September 13, 2007


Liō: Happiness Is a Squishy Cephalopod. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

Yarns and Shanties and Other Nautical Baloney: The 12thSherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      There’s nothing else quite like Mark Tatulli’s Liō in the comics. That’s probably a good thing if you like old-fashioned family-style comics. But it’s a very unfortunate thing if you’re looking for cartoons that turn most “family” comic-strip conventions on their heads (and inside-out). Liō is a visual strip – very few words, and none spoken by the central character with the oddly spelled name that is rendered unpronounceable by that mysterious accent (LEE-oh? Lee-OH? LY-oh? Ly-OH?). Tatulli uses Liō to put forth some very black humor and some very strange panels. The title of this first collection, for example, parodies Charles Schulz’s famous “happiness is a warm puppy,” and one Liō strip features the kite-eating tree from Peanuts spitting out a mangled kite and then, later, Charlie Brown’s familiar shirt. Another strip has Liō putting up a “Beware of the Dogwood” sign after a tree spits out a human skull from a knothole. Then there’s the time Death shows up at the door of the house where Liō and his father live – but it’s just to play cards with the boy, a mummy, a zombie and Bigfoot. There’s a Sunday strip in which Tatulli has Liō walking sideways and upside down on staircases – it turns out he’s at a museum and has been inside one of M.C. Escher’s famous perspective-jolting works. There’s a strip in which Liō gets a puppy – to his father’s delight, since the boy usually favors squid and reptiles – and then Liō presents the neatly wrapped, adorable pup to a huge snake for the snake’s birthday. No, Tatulli does not show what happens next – this strip forces readers to connect the bizarre dots on their own, as when Liō’s father appears to eat spaghetti from a huge bowl, makes an unpronounceable noise, and we see the boy reading a book called “Raising Earthworms for Fun and Profit.” There’s a great single-panel Sunday strip in which Liō, unlike a famed Ingmar Bergman character, defeats Death in a board game – because they’re playing “The Game of Life.” And there are parodies of other strips, as when Liō accidentally wanders into the Mary Worth stage set, takes a time machine to 1911 and lands in a Krazy Kat scene that also includes the Yellow Kid and other characters, and walks into his kitchen to discover a monster about to eat a Dagwood sandwich that includes Dagwood. Tatulli knows family-style comics well – his own Heart of the City is a pleasant if conventional one – and so he knows just what you can and cannot get away with on the comics pages. In Liō, he keeps drawing stuff that you can’t get away with…and getting away with it.

      Sherman’s Lagoon is a more conventional strip, but it certainly has its own share of bizarre elements. In Jim Toomey’s 12th collection, the characters and their quirks are well-established, and the fun comes from the variations that Toomey finds in their relationships. Hawthorne, the money-hungry, scheming hermit crab, opens an old-fashioned general store offering “the service of yesterday with the prices of tomorrow.” Fillmore, the intelligent but feckless turtle, explains about kelp being a “super food extraordinaire,” then notes that he never eats it because “it’s disgusting.” Sherman the shark makes a typical mistake (for him) by brushing his teeth with Preparation H. Ernest, computer hacker, tries to explain a spreadsheet to Sherman, who decides that “basically, it’s like a waffle iron.” In fact, computer humor pervades Toomey’s strip: Sherman’s wife, Megan, finds a red spot on a fin and searches for online medical help, finally deciding just to buy a red-spotted blouse that’s on sale; and Ernest struggles to play chess with Fillmore, using standard pieces, while the Internet is down (“how do these things move – are they battery powered?”). Toomey has a knack for blending absurdity with character comedy – and his humor remains just skewed enough to lift Sherman’s Lagoon above most other weird-ensemble-of-characters strips.

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