Cow & Boy. By Mark Leiknes. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Watch Your Head. By Cory Thomas. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
100% Whole Grin Rose Is Rose. By Don Wimmer. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Somewhere among the diamonds-in-the-rough comic strips now getting into syndication there may be a polished gem or two. Here are three cartoonists who have at least a chance of moving into widespread popularity – if they continue to focus their strips and hone their skills.
Cow & Boy is one of those gently surrealistic strips about a child and a talking animal – admittedly a strange talking animal, even though Mark Leiknes sets the strip on a farm. Billy, the boy, does not have deeply philosophical discussions with Cow, along the lines of Calvin and Hobbes, although Bill Watterson’s great strip was surely a model for Leiknes’. The cow-and-boy talks mostly involve bouncing ideas off each other and making gentle mischief. Cow tries to make a wish in a wishing well and ends up stuck, head down, in it. Cow loves Easter so much that she puts on big bunny ears and a cotton tail – and tries to make a chocolate Easter bunny by dipping a real rabbit in melted chocolate. Billy learns to ride a unicycle, in part because Cow provides “negative reinforcement on falling down” by putting him in a prickly patch. Billy’s friend Martin – who can also talk to Cow – gets pulled into schemes to build a treehouse (including a hot tub) and film a Bigfoot movie (with Martin ending up with hair superglued to his face). Cow wins second place at the county fair and trash-talks the first-place winner. Billy’s parents and older sister, Tracy, are peripheral characters who appear from time to time. The occasional attempts to introduce deeper subjects – nature vs. nurture, inflation –fall rather flat; this strip is better when Billy is writing a screenplay for a surefire hit movie, “Tornado Sharks,” and its sequel, “Tornado Sharks 2.” Billy himself is drawn rather oddly: he looks fine from every angle except the front – from that direction, his nose keeps changing shape. Leiknes seems to be continuously looking for just the right themes and just the right way to express them; this is a strip still in development.
The same is true of Watch Your Head, one of the increasing number of comic strips targeting niche audiences – in this case, African-Americans. Set at Oliver Otis University, whose one white student is a Canadian admitted on a hockey scholarship even though the school doesn’t really have a team, Cory Thomas’ strip swings between satire of campus life and out-and-out strangeness. The central character – also named Cory – is a bookish freshman unsettled by dorm life, a cast of often-peculiar fellow students, and women. There’s nothing especially unusual there. But Cory also has to deal with a genius monkey who copies his tests and gets better grades, and an outer-space alien named V’rttrah who is sort of dating Cory’s roommate, Jason. Cory is attracted to the main female character, Robin, but she sees him as no more than a friend. Cory ends up on a date with a basketball player named Takoma, drawn so tall that most of her head is outside the comic-strip frame. Then there are such characters as Quincy, a prototypical “player,” and hostile Omar, roommate of Kevin, the hockey player. There are some references to “the full range of the black experience,” which includes such things as being closely watched by Security while shopping and being stopped for “driving while black” (even if you yourself are a policeman). By and large, though, the strip is less about social or racial consciousness than about the college experience – which it handles in ways that are sometimes moderately amusing but that rarely make strong points or provoke strong laughter. Thomas, like Leiknes, still seems to be feeling his way toward themes that will work consistently and well.
Don Wimmer has his themes already, and has exactly the right characters with which to work them out. But he is missing opportunity after opportunity. Wimmer is now producing Rose Is Rose, a comic strip that has been around since 1984 and was until recently written and drawn by the wonderful Pat Brady. Unfortunately, Wimmer is making a hash of the once-excellent strip, recycling themes and characters remorselessly without bringing any new sense of style or wit to his work. There appears to be a problem with his model sheets: the characters are foreshortened, especially Rose herself – once a leggy, sexy-in-a-wholesome-way celebrator of life, she now looks chunky and squat and almost always appears in bulky pants. Brady’s delightful elements, from Rose’s son Pasquale’s guardian angel to Rose’s own biker alter ego, appear frequently but without specific purpose – Brady used them only in strips whose themes they enhanced, but Wimmer simply brings them in periodically to dress things up. Other Brady elements, such as the rainbows and hearts and other happy shapes used to reflect characters’ emotions, are scattered around 100% Whole Grin Rose Is Rose to even less purpose, appearing on many pages of the book as color overlays on the black-and-white strips. The only characters whose roles Wimmer has expanded on his own are two squirrels that are assuming an increasing role in the humans’ activities. But they are not especially interesting, and it is hard to warm up to them. Also, Wimmer has taken Brady’s occasional use of forced perspective and askew panels – always done to make a specific point – as simply a matter of appearance, tilting panels or drawing them on their sides for no content-related reason. This book gets a (++) rating for the traces of Brady’s gentle humor that remain in it – but Wimmer, a new cartoonist producing a much-loved older strip, needs to find a way to make Rose Is Rose his own soon if he is to pull it out of the mediocrity into which it has descended.
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