Luann 4: Seriously… By Greg Evans. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Call of the Wild: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Silent but Deadly: Another “Liō” Collection. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Sharks Just Wanna Have Fun: The Thirteenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Although we call the medium “comics,” the very greatest cartoonists used it for distinctly non-comic purposes. Thomas Nast in the 19th century, Herblock through much of the 20th, and Pat Oliphant in the 20th and 21st, all employed the cartoon format to devastating effect – managing to be funny, wry, pointed and (underneath it all) highly serious. Nor is such seriousness confined to single-panel editorial cartoons – again, at the pinnacle of the medium, Walt Kelly’s Pogo was an astonishing blend of hilarity and sociopolitical commentary, and Al Capp’s Li’l Abner attained equal heights from time to time. Today’s cartoonists are not at those rarefied levels, but a number of the best ones mix serious elements with amusement in ways that allow their work to be both funny and thoughtful. Greg Evans is a prime example – it makes sense for his latest Luann collection to be called Seriously… (ellipsis included). Evans has a solid grounding in the needs of daily and long-form production. After all, not every newspaper reader (or Internet fan) will necessarily see each day’s strip, so each has to be self-contained to a certain extent while still moving ahead the long-form story lines in which Evans specializes. He is really very good at this, even if some of his characters (including 16-year-old Luann herself) seem more one-dimensional than is strictly necessary. There are appealing cross-generational elements in Luann, which in this collection include such matters as Luann’s parents celebrating their growing irrelevance to their children’s lives and Luann’s repeated visits to the elderly Mrs. Horner. The many story lines are actually easier to follow in book form than on a day-to-day basis. Among them are Luann’s friend Bernice’s preoccupation with Zane, the wheelchair-bound hunk she has precipitously decided she wants to marry – leading to confusion involving nice-guy Gunther and a hot girl named Crystal, whose little brother is in a wheelchair; and the life of Luann’s 19-year-old brother, Brad, who is studying to be a firefighter while trying to develop a relationship with hot fellow student Toni Daytona, who unfortunately is in a long-term relationship with a nasty, abusive guy whose life Brad ends up saving. Melodramatic? Yes – but also dramatic…and often very funny at the same time. Luann remains a lot more than a typical “teenage hijinks” comic.
There is little that is typical in any way about Mutts, Patrick McDonnell’s beautifully drawn and amazingly sensitive strip about relationships among animals and between animals and people. Call of the Wild includes some types of strips that have become McDonnell trademarks, such as a gentle Dick Tracy parody involving package deliverymen “Postal Pete,” “Fred X” and “Ups and Downs” (that’s “UPS,” see?). There are also many strips in which McDonnell forgoes the traditional multi-panel format to express a single sentiment, as when showing Woofie, the overly affectionate dog, running along beneath the Samuel Butler quotation, “All animals except man know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.” In a few strips, McDonnell dissects his medium by having a single scene subdivided into panels – for instance, Mooch the cat’s tail is one panel, his body in another and his head in a third. There is also a series in which Mooch tries to talk to other animals (pig, duck, turkey and so on) in their own languages. Crabby the curse-prone crab gives an around-the-world tour; Mooch and Earl the dog visit Yellowstone; and McDonnell’s recurrent environmental, pro-adoption and pro-spaying themes appear as well – but thankfully are only part of his overall canvas, not the whole of it. Seriousness, thoughtfulness, beauty and amusement all coexist in Mutts in a way that no other current strip even approaches.
Nor does any other strip approach Mark Tatulli’s Liō, and some people will surely consider that a good thing. This is the strangest and darkest strip currently being created by anyone – yet also, if your sense of humor is skewed a certain way, one of the most hilarious. A pantomime strip, it uses minimal words – none spoken by the title character himself – to show a world in which Liō is usually the master but sometimes the victim of the sorts of bizarre ideas and events that only a really twisted mind could dream up. Apparently Tatulli’s qualifies. There are wonderful parodies of other comics, including one in which Liō’s giant red ants escape and wreak havoc on other characters; one in which Liō helps Charlie Brown get back at Lucy for never letting him kick the football; one in which Liō rewrites Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse dialogue; and one magnificent one – although it is perhaps not fully clear to anyone other than fellow cartoonists and lovers of comics – in which Liō places flowers on the graves of brilliant strips that have ended (such as Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side) while characters from lesser strips that have continued long past their prime, and even after their creators’ deaths, literally whistle past the graveyard (Hagar, Nancy, Dagwood, Alley Oop, Andy Capp and others are in the impromptu parade). Elsewhere, Liō encounters aliens of all types, sets lobsters free, is lassoed by a tentacled thing that turns out to be a TV set that forces him to watch, poses as a ghost to scare children (to the annoyance of some real ghosts), reads Popular Mechanics as a bedtime story to robots, brings home a multi-eyed river slug from camp, sends excited kids back to the dinosaur age in the knowledge that they will not return and he can make money selling their slightly used sneakers, and participates in a never-ending strip in which a monster he is feeding eats him as well and then throws up both Liō and his intended meal – only to consume both again. Liō is a very strange strip: in one pleasant breakfast scene, Liō is eating “Life” cereal while, across the table, the Grim Reaper is eating a cereal called, of course, “Death.” Liō does have loving relationships, but they too are odd: he lives with his father, a perpetual slob who does not seem to work (even in a strip called “Li’l Liō,” there is no sign of a mother); and he has a crush on a girl named Eva Rose, who does not return his feelings and regularly bests him – except in one charming strip in which Liō gets a hug by hiding in a hollowed-out teddy bear. Liō will not appeal to everyone, by a long shot. But it is a strange and wonderful strip – and a wonderfully strange one.
Of course, if all this seriousness and oddity is more than you want from a comic strip, you can always turn to one that is out-and-out hilarious and makes no pretense to deeper meaning. That would be Sherman’s Lagoon, Jim Toomey’s ongoing take on Sherman the shark and the various weird critters who inhabit Kapupu Lagoon with him. Sharks Just Wanna Have Fun finds the gang in fine shape: Fillmore, the perpetually loveless sea turtle, tries on a bad-boy image; Hawthorne, the venal and money-grubbing hermit crab, buys “Nike Overachiever 2500X Air-Cushioned Cross-Trainers” so he can jog to McDonald’s for junk food; Sherman’s son, Herman, learns nothing from flash cards until Sherman, frustrated, utters a curse word – which Herman learns immediately; Thornton, the perennially hibernating polar bear, resumes his South Seas diet of smoothies; Ernest, hacker supreme, helps Sherman prepare for the math portion of a contest with a dolphin; and so it goes. And goes and goes – this is one place in the comics that’s strictly…well…comic.