May 04, 2006


Over The Hedge: Stuffed Animals. By Michael Fry and T. Lewis. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

      The Over the Hedge comic strip had a meteoric publishing history and then seemed, like a meteor hitting Earth’s atmosphere, to burn up and burn out quickly. There were three separate collections of the strip published by Andrews McMeel in 1996 and 1997 – now that’s meteoric! – but then nothing at all until the present book.

      The disappearance of Over the Hedge books was a mystery. This is a very cleverly written and interestingly drawn strip, and was the first strip in which the Internet played a major part in the action. The two main characters, RJ the raccoon and Verne the turtle, are highly contrasting personalities with just enough edge to make them endearing. RJ is the devil-may-care, seize-the-moment guy who always has a new scheme up his sleeve (or would if he wore clothes). Verne is, as the other animals say, “the clueless loveable loser we’ve come to compare ourselves to when we need to feel good about ourselves” – modest, down-to-earth, filled with insecurities, and an ironic observer of life (in the current collection, he remarks at one point, “A thousand comic strips and I had to crawl into this one”).

      The point of the strip was – and is – that humans have destroyed much of the woodland where RJ, Verne and their pals live, putting up a suburban community just “over the hedge” from the animals. Now the animals have to live with humans – and, thanks to RJ and Verne, they end up living off humans as well. RJ’s use of a fishing rod to snare items being barbecued is but one example.

      Why has Over the Hedge returned to book form after such a long hiatus? The answer is in movie theaters: a DreamWorks animated film based on the comic strip. But whether you see the film or not, whether you like it or not, you’ll really enjoy making the acquaintance of Michael Fry and T. Lewis’ characters in print. Even when they share characteristics with other cartoon denizens you may recognize – Verne’s abysmal love life, for instance, is reminiscent of that of another turtle, Fillmore in Sherman’s Lagoon – they always do so with a unique slant. Looking through a window at two hugely overweight people watching “Fear Factor,” RJ and Verne wonder what the next stage in human evolution will be, and RJ says, “The first one.” Verne says he thinks he may become a vegan, and RJ asks, “Why would you want to worship an ancient Chevy?” The animals conclude that the point of football is “random head butting until everyone loses consciousness.” Verne reads from a book about raccoons, while RJ comments on its errors: he does not always wash his food before eating it, because “there’s nothing worse than a soggy Twinkie.” And so it goes: this is a good-natured strip, but there is pointed satire lurking just below the surface, and often rising to it. One example among many: Verne walks along, aware of humans in the forest but oblivious to the damage they do, concluding that “the glory’s not in what they bring to the wilderness experience, but what they take away” – as logging trucks stacked high with freshly cut trees roll by on the road nearby. What you’ll take away from Over the Hedge is a mixture of optimism, cynicism and a touch of reality – served in a remarkably appetizing way.

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