April 06, 2017
(++++) COMEDIC CHARACTERS’ PURPOSES
Snoopy to the Rescue: A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Fly Guy Phonics. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $12.99.
The Bad Guys #3: The Furball Strikes Back. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.
Victor Shmud, Total Expert #1: Let’s Do a Thing! By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
It seems pretty obvious that the purpose of amusing characters is to amuse readers. But within the context in which the characters are described in words or shown in pictures (or both), there are often reasons for their existence beyond simply “to be funny.” Thus, Snoopy became, over the years, something of the heart and soul of Charles Schulz’ wonderful Peanuts comic strip. Charlie Brown, Snoopy’s angst-ridden owner and the perpetually put-upon central character of Peanuts, certainly needed a foil to bring some light to a strip that was darker than many adults now remember when they gaze back at it fondly (Schultz died in 2000, so it has been a long time since there have been any new strips!). Snoopy is not all sweetness and light, but his basically positive attitude toward life, his willingness to take what comes and cope with it – sometimes through elaborate fantasies – stands in stark contrast to the attitude of Charlie Brown, who at one point says that he has improved his outlook because now “I only dread one day a time.” The latest Andrews McMeel repackaging of Peanuts strips, Snoopy to the Rescue, certainly has its share of Charlie Brown-isms, as when Linus asks Charlie Brown if he prefers to solve a life problem immediately or think about it for a while, and Charlie Brown replies that you should definitely think about it “to give it time to go away.” But there are plenty of Snoopy-isms on display here as well. There is the hockey face-off in which Snoopy gives Lucy a “smak” right on the nose and ends up in the penalty box; the baseball scene in which Snoopy gets the “Rookie of the Year” award and then misses an easy catch because he is holding his huge award trophy and plaque; the “World War I Flying Ace” scene in which Snoopy discovers it is raining and decides not to fly because “I hate to get my plane wet”; Snoopy’s attempt to climb the dreaded kite-eating tree to rescue Schroeder’s piano after Lucy throws it into the tree in one of her usual fits of pique; and a now-classic strip in which Lucy tells the happily dancing Snoopy that “you wouldn’t be so happy if you knew what was going to happen,” and Snoopy, pausing for a moment in his dance, then resumes it with the thought, “Maybe it’s already happened!” That is classic Snoopy, and a reason that Snoopy is a classic character within a classic and still-much-beloved comic strip.
Peanuts was always aimed as much at adults as at kids, if not more, but many cartoon characters are specifically designed for kids’ enjoyment. Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy is one of them – but his purpose is a loftier-than-usual one in an excellent new 12-short-book package called Fly Guy Phonics. This is exactly what the title says: books that help teach young readers about all five vowels in both their long and short forms in 10 books, plus two workbooks to apply the lessons of the 10 instructive ones. What is particularly enjoyable about Fly Guy Phonics is that the books tell stories that really do reflect the personality of Fly Guy, who is the pet of Buzz and can say the boy’s name (“buzz,” of course). The “short A” book, for example, is a very funny school-lunchroom story in which Fly Guy is responsible for the lunch lady getting fired and then helps her get her job back. Among the short-A words here are fast, smack, mad, bad, grab and class. “Short O” has Buzz and Fly Guy visiting a pet shop and features words including dog, sloppy, rock, spot, chomp and knock. The “long E” book is an “origin” story, showing how Buzz and Fly Guy first met; among the words here are street, meet, eat, need, free and see. “Long U” features Fly Guy meeting a girl fly; among the words here are cute, dude, flew, food, true and rude. As for the workbooks, the first deals with short vowels and the second with long ones. The challenges here are actually fun. For instance, kids have to unscramble letters to make “short E” words, change “short I” words to “short O” ones, draw lines between words that connect because they have the same vowel sounds, do word searches for words that have specific vowel sounds, and more. It is true that this nicely boxed set will be attractive only for kids who already know Arnold’s Fly Guy adventures – a lot of it is fun precisely because it calls on Fly Guy’s personality and love of fly-ish things, such as garbage and smelly messes. For Fly Guy fans, though, it will certainly be a big hit.
Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys books are hits in a different way. The purpose of this madcap series is primarily just enjoyment, but there is an undercurrent here of not judging a book (or a character) by its cover (or appearance) and of accepting the possibility that people (or characters) typecast in one specific way can turn out to be quite different from what is expected. Blabey deliberately downplays the “message” elements of this series, though, and in the third entry turns them upside-down. The Furball Strikes Back picks up after the end of the second book, Mission Unpluckable, in which the team of bad-guys-determined-to-do-good rescues 10,000 chickens from a dastardly chicken farm – and then, at the end, rescues an adorable little guinea pig named Marmalade. Alas, it turns out that Marmalade is the owner of the dastardly chicken farm, and many other evil places as well, and in The Furball Strikes Back he seeks revenge on the bad-guys-doing-good and at the same time wants, as usual with mad scientists, to conquer and take over the world. The Bad Guys are “the monsters that haunt our darkest nightmares,” as a TV reporter explains at the start of this book, but they are determined – under the guidance of their leader, Mr. Wolf – to change their image and do good for a change. The team includes Mr. Shark, Mr. Snake, Legs the Tarantula, and Mr. Piranha, who is irritated at being constantly referred to as a “mutant sardine.” Mr. Snake is the crabby one who does not really believe in the whole “heroes” thing. Mr. Shark is the master of disguise – well, actually no, he looks utterly ridiculous, but somehow all the other characters in these books think his disguises are absolutely perfect. Legs is the technology expert here, and Mr. Piranha supplies a lot of the comic relief, as when he has to “go ‘number two’” on the way to the latest showdown with evil. The Bad Guys are, you know, guys, but that element of the series changes a bit in The Furball Strikes Back, when the team encounters a particularly foxy fox from the International League of Heroes – dressed as a ninja. Mr. Wolf immediately falls for her, leading him to claim to be good at motorcycle riding even though he cannot ride a motorcycle, all of which leads to yet another improbable and thoroughly ridiculous escape from certain death and doom perpetrated by Dr. Rupert Marmalade, who has “created a secret weapon that would make sure no one ever called him cute and cuddly again.” The weapon turns out to be, umm, zombie kittens (zombie kittens?), and the outcome of the Bad Guys’ confrontation with them will have to wait for the next book in the series. All of which is fine with Blabey, who undoubtedly has Attack of the Zittens just about ready to go already.
Blabey is prolific, but not quite at the level of Jim Benton, who seems to invent new comic and cartoon characters at the drop of a hat – and even when not wearing a hat. Benton’s best characters have specific purposes beyond their obvious entertainment value: Happy Bunny, for example, is an antidote to all the super-sweet greeting-card characters out there, looking adorable but acting nasty and rotten, while middle-schooler Jamie Kelly is a perfect compilation of all the worries and silliness that Benton can pack into the Dear Dumb Diary series. But Benton characters without any apparent reason for being except to extend the “Benton character line” are weaker, which is why the first book in a new series called Victor Shmud, Total Expert gets a (+++) rating. There is no real personality to Victor, whose misplaced confidence in his own wonderfulness comes across as rather pathetic, in contrast to, say, that of Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate. Victor considers himself a computer scientist because he turned a box upside-down and called it the “Electro-Brain Three Million,” believes he could easily be a teacher or the school principal, and considers himself an Expert Bird Veterinarian – but repeatedly identifies his ever-faithful sidekick, Dumpylumps, as a chicken, even though Dumpylumps is a duck. That oh-so-obvious mistake makes Victor less appealing than he otherwise might be – it is just too far out. Victor also declares himself “an expert on knowing when people aren’t completely right,” and a “Makeover Expert” who needs only a comb and a jar of mustard to beautify people. Or, as it turns out, aliens. But before meeting the aliens, Victor goes to school along with Dumpylumps, who is more interesting and smarter than Victor himself even though Benton says “most things amaze” the little duck: “the universe, invisibility, peanut butter.” Victor’s teacher, Mrs Nozzleburp, is old and crotchety-looking, but Victor adores her even though he never pays attention to what she says. Victor also has a friend named Patti, who introduces him to a cellphone game called “Interspace Destruction Warriors” that Victor cannot play at all but that Dumpylumps wins by sitting on Patti’s phone. And that brings in the aliens, who are called Grooglings and who teleport Victor and Dumpylumps to their battered spaceship to get help fighting their enemies, the Frappletonians. Everything gets formulaically complicated, including Victor’s ability to use his cellphone in space to talk to Patti and Mrs. Nozzleburp back on Earth. The book is very amply illustrated, but most of Benton’s pictures here are not among his best – except for the beauty-makeover sequences, which are hilarious. In the first one, Victor tries out his mustard approach on the school janitor, Mr. Plumporski, and Benton shows the portly, mustachioed janitor in three poses taken right out of a fashion magazine – and, later, with super-long, super-curly hair that can only be stopped from getting even curlier by a bucket of mop water. It later turns out that the same treatment works on aliens just as well (or badly), and Victor’s eventual return to Earth is enabled by his use of the mustard on the Grooglings, who assume the same sorts of fashion-magazine poses in which Benton placed Mr. Plumporski. If the entire Victor Shmud, Total Expert book had been at this level, it would have been right up there with Benton’s best. It is not, though – not even in its title, the essentially meaningless Let’s Do a Thing! Certainly Benton plans to have Victor do a number of other “things,” but unless Victor himself becomes a more interesting character, all that will likely happen in this series is that one thing will lead to another. And another.