May 24, 2012


The Mighty Alice: A “Cul de Sac” Collection. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Zombies Need Love Too: And Still Another “L” Collection. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

      Name the comic strip in which a moving-display sweater worn for Christmas accidentally shows a skeleton and fireworks because it is inadvertently set for Halloween and Fourth of July, respectively.  The strip in which an eight-year-old boy plans to give a girl a stuffed gila monster as a gift, and wraps it with additional tape because the girl “likes a challenge.”  The one with the Future Adults of America representative who just may be imaginary.  With a question whether the new year is designated “the year of festive airborne parasites.”  With a discussion of whether to turn into a wolf or a mole rat.  With a work for oboe that “was attributed to Mozart, but he denied it.”  With “grabmaster megamitts” and competitive picky eating and a modified camouflaged Santa-trapping T-shirt cannon and the Uh-Oh Baby.  This can only be Cul de Sac, perhaps the strangest and most inventive suburban-family strip of all time.  Richard Thompson has a sense of humor quite unlike that of any other cartoonist working today, and an absolutely marvelous drawing style that invites repeated readings of every one of his strips – all of which are presented in color in The Mighty Alice.  Ostensibly the story of the everyday life of four-year-old Alice Otterloop (sounds like “Outer Loop,” part of the Beltway that rings Washington, D.C.), Cul de Sac is also about Alice’s eight-year-old brother, Petey, who tends to steal every scene in which he appears because of his eating habits, unending series of neuroses and fascination with Little Neuro, a comic strip in which absolutely nothing ever happens (a sort of antithesis of Winsor McCay’s famous Little Nemo).  And then there are Alice’s parents, who go beyond traditional long-suffering models into their own weirdness, whether her mom is doing Halloween face painting intended to make someone look taller or her dad is driving a car so small that a sticker from preschool covers half the front grill and bumper.  Then there are Alice’s friends: Dill, Beni, Kevin, Marcus and the other denizens of Blisshaven Preschool, run by Miss Bliss, whose idea of piano playing is a tremendous “BLAM” on the keys.  There is so much here that makes so little sense that Thompson’s skill at making it all make sense is a genuine wonder.  Petey’s diorama about earthworms in which one of them “attacks the Sydney Opera House, hungry for tenors,” and his drawing of “an actual toad zombie,” are here.  Alice’s bedtime story about whether they eat marzipan on Mars, in which the dog says to ask the poison dart frog, which says to ask the slow loris, which says to ask the nematode, which says to ask the tapir, is here as well.  And then there is the toaster riding a skateboard.  And Alice sleepwalking and growling, which Petey contrasts with his own former sleepwalking, in which he tried to climb into his pants while they were still on the hanger – “narcotrouseramblia.”  There is so much absurdity in Cul de Sac, and so much delight, that every collection of it is worth returning to again and again – emphatically including The Mighty Alice.

      Cul de Sac does, however, have a shortage of zombies, cephalopods, swamp monsters, witches and cats that use anti-aircraft guns.  For a heaping helping of those, there is Liō, complete with the improbably accented last letter of his name – and with humor that is dark and decidedly offbeat, as in the strip in which Liō goes to a store called “Just Angels” and arranges for an angel-in-a-box to be delivered to the demons of Hell.  The action is everything here – Mark Tatulli’s strip is done in pantomime, not only lacking dialogue but also containing very few words of any kind.  Tatulli has to be hyper-clever to pull this off, and he is.  Sometimes Liō deals with everyday issues, such as bullying, but even there, he has his own way of coping: when a bully tries to kick down Liō’s sand castle, it turns out that Liō has simply coated a huge rock with sand.  Most of the time, though, Liō has adventures that are, shall we say, a little bit different: ordering a pizza that is “half pepperoni, half brain” to share with a zombie friend, failing to notice when his pet dinosaur reaches into the Fred Basset comic and eats its star, visiting the “Old Comic Strip Characters Home” so “Feckless Freddie Freckles” can recount the story of the serious injuries he sustained in one of his old-time Sunday strips, transforming himself into a monster for school picture day, giving a hug instead of a pin stick to a sad-looking voodoo doll, using lightning bugs to decorate the Christmas tree, reading the pop-up-book version of “Undead Bunnies,” selling tacky souvenirs of Earth to aliens, creating a “slug horror theater” that features spilled salt, and contorting his body in impossible ways while studying a book called “Advanced Acting Techniques for the Modern Comic Strip Character.”  Because Liō is a strictly visual strip, it loses quite a bit when described in words.  Even its recurring themes, such as its incursions into other strips and Liō’s unrequited love for the ultra-violent and therefore irresistible Eva Rose, are handled with a thoroughly weird sense of the absurd that still manages, time and again and very oddly indeed, to be endearing.  A big part of Liō’s charm is that he retains his wide-eyed innocence despite all the creepy things he does and sees…or maybe because of them.  In fact, there are a number of unexpectedly touching moments in this collection, including memorials to Fay Wray and Farrah Fawcett, plus the first-ever revelation of why Liō lives only with his dad (who continues to be seen most of the time wearing socks, one having a hole through which his big toe protrudes).  Still, it is the unusual humor, not the occasional touch of warmth, that is the main attraction of Zombies Need Love Too.  You simply have to love a comic strip in which a giant rat tries to catch Liō in a deadly trap – the spring-loaded kind – by baiting it with an iPhone.

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