March 28, 2013
(++++) CARTOONS, FROM GENTLE TO FRENETIC
Bonk! A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
Big Nate Out Loud. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Dirt on My Shirt. By Jeff Foxworthy. Illustrated by Steve Björkman. Harper. $9.99.
For many decades, comic strips were almost entirely about action, from the Katzenjammer Kids’ antics to Ignatz continually throwing bricks at Krazy Kat’s head. Over time, though, some cartoonists realized that they could build strips around language and ideas, not solely activity: Walt Kelly’s Pogo was the greatest example of this, and G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury carries on the approach today. In addition, a few cartoonists – very few – discovered a way to make a kind of gentle sweetness the main ingredient in their work, using spare writing and modest action (if any) to communicate a relaxing and fascinating alternative world to which readers would be delighted to pay repeated visits. There is no better exemplar of this gentle cartooning style than Patrick McDonnell, whose Mutts is as sweet as can be but also makes a number of points very skillfully – about human-animal relationships, animal adoption, environmental issues and more. There is all of this in the latest splendid Mutts “Treasury” volume, Bonk! For example, Earl the dog and Mooch the cat find the perfect place to hibernate: in front of the counter at Fatty Snax Deli. Mooch continues his adoration of the “little pink sock.” McDonnell’s opening panels for his Sunday strips – optional drawings that many newspapers do not use – are drawn with tremendous care, cleverness and understanding of both comic art and fine art. The recurring “Shelter Stories” sequence shows just how perfectly matched animals and their humans can be, whether a singing woman brings home a singing bird or a yoga lover takes home a cat that stretches with ease in yoga-like postures. The extent to which Mutts differs from classic strips – and the extent to which McDonnell’s understanding of those earlier comics is superb – show when McDonnell deliberately recalls those strips in a series called “Klassic Komics.” One, “Little Orphan Shtinky,” features both Shtinky the cat and Earl with wide, all-white eyes, Earl proclaiming “Arf!” while Shtinky says “Leapin’ Lizards!” – two of the hallmark phrases of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. Another, “Little Mooch in Slumberland,” features Mooch falling out of a bed taken straight from Winsor McCay’s brilliant Little Nemo in Slumberland. And comics are not the only classics that get McDonnell’s wonderful treatment. For example, there are readings from Mother Goose – by a goose – and tributes to Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and other characters. “Prof. Mooch” teaches class his unique way in one series here, while Jules (also known as Shtinky) dreams of India and a chance to meet a cobra, tiger, even a dancing bear that is a tribute to Baloo in the Disney animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. McDonnell is immensely knowing, even erudite, when it comes to art and comics, but there is not a scintilla of arrogance about him as he takes readers, day after day, to and through a gently surreal landscape of animals in which the strangest beasts, most of the time, are the humans.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate is a much more traditional pratfalls-and-other-kinds-of-action strip, targeted at younger readers than is Mutts: Peirce (pronounced “purse”) creates mainly for preteens like Nate Wright himself. Nate is 11 in Big Nate Out Loud, a collection that has been around since 2011 but is now available with all strips in color and a pull-out poster of the book’s cover in the back. Here, it turns out that Nate, for all his overdone sense of self-importance, has a clever way of persuading teachers to hold class outdoors on a nice day; possesses a remarkable but selective memory (he has total recall for pop-culture facts but cannot remember anything school-related); and is the school’s “nickname czar,” explaining that “a good nickname works on many levels.” Also in this volume, Nate – a total slob, albeit one who can find anything in the complete junk heap that emerges whenever he opens his locker – is hypnotized into becoming neat, and soon drives everyone crazy with his transformation; and starts a rock band, but sings so badly that he is soon demoted to tambourine player (with Artur, the super-nice character whose unending courtesy drives Nate crazy, becoming lead singer). There are no grand societal themes in Big Nate; indeed, there is no major exploration of anything of consequence. And that is a big part of the strip’s charm: it is determinedly old-fashioned in many ways, with plenty of silliness and lots of action of the “stuffed locker spewing junk” and “trouble with teachers” types. Yet Big Nate has enough of a contemporary feel and enough goofiness in Nate himself and in the supporting cast to be a great deal of fun, day in and day out, without a shred of profundity.
Steve Björkman’s cartoony illustrations for Dirt on My Shirt are very much action-oriented, too, and are the primary attraction of this (+++) book featuring poems by Jeff Foxworthy. Foxworthy is a bit like Nate Wright in his apparent sense of himself as better at humorous poetry than he actually is. There is certainly nothing wrong with the poems, especially short ones such as “Wishing and Fishing,” whose four lines go: “I was just wishing that I could go fishing/ What I might catch I don’t know/ A shark or a whale, or a fish with no tail/ No matter ’cause I’ll let ’em go.” But the deliberately crowded illustration within which the words appear – showing water creatures of all sorts, shapes and colors – is creative in a way that makes the poem seem ho-hum. Likewise, the illustrations for “Noises” are much funnier than a poem in which Foxworthy, needing a rhyme for “fire truck in a hurry,” comes up with “my baby brother Murray” (well, it does rhyme). Again and again, the pictures here make the comparatively ordinary poems into something special. “Staring Contest” shows a boy and cat with equally bugged-out eyes and faces almost touching – and words that begin, “I am staring at my cat/ He doesn’t bat an eye.” “Uninvited Guests” features big-eyed, smiling squirrels swarming all over a bird feeder and the tree to whose branch it is attached. “What Do You See?” is a real gem: a simple poem naming things that are easily visible in a pleasant outdoor scene goes with a two-page illustration that not only contains the items specified in the words but also includes many more things to find – as explained on the book’s copyright page. Dirt on My Shirt is mildly amusing and enjoyable to read, and some of Foxworthy’s ideas are especially pleasant – such as his notion of escaped balloons rising to Heaven for little angels to play with. But it is really Björkman’s illustrations that make the book so much fun – as in the body language and expressions of those angels. Some of the pictures here are gentle, some are full of activity, and all fit the subject matter completely and lovingly.