March 08, 2007


Da Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Teaching … Is a Learning Experience: A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      The future of the comics pages lies more with Stephan Pastis than with Lynn Johnston – and that would seem to be fine with both of them. Pastis’ often death-obsessed and increasingly bizarre Pearls Before Swine is just hitting its stride as a consistently funny, weird look at the oddities of the lives of completely unbelievable characters about whom it is actually becoming possible to care now and then. Johnston’s true-to-life tales of the Patterson family and the people in its orbit are as beautifully told and attractively drawn as ever, but Johnston has announced that she will be winding the strip down in the not-too-distant future, stopping its forward motion and turning it more into the reminiscences of characters of whom readers have grown tremendously fond over the past quarter-century.

The new collections of these strips showcase the cartoonists’ current status very well indeed, and point the way toward what they will be doing in the future. The title of Da Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata refers to the fraternity-like house of Pastis’ increasingly prominent crocodile characters, whose indeterminate accent has them speaking da way da title soundz while endlessly and unsuccessfully pursuing Zebra, their neighbor, as prey. But the book itself is as unfocused as Pastis always is – or rather is focused in as many different directions as usual. Pig wears a giant oven mitt to protect his easily hurt feelings; after he agrees to take it off, he starts worrying that other giant cooking utensils are after him; so Rat, as snide and unhelpful as ever, sneaks up on him disguised as an oversize spatula. Rat also invents “biscuits for id’yits” to throw at people; a crocodile offers to wear a ribbon supporting Zebra’s mourning for lives cut short by predators – but turns out to be the predator who cut them short; Pastis’ continuing delight in terrible puns has the characters periodically decide that they really ought to leave for a better comic strip; and there are cameo appearances by a variety of characters, many of them short-lived: Six-Inch Susie, Charles Darwin, Mister Peanut, a bearded member of Greenpeace, Carmen Mirandawarning (there go those puns again), and many more. Pastis manages to keep his core characters in character while allowing the strip to venture into total absurdity and unpredictability often enough to keep it constantly interesting. Not bad for a guy who calls a pig Pig, a rat Rat, a zebra Zebra, and so on.

      The contrast could not be greater between Pastis’ stick-figure characters and Lynn Johnston’s realistically drawn, fully fleshed-out ones. The latest Johnston collection, Teaching…Is a Learning Experience, has something of the feeling of a retrospective, even though For Better or For Worse is at this point continuing to move forward through time. The reason is the book’s greater-than-usual length (144 pages instead of 128) and its extensive use of color: there is lots of it here, at least as much as would usually appear in an oversize “Treasury” collection – but this is a standard-size Andrews McMeel assemblage of strips. Johnston is clearly getting more than the usual amount of attention, and she has certainly earned it. One color Sunday sequence, in which John and Elly Patterson argue about how to load the dishwasher, neatly encapsulates the worldview of Johnston’s strip: “In this world of confusion and chaos,” says John, “aren’t we lucky to be having an argument about something so trivial!” But this is not to say that the strip’s concerns are trivial – they are anything but. Michael, wife Deanna and their two kids face realistic moving and settling-in difficulties; Grandpa Jim adjusts to decreased mobility; John and Elly go car shopping; Elizabeth contends with her cat and with leaving her teaching job in Canada’s far north; and much more. Bland descriptions of the events make them sound mundane, but Johnston’s skill takes them beyond the ordinary, making them touching and amusing by turns (or at the same time), and helping readers see their own everyday lives as interesting. That’s quite a gift to give people. It’s remarkable that Johnston has continued giving it for more than two decades – and will continue doing so, in one form or another, for some time to come.

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