December 26, 2019

(++++) THEMES AND VARIATIONS


Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby. By The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn 10: The Unicorn Whisperer. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Once a cartoon-driven series hits its stride, new entries in the sequence have a certain pleasurable predictability mixed with just enough uncertainty to encourage existing fans of the series to keep up with it – and, ideally, enough standalone strength so that people picking up a new series entry can decide on that basis whether to stick with the whole thing, without needing to go through all the earlier volumes in order to catch up. This is true even when a cartoonist’s work is not formally a “series,” as in the case of the offerings of The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). There are recognizable themes that Inman trots out again and again and handles in more-or-less predictable ways: cats and dogs and their relationships with humans; babies and their relationships with those around them (parents and nonparents); bodily functions of many types; and genuinely peculiar concepts of various sorts, rendered in immediately recognizable art whose exaggerations range from the outr√© to the utterly bizarre and back again (yes, that implies that Inman does not have much range in his art; and yes, that implication is deliberate – but irrelevant to enjoyment of his work). All Inman books stand on their own, and each provides an equally good entry point to the world of The Oatmeal, for those who wish to venture there. It is a strange but strangely almost-real world, made more intriguing by its recognizability although less so by Inman’s occasional over-fondness for four-letter words. Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby has all the Oatmealian elements. The title refers to a specific panel sequence explaining that “babies come shrieking into this world as selfish, amniotic, jam-covered goblins” while cats “come into this world as kittens, which are independent, adorable, and not at all goblin-like.” The contrasting illustrations of a monstrous-looking baby erupting from a woman and a gigantic-eyed kitten looking sweetly at the reader make the completely inaccurate and prejudiced point very clearly (umm: kittens and human babies are born through essentially the same amniotic, jam-covered process, OK?). Accept the basic premise, though, and Inman lays things on even more thickly, with the evilly cackling baby making loud noises when upset, while the gracious cat will merely “slaughter pigeons and take 16 hour naps.” There is much more along these lines. And actually, cat-bird enmity is a recurring Inman theme: later in the book, a one-page entry has a pigeon asking a cat for a cease-fire and to “stop eating my friends and leaving them on doorsteps,” to which the cat immediately and nonchalantly replies, “No deal.” Inman is not a big fan of birds in general: another one-page entry shows two seagulls at a floating buoy, with one repeatedly saying “Yeahhhhh buoyyy!” while the other tries unsuccessfully to get it to shut up. Inman is, however, a big fan of cats, even when he recognizes the difficulties inherent in their territorial instincts, as in an extended entry called “How to Comfortably Sleep Next to Your Cat,” which works out about as well as might be expected, including “learn to sleep while being gently struck in the face” and “just accept that this isn’t your bed anymore.” Inman does have some weird perceptions and weird ways of putting them on display: it is hard to imagine any other cartoonist creating the sequence called “corgi babies,” in which he copes with babies by imagining them as adorable corgi canines (re-drawing them with corgi heads to make the point), then extends his corgi thinking to other things “that I find unpleasant,” such as a rude driver (transformed into a corgi-headed chunk of adorableness) and a “strange lump growing on my leg” (changed into a happily smiling corgi head in one of the weirdest of the many weird drawings in the book). Obviously, Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby is not for everyone. But for those who already know and enjoy Inman’s seriously skewed thinking, it fits the established mode of The Oatmeal very well indeed. And for those considering whether to spend more time with (or in) The Oatmeal, it is about as good an introduction as anything else Inman has produced.

     Aimed at young readers rather than somewhat odd adults, and written and drawn much more mildly and suitably for its target audience, the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books have also long since hit their stride, and the 10th of them, The Unicorn Whisperer, fits into the series perfectly. Newcomers will have some trouble figuring out just why things are the way they are here: everybody interacts with Phoebe’s unicorn, and there are plenty of other magical creatures around as well (dragons, goblins, fairies); exactly how the whole thing got started is never explained except through an occasional oblique reference, as when Phoebe wishes her unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, a happy new year, and Marigold says happy years can be boring, but “my finest recent year was when a child hit me in the nose with a rock, resulting in our becoming best friends!” Make of that what you will: there is no further reference in The Unicorn Whisperer to any sort of “origin story” for the series. Dana Simpson simply takes many themes she has used before and uses them again, in somewhat different ways, in this latest book. That means Phoebe has multiple run-ins with her “frenemy,” Dakota, who becomes the star of a goblin opera and invites Phoebe and Marigold to the performance because starring in the staging makes Dakota “cooler” and her “popular, cool friends wouldn’t understand that,” so she needs to have Phoebe attend because “we need uncool kids’ approval, too.” Dakota is hard to like but not quite as nasty as she could be, so Simpson gets away with having her treat Phoebe this way. And Phoebe occasionally gets back at Dakota, as when Marigold enchants a jump rope for Phoebe and Phoebe lets Dakota jump with her only if Phoebe gets to make up a jump-rope rhyme that insults Dakota (“she smells like a goat-a”). There are various soft-pedaled lessons in The Unicorn Whisperer, as in other Phoebe books, as when gold-star-student Phoebe gets so involved in reading that she does not do her homework and has to confess to her teacher, who says that “if I assigned self-awareness homework, you’d get an A on it.” And then there is the time that Phoebe wants to invite a boy, Max, to her slumber party, and her usually practical mother says that is traditionally not done, but “viva la revoluci√≥n.” Phoebe is usually more in tune with her father, who watches more cartoons than she does, sports long hair and wears the back of it in a ponytail, and can discuss the various generations of “Pastel Unicorns” created by Toycorp (“I get to have a daughter who shares my interests”). Much less successful are Simpson’s heavy-handed teaching moments, as when she has Phoebe neglect Marigold for a while in order to write a history paper about “Georgia Neese Clark, the first female Secretary of the Treasury.” The subtler messages here – and some are indeed subtle – are better, as when Phoebe is frustrated about the classmates she is told to work with to make a diorama, knows she will end up doing all the work herself (as has happened before), and is shocked when the others get it all done without her because she is avoiding them: “I deserve an F for the amount of work I did, but I deserve an A for the job I would have done.” That is worth thinking about – as are some, but not all, of the elements of The Unicorn Whisperer and other books in the continuing Phoebe and Her Unicorn series.

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