May 11, 2017
(++++) PLENTY OF TIME
Time Shifters. By Chris Grine. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Fart Squad #6: Blast from the Past. By Seamus Pilger. Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. Harper. $15.99.
A long space ago in a universe far, far away, yet close, close at hand, Luke Timewalker encountered a bumbling scientist, cooperative dinosaur, snarky ghost and robotic Abraham Lincoln, and things started to get strange. Or perhaps they got strange a bit earlier in time in Earth 02725CT, Luke’s universe, when the vampire Napoleon, prone-to-unwrapping mummy, and “a skeleton held together with a pressurized space suit” showed up and offered dialogue such as, “‘If he gets away we’re as good as dead!’ ‘We’re ALREADY dead! ‘ ‘MORE dead!’” Good thing Chris Grine is there to record and report all of this, or it might have gotten confusing. Well, OK, it is confusing anyway, especially when Luke – whose name is not really Timewalker, or even Timeshifter, despite the book’s title – has an extended adventure on Earth 03017RT, where the human-shaped beings are in fact human-sized spiders and insects, even when they are cowboys. The scientist tries to explain all this to Luke: “We are a group of time-traveling, dimension-hopping fugitives on the run from some very unsavory characters,” and that is basically all you need to know to enjoy this ridiculously entertaining romp of a graphic novel. Well, that plus a few other things: Luke is deeply depressed because his older brother died recently when trying to rescue Luke after an attack by a gang of bullies, and the evil henchman trio (Napoleon, mummy, skeleton) has mistaken Luke’s flashlight for a super-powerful device they are trying to bring to their evil boss – a device that wraps itself around Luke’s arm and will not come off after he inadvertently punches in a code at random and then cannot remember it, making it impossible to remove the thing unless, well, unless Luke’s arm goes with it. Luckily, that does not happen – although really, it is not luck but the enormous ineptness of the henchmen that prevents anything too serious from happening to Luke or anyone else (including the henchmen themselves). Unless you count the scene in which Luke, a preteen, almost has to marry a giant bug. Among other elements of Grine’s multiverse: the dinosaur, whose name is Zinc, is beaked, dinosaurs having developed differently where he originated from the way they did on our (and Luke’s) Earth; Zinc also has a large red button on his head, and spends some of the book looking like a really creepy baker-and-clown hybrid (holographically transformed by the scientist); the ghost, a girl named Artemis, was joined to the group by accident and isn’t happy about it; and when the henchmen do not wish to take a cell-phone call from their irascible evil leader, the skeleton lets it go to voice mail, where his message says, “Hey, you reached astronaut skeleton. I’m not available right now because I’m doing amazing things! Leave a message and I’ll call back. Peace!” None of this makes a lick of sense, or even half a lick, and all of it features Grine’s tongue so firmly in his cheek that it’s a wonder he (or any of his characters) can talk at all. Indeed, the single word “buffoonery,” uttered by the scientist in front of “Stinkin’ Stan’s” in the town of Spiderpinch Gulch, while two hombres fight over who has a bigger hat and Luke’s would-be bug bride goes “kissy-slurp” all over his head, nicely encapsulates Time Shifters, which is quite obviously the first of a series that can go on as long as Grine can keep up the ridiculousness. There is a modicum (a small one) of seriousness here, used to set up future adventures: the time-and-universe travelers bring Luke back to his home world and time, where he is able to alter the events of the immediate past so his brother does not die – but that causes an irreversible split in the universe, leaving Luke-with-brother-alive separate from the Luke-with-brother-dead who has had a book-length adventure. So Luke-with-brother-dead has little choice but to become another of the band of intrepid good guys zipping about with no very clear purpose beyond giving readers an exceptionally good roller-coaster of a time. Oh – there is quite a roller-coaster scene in Time Shifters, too. After all, why not?
And why not send the Fart Squad back to the past? That seems to be what Seamus Pilger was wondering when he created the sixth and possibly (hopefully) final installment of a series of (++) and (+++) books in which Pilger and illustrator Stephen Gilpin started with the premise, “Lots of books for ages 6-10 make bodily-noises and odor jokes, so let’s build a whole series of books around bodily noises and odors!” This means the characters live in Buttzville, the bad-guy kid is named Harry Buttz II (or “Number Two”), the good guys have names such as Stonkadopolis and Heiney, and the Fart Squad’s powers involve emitting gas in various unpleasant ways after ingesting tacos – or, in the case of Blast from the Past, a Turbo Taco that leads to emissions to powerful that they create a time-spanning whirlwind. This brings the odoriferous squad directly to Tusheeburgh, Scotland, where they must overcome the dreaded Knights of Tushée (“pronounced Tu-shay,” the heroes are told) and destroy a Royal Butt Scratcher that is responsible for an epidemic of itching afflicting modern-day Buttzville. If you think the plot, umm, stinks, and you think that is a bad thing, you are outside the target audience for this book, whose best lines are given to Walter Turnip, the overweight, well-spoken team member whose emissions allow him to fly: “I do not believe that any amount of superpowered flatulence can actually disrupt the space-time continuum.” A lot he knows: back in time the four smelly squad members go, accompanied – as it turns out – by Number Two and his two hulking and smelly-in-a-different-way henchpeople (who disdain bathing). Lines such as “I believe I have just run out of gas” appear in abundance here, and narration such as, “Darren had to bear down and push like he was giving birth to fart-uplets just to get a laser-thin butt torch going.” Gilpin’s illustrations fit the story as well here as in the previous five books, and Pilger’s narration is also perfectly apt for a story in which the four protagonists are distinguished entirely by the nature of their bodily emissions. Missing here is the Fart Squad’s trainer, Janitor Stan, the squad’s “scent-sei,” who may finally have had enough of the whole stinky enterprise – perhaps he decided to sit this one out on the nearest available commode. Kids who found the earlier Fart Squad books hilarious will enjoy this one, too: there are plenty more smell-and-sound jokes here to go with those from earlier in the series. And perhaps now Pilger and Gilpin will admit that the entire sequence has finally run out of gas.