November 17, 2011


Never Bite Anything That Bites Back: The Sixteenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Our Little Kat King: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince. By Grace Maccarone. Illustrated by Christine Davenier. Feiwel and Friends. $16.99.

     Consistency and predictability. That is what comic-strip readers expect from their favorite cartoonists and strips. And that is just what they get, in very different ways, from Jim Toomey and Patrick McDonnell. Toomey is always funny, usually weirdly so, indulging in a kind of character comedy in which his creations – undersea denizens all (well, almost all) – behave in ways that make sense only for each of them. Their personalities may be shallower than the water in which they live, but they are clear and present indicators of how each of them will behave in particular situations. Therefore, in the 16th Sherman’s Lagoon collection, it could only be Hawthorne the hermit crab who would go on a doughnut run and end up in a Red Lobster by mistake. It would have to be Fillmore, the nerdy sea turtle, who would make sure everyone participates in “Wear Blue for the Oceans Day” – thus making dimwitted Sherman the shark realize that, in fact, he never wears anything at all. It makes perfect sense, in this weird world, that Hawthorne and Sherman would engage in “cola wars,” with Hawthorne’s “Crab Cola” competing with Sherman’s “Sherman Dew.” It makes equally perfect sense that Hawthorne decides to get Captain Quigley – a sort of Ahab figure – to leave Sherman alone by finding the captain a girlfriend online. Only Fillmore could get captured by a trawler and then rescued by the Red Crustacean Liberation Army. Only Megan, Sherman’s better half, could lead a humanitarian mission to the Gulf of Mexico to help with an oil spill. Only Thornton, the strip’s non-ocean-dweller (a super-lazy polar bear who floated to the South Seas and decided to stay) would quickly dismiss an offer of insurance to protect his loved ones by pointing out that he has no loved ones. Throw in some exploitation of Galapagos Islands naïveté (courtesy of Hawthorne, of course) and a visit by Yoga Man (Fillmore, naturally), and you have a collection filled with reliably amusing, and often hilarious, everyday doings.

     McDonnell’s reliability is of a different sort, as is his strip, Mutts, which is as gentle as Sherman’s Lagoon is frenetic. McDonnell is a top-notch comic-strip artist and a highly knowledgeable student of comic history. The very title and cover illustration of Our Little Kat King pay gentle tribute to The Little King, Otto Soglow’s mostly pantomime strip that started in 1931 and ran until Soglow’s death in 1975. Gentleness and mild amusement were hallmarks of that strip and are even more so in McDonnell’s Mutts – which also shows a real understanding of animal behavior, as when Earl the dog finds a stick in one panel, happily chews it in the next (with a little “love heart” above his head), then looks at the reader in the third and last panel and says, “Comfort food.” Mutts is a strip in which McDonnell pays tribute to the famous Peanuts “Great Pumpkin” strips by having Mooch the cat waiting patiently – in what turns out to be a watermelon patch. McDonnell also enjoys occasional parodies of contemporary culture – one Sunday strip is a takeoff on The Jersey Shore – and likes to do extended series on a single subject, such as “Shelter Stories” about pet adoption and a Valentine’s Day-themed sequence in which the word “Mutts” appears in a heart in each single-panel strip, each of which includes a quotation about love and an illustration featuring a different Mutts character. The one area in which McDonnell sometimes becomes a touch too preachy is that of conservation: he frequently has characters directly promoting ecological causes and similar concerns. These strips, taken individually, can be quite valuable, and the causes themselves are always good ones; but after a while, they can sometimes undermine the gentle humor that has long made Mutts so special. In Our Little Kat King, though, there is just enough of this sort of “championing” to balance the more simply amusing strips. For example, there is a full week of comics for “the 50th anniversary of Dr. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research,” including an impressively drawn Sunday strip in which domestic and African animals all say “Thanks, Jane.” But there is also a week of “Prof. Earl’s Class,” with the adorable pup teaching human children such concepts as “speak” (English class), “heel” (biology class) and “roll over” (finance class). There is no other comic strip quite like Mutts, whose special blend of humor and advocacy – and excellent art – sets it well above the commonplace.

     The blend that sets the comically illustrated Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince above other recent “performance” books for young readers is one of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline pictures with some delightful rhyming that is also reminiscent of that 1939 classic. Grace Maccarone’s opening lines make the parallels as clear as can be: “In a cozy white house, in the town of Messina,/ nine little girls studied dance with Miss Lina.” The girls’ names are part of the fun – and the rhyming: “Christina, Edwina, Sabrina, Justina,/ Katrina, Bettina, Marina, Regina,/ and Nina…” Maccarone tells the story utterly charmingly (albeit with an occasional rhythmic lapse in the poetry); Christine Davenier’s illustrations bring the whole tale to life flawlessly from start to finish. The plot has the nine girls becoming super-excited at learning that a boy dancer will be joining them: “To dance with a prince in her first pas de deux/ would be very special, each one of them knew.” But the boy – whose name, Tony Farina, fits right into the class members’ nomenclature – proves to be a solo showoff. However, after some misunderstandings are cleared up, “The girls soon found they could really enjoy/ dancing in class with a non-princely boy,” and everything turns out happily for all. A thoroughly delightful book that celebrates ballet, performance in general, and exuberance, Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince uses cartoonlike illustrations differently from the way they are used in comic strips – but to no less effect and with even more flamboyance.

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