November 21, 2012


Aaaa! A “FoxTrot” Kids Edition. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Liō: There’s a Monster in My Socks. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Big Nate Makes the Grade. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

      There is a traditional format for comic-strip collections from Andrews McMeel, the book-publishing arm of Universal Press Syndicate: 128 pages, 8½ inches left to right, 9 inches top to bottom. The company does publish comic collections in other formats, from its larger “Treasury” paperbacks to a series of very well-produced hardcovers. But for straightforward batches of cartoon panels, the 128-page collection is the norm.  It is not, however, sacrosanct, and Andrews McMeel has now begun reissuing some of its top-notch comics in the form of regular 6 x 9 books. These are in a new line called “Amp! Comics for Kids,” although the comics themselves are the same ones previously collected in other sizes and presumably intended for readers of all ages.

      No matter: “Amp! Comics for Kids” may be a marketing strategy, expanding an existing product line, but anything that gets more people interested in the work of Bill Amend, Mark Tatulli and Lincoln Peirce is worthy of praise.  Readers already familiar with FoxTrot, Liō and Big Nate will discover no surprises in these collections – all the strips have been published in book form before.  The Big Nate book does contain a poster at the back (same art as the book’s cover), but other than that, all three books are simply compilations of the artists’ strips from various times.  They all make delightful introductions to these respective strips.  In FoxTrot, readers will meet nerd Jason, his big sister Paige, and oldest brother Peter, along with mom Andy and dad Roger, and discover such entirely typical Fox family scenes as Peter drawing a goatee on his face with indelible blue marker, Paige getting past the impassable Red Orb Guardian in a video game by simply walking by (to gaming fanatic Jason’s immense frustration), Jason seeking time travel as an alternative to living with his admission to a girl in his class that he likes her, Quincy (Jason’s iguana) proving to have no Hollywood-worthy talent whatsoever, and much more.  Amend is an expert at character comedy, and he honed the Fox family’s personalities to a fine pitch during the 19 years the strip ran as a daily.  Aaaa! is a great starting point for new readers.

      There’s a Monster in My Socks is equally good for readers new to Liō, the pantomime strip featuring the self-proclaimed “weird kid” with the unpronounceable name and a fascination with dark doings of all sorts.  Just about any Liō strip goes with just about any other, so this book works very well: Liō accidentally snags a mermaid while fishing, gives aliens a map so they can take themselves to our leader, releases a crowd of genies when he happens to rub a few too many lamps in a lighting store, gets paid by a wicked witch for giving out free maps to “the candy house,” goes to the park to feed nuts to the squirrels and entrails to the whatever-they-are beasties, brings a howler monkey to the library, and helps a hungry monster use lasagna to set a trap for comic cat Garfield.  Tatulli plays constantly with reality and fantasy in Liō, using bullies, classmates and the title character’s bemused father (almost always seen wearing socks, one of which has a hole in the big toe) for “apparently real” strips, such as one in which a big bowl of spaghetti turns out to be a worm farm, while leaving it unclear just how real things are when Liō vacuums up three ghosts in a haunted house or gets caught by huge rodents in an oversize game of “Mouse Trap.”  But Tatulli does not even let the dividing lines stay clear. For example, Liō’s dad makes him write “I will not play with matches” numerous times on a blackboard after finding the boy playing catch with a gigantic matchbook.  Liō is a very odd strip indeed – young readers who discover it in There’s a Monster in My Socks will certainly want to see more of it.

      Peirce’s Big Nate is a more-traditional strip, about the adventures and misadventures of 12-year-old Nate Wright, a sixth-grader with cartooning ambitions and intense dislike of a) hard work and b) a history teacher named Mrs. Godfrey.  Actually, Nate doesn’t think much of any school stuff except for art class and chess club.  As a result, Nate spends a lot of time in detention or at Principal Nichols’ office.  Much of the strip revolves around Nate’s delusions of grandeur and his interactions with friends Teddy and Francis, crush Jenny, class brain Gina, big sister Ellen, hapless father, and various other adults who wander in and out of the narrative from time to time.  Peirce (pronounced “purse”) uses entirely typical family and school scenes in the strip – for example, on Picture Day, Nate gets splashed with mud and hit in the eye by a door, then has to endure “help” from School Picture Guy (who is never given a name), and finally sneezes just as his photo is taken.  What makes Big Nate an enjoyable strip is not what happens but the way Nate and those around him react.  For instance, Nate helps Teddy escape walking home with an overly clingy girl by opening his, Nate’s, locker, which promptly spews forth a fusillade of junk that sweeps the girl away.  The occasional use of cartoons “drawn” by Nate himself enlivens the strip – and the book – as when Nate creates a “Hall of Shame” rating page for teachers and suggests that Principal Nichols put it in the display case as a public service.  As with FoxTrot and Liō, the new, 6 x 9 book of Big Nate serves as an enjoyable introduction to the strip for new readers – and will likely have them seeking out further adventures, no matter what format they appear in.

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