October 09, 2008


Frazz 3.1416. By Jef Mallett. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Macho Macho Animals: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Brevity 3. By Guy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Philo T. Farnsworth and the other early creators of television saw it as a magnificent tool for education and enlightenment. We all know what happened to that dream. Comics, on the other hand, were not created to be intellectual – more of the opposite. Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid (hence “yellow journalism”) was moronic-looking (Alfred E. Newman of Mad fame was cast in the same mold half a century later), and the Kid was designed largely to appeal to newspaper buyers for whom actually reading the articles was a bit of a chore. Nowadays, though, there are comics that really do educate as well as entertain, and one of the most notable is Jef Mallett’s Frazz. The neat thing about this strip is Mallett’s willingness to mix cheap laughs with complex punchlines that many readers may not get at all – as when Frazz and his chief student foil, brilliant but easily distracted Caulfield (think The Catcher in the Rye), make a Halloween costume based on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Frazz says he wished he knew earlier that he would be the fish, because “I could have spent the last 84 days avoiding you.” Mallett seems blissfully oblivious to the confusion that line will cause many readers; nor does he care about dialogue in which Caulfield tells battleaxe teacher Mrs. Olsen that she is looking “diaphanous,” and she replies that he is “a veritable prince of palter.” Mallett clearly wants to send readers to the dictionary and library. It is important to ignore the underlying absurdity of the strip’s premise – super-successful songwriter chooses to work as the janitor at an elementary school – in order to focus on enjoying the characters’ antics. And there are antics – many strips are simply there for fun (as when kids play hockey using a pink urinal deodorizer as a puck, and a group gets to play the banned “battleball” by renaming it politically correctly as “friendlyhappykindnessball”). If there is any significant criticism of Mallett, it is that he sometimes tries too hard to be cute: the book’s title, for example, is actually “Frazz pi,” with the first 60 or so digits on the cover and pizza pies on front and back (plus a math formula on the front); and after a while, the use of such words as “diaphoresis” and “mitochondria” starts to seem a tad affected. Still, Frazz is almost always hilarious and is consistently uplifting, both in mood and in its expectations of readers.

     Stephan Pastis makes no claims to erudition in Pearls Before Swine, but he keeps coming up, almost offhandedly, with strips that actually make readers think (when they’re neither laughing uproariously nor writing letters of complaint to their local newspapers). In Pastis’ new collection, Macho Macho Animals, one strip features a “man-sheep” who is angry: “The man part has freedom of will, but the sheep part just follows the herd. This creates internal conflict…thus, the anger.” In several strips, Pastis plays with the notion of comic-strip layout: one strip is tilted and consists of only partial panels, with the characters discussing what readers cannot see; several others include random panels from Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy, mixed in with Pearls panels, because of a supposed layout error; and then there’s a series in which all comic strips are required to age their characters realistically, which results in Family Circus kids drinking and smoking and Dagwood and Blondie talking to each other from beneath their side-by-side tombstones. Pearls is dark humor, but if you go for the offbeat, it is very, very funny – never more so than when Pastis puts a caricature of himself into the strip and interacts with his creations (for example, when Pig brings a non-anthropomorphic duck into the strip and Pastis-in-the-strip says that violates the rules).

     Guy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry, who sign themselves “guy and rOdd” to be sure you understand their odd take on life, often make readers think, too. Their single-panel Brevity cartoons can be really offbeat: The Hulk walks happily out of a store called “Bob’s House of Elastic Wear”; a cereal company’s head of athlete recruitment is fired after signing the “world champion pig-lifter”; a Nobel Prize winner can’t figure out how to build a shelf to display his award; a male peacock with black-and-white feathers gains female admiration for being “so subtle, so confident”; people line up to play $1 carnival games at which they can win stuffed animals, oblivious to the nearby stand selling the animals for 50 cents each; a toothpick, about to be used, thinks sadly, “800 years, and this is how it all ends.” Many Brevity panels are less than laugh-out-loud funny, precisely because they force readers to take a moment to understand just what is going on and what point the cartoonists are trying to make. There’s the woman with her shopping cart filled to the brim with copies of “Compulsive Shoppers Quarterly”; the dustpan telling the broom, “You’re nothing without me, and you know it”; the restaurant in which one table is labeled “reserved” while other have signs saying “gregarious,” “avuncular,” “shy” and “anxious”; and so on. Comics that make you think? What will they think of next?

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