December 15, 2005


Frazz: Life at Bryson Elementary. By Jef Mallett. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

BoNanas: Monkey Meets World. By John Kovaleski. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

The Other Coast: This Is Your First Rock Garden, Isn’t It? By Adrian Raeside. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     If your newspaper does not carry these three comic strips – and it may not, since none of them is particularly widely available – you have been missing a great deal of fun and, in the case of one strip, something really special.

     Frazz fully deserves a (++++) ranking for its unusual concept, clever writing and offbeat artwork.  Set in an elementary school, it is the story of a songwriter who has hit it big but prefers to stick with the job he took when he was not yet a success: school janitor.  The premise is ridiculous, but so what?  It works wonderfully, explaining why a smart, with-it young man whose frizzy hair makes him look like a grown-up version of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes is scraping gum off desks and cleaning throw-up in the cafeteria.  It is because Edwin Frazier (his real name, which no one uses) does all these things out of love for kids that Jef Mallett’s strip communicates so much warmth to readers.  There’s knowledge here, too: the word use is exemplary.  And there are some knowing observations about human relationships, as when the school’s principal, Mr. Spaetzle, laments having “a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D., nine years of teaching, two decades of managing staff, tweaking budgets, and juggling schedules as an administrator – and about one-tenth the respect afforded the guy who chased a bee out of the lunchroom.”  The characters and their relationships are thoughtful and well-developed.  Frazz’s frequent foil is a student named Caulfield – after Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye – who is brilliant but bored.  Mr. Spaetzle worries that Caulfield’s failure to take assessment tests seriously is “blowing the curve, nicking our funding and torpedoing his own transcripts,” and he asks Frazz, “What is his problem with standardized tests?”  Frazz’s answer: “Maybe they only work with standardized kids.”  There is wisdom as well as amusement here.  Enjoy this book, then seek out the strip.

     BoNanas and The Other Coast are nowhere near the level of Frazz, but both have their moments and both deserve (+++) rankings.  BoNanas is a huge-nosed monkey who speaks well, lives among humans and is even attractive to single human women (one highlight is a sequence in which he quits office work because all the women are hearing their biological clocks tick and are therefore pursuing him).  The fun here comes from an old idea: the naïf exploring the complexities of life.  But that is essentially all there is to John Kovaleski’s strip; and the drawing style, though amusing enough, is not especially interesting in itself.  This is a hit-or-miss strip: funny and pointed at times, much less so at others.

     The same is true of The Other Coast, another one-joke strip whose focus is the peculiar way Californians see the world.  Because there are so many variations of this peculiarity, Adrian Raeside never lacks for material.  But not all the variations are equally amusing.  This second collection of the strip has the same central characters: diminutive writer Toulouse and his wife, Vicky – a devotee of ecological causes who is willing to buy an alligator handbag because the skin comes from a gator that was run over by an outboard motor.  Other recurring characters are the always overweight Larry, who works in the same office as Vicky; a rock band that lives (or at least constantly practices) next door to Toulouse and Vicky’s house; Simon the vegan; and other typecast types.  The writing occasionally hits home, as when Simon boasts of his car that uses “clean, environmentally friendly electricity” and is parked near a smoke-spewing power plant.  But most of the humor is of the gentle-kidding type: worth an occasional look, but thin as a daily diet.

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