November 12, 2009


Tundra: Nature’s Favorite Comic Strip. By Chad Carpenter. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Stone Rabbit #3: Deep-Space Disco. By Erik Craddock. Random House. $5.99.

Kit Feeny: #1, On the Move; #2, The Ugly Necklace. By Michael Townsend. Knopf. $5.99 each.

I Spy Fly Guy! By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

     Comic-strip-style characters get used in all sorts of ways these days, in books for people of all ages. Tundra is one of the longer-lasting strips of which most people have never heard. It has been around since 1991, with Chad Carpenter using his single-panel format in an attempt to emulate The Far Side in a much colder setting. Carpenter was raised in Alaska and now lives in Wasilla, the town better known for its association with Sarah Palin – who makes no appearances in these strips, which are determinedly apolitical. Carpenter has no recurring characters per se, but he peoples (if that’s the right word) his strip with the same themes again and again: overly fussy scavengers feasting on roadkill, offbeat talking snowpeople, and characters from fairy tales and old legends. Paul Bunyan (once seen to be wearing very large women’s shoes) and his blue ox, Babe (sometimes turned into a blue steak) show up repeatedly; moose of all kinds (but mostly dumb) appear again and again; one snowman appears in a car’s passenger seat in the car-pool lane, while another drinks a hot beverage and complains of “brain-thaw,” and a gossipy third one is “always poking her carrot into everyone’s business.” Then there are animal-vs.-animal jokes, such as chickens eating takeout and saying “tastes like Bob” and two deer putting a “tick me” sign on a third. And the dish that ran away with the spoon takes up with a ladle, and an unfaithful gingerbread man has frosting on his collar, and Tinkerbell flies into a bug light, and so forth. Some of these jokes are old; some are funny the first time, but not in their second, third or fourth variations. Carpenter’s far-north settings sometimes provide offbeat humor – involving hunters, spawning salmon, etc. – but in book form, his panels start to drag a bit after a while.

     Nothing drags in the fast-paced Stone Rabbit series. Both it and Kit Feeny are preteen-oriented sequences featuring cartoon characters handling life with varying levels of absurdity. Stone Rabbit’s usual nemesis, Henri the turtle, takes a back seat in Deep-Space Disco, because here the real menace is Melvin the Plutarkian, who looks just enough like Stone Rabbit to switch places with him and try to conquer Earth while Stone Rabbit gets tried by an intergalactic court for Melvin’s crimes. This is all silly (and fairly standard) stuff, but Erik Craddock’s drawings whirl and swirl enjoyably across the pages as Stone Rabbit is repeatedly put into impossible situations that force him to exclaim, “Crudmonkeys.” He does escape, of course, and Melvin is brought to justice, of course; and Henri, of course, comes out on top in the end. The best pages here are the ones with no story at all – just lots of weapons and spaceships zipping back and forth in great swirls of color.

     Craddock’s art resembles that of Michael Townsend in some significant ways – perhaps not a surprise, since both attended New York’s School of Visual Arts. But Townsend’s Kit Feeny is decidedly more down-to-earth than Craddock’s Stone Rabbit. Kit is a bear (more or less) living in a standard family in a standard suburban setting, having adventures along the lines of those in the Babymouse books – but oriented more toward boys. Kit and the other characters – including his friends, his parents and his younger twin sisters, April and Bonnie – are pleasantly enough drawn, and some of the ideas are good. For instance, in On the Move, Kit and his family move to a new neighborhood, and Kit is so distraught at leaving his best friend behind that he decides to become a “lonesome hobo.” And in The Ugly Necklace, Kit and his new best friend, Hoff, try to figure out how to pose as rich adults so Kit can get his mother a super-fancy birthday gift. The writing, unfortunately, tends to be uninspired, so the stories end up being a bit too commonplace. And there is nothing like the snippy narrator in the Babymouse books to make the Kit Feeny tales a tad more pointed. On the other hand, they do rely on characters – rather than the action/adventure of the Stone Rabbit series.

     Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy series is more simply plotted and aimed at even younger readers. The latest installment in the story of a boy named Buzz and his pet fly (who can say Buzz’s name) is perhaps not the cleverest, but it is amusing, and the characters are drawn as exaggeratedly as usual. The plot is simply that Fly Guy gets carried to the dump after hiding in a trash can during a game of hide-and-seek that occurs just as the garbage truck comes along. Buzz gets his father to drive to the dump so Buzz can recover Fly Guy – but there are flies everywhere at the dump, so Buzz has to come up with a clever way to figure out which one is his fly. Fans of the characters and the series will enjoy this latest entry, which may be slight but manages to be endearing as well – no small feat for a story that shows Fly Guy eating garbage and features trash everywhere.

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