At the conclusion of Mission Unpluckable, Mr. Wolf suddenly notices a creepy house near the now-empty chicken farm, but it is empty except for a box containing an utterly adorable “widdle guinea pig” that the gang rescues as an afterthought to their chicken release. Hoo boy, is that going to turn out to be a mistake – as Blabey shows in a look ahead toward the next book in the series, in which the cute little furball will be revealed as a menacing monster and a “REALLY bad guy.” But that shall be then. Mission Unpluckable is now.
It is easy to see where Blabey’s books are going, but not so simple to tell what James Burks has planned for his Bird & Squirrel graphic-novel series, a trilogy that is now in its fourth book. Yes, this is the fourth of three. First there was Bird & Squirrel on the Run, in which the opposite-personality title characters met and became friends, both of them avoiding Cat, who was intent on eating them. Then came Bird & Squirrel on Ice, in which the friends crash-landed at the South Pole and Bird was mistaken for the predicted Chosen One, who would rid the penguins of the threat of a killer whale by himself becoming whale food. And then came the supposed end of the trilogy, Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! In the third book, the friends headed home, stopping along the way to save the life of a bear cub threatened by wolves; here the two had a temporary personality reversal, with Bird being afraid of everything for a change and Squirrel being the brave-to-the-point-of-recklessness character. Eventually the friends’ personalities were switched back and the two made it home, happier and wiser and all that sort of thing, encountering the cub’s mother at just the right point so the bears could have a happy ending as well. The end? Umm…nope. In Bird & Squirrel on Fire, the adventure takes place at home, after the characters have returned to normal life, or tried to. And it is a big adventure, much like the first three, involving mysterious disappearances, an underground labyrinth, an evil pack stalking the good guys (rats rather than wolves this time), a strange beaver whose gigantic dam has cut off all the other animals’ water, and an adorable red squirrel named Red who becomes an actual love interest for Squirrel. The book’s title refers to a climactic blaze that forces the title characters into super-heroic mode once again, eventually brings all the animals together, and leads to the disappearance and presumed demise of Bird – which of course does not happen, this being a book for comparatively young readers, for whom it would not do to lay on too much angst. Actually, the Bird & Squirrel series is a good entry point to graphic novels for younger readers: the stories are simple, the characterization is straightforward, the art is attractive and unchallenging, the colors are bright, and the use of panels that have different shapes and mesh into each other at times while bursting the bounds of their edges at others helps keep the action well-paced. And this time the Bird & Squirrel series is clearly, obviously finished and final and ended in a thoroughly satisfactory way – although, hmm, that was true after the previous book, too, so who really knows?