November 17, 2016


Caveboy Dave: More Scrawny Than Brawny. By Aaron Reynolds. Illustrated by Phil McAndrew. Viking. $12.99.

Business Cat: Money, Power, Treats. By Tom Fonder. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Man, I Hate Cursive: Cartoons for People and Advanced Bears. By Jim Benton. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Comic strips and panels, and editorial cartoons, have always been drawn in multiple styles, but it sometimes seems as if their evolution has recently accelerated – just as other aspects of life appear to change more quickly now than they did in the past. At least part of the reason is the number of venues in which comics now appear. Graphic novels, for example, are a relatively new phenomenon, and they have opened up new opportunities both for writers and for artists. Caveboy Dave: More Scrawny Than Brawny, the first book of a planned series, is a good example of just how interesting the medium can be. Mind you, there is nothing profound here: the book is for preteens and young teenagers (its protagonist is 12), and a lot of it is essentially middle-school humor transposed to “caveman” days, which are about as realistic here as they were in The Flintstones (although at least Aaron Reynolds does not bring in any dinosaurs). The story is a pretty standard “find out who you really are” one, and the characters are pretty standard, too: Dave Unga-Bunga comes from a family that invented both fire and the wheel, but his own attempted inventions are far less successful; he has buddies, an appreciative boy named Ug Smith and a smart and sarcastic girl named Rockie Firegood; and there are the usual typecast minor characters, including strong and handsome but mentally rather slow Bane Bonesnap, class clown Gak Clubberson, and the standard feckless adults (Dave’s father, the gym teacher, the tribe’s shaman). Reynolds’ story follows a familiar arc: Dave and his friends all turn 12 at the same time and are required to go on a hunt to prove their foraging abilities. Dave tries to get out of hunting by creating inventions instead, but they fall flat. The hunt becomes, predictably, a mess, but eventually leads to the discovery of a new animal; to Dave’s revenge against the creature responsible for his mother’s death years earlier; and to the finding and presentation of a new food source, complete with Dave’s highly useful (and extremely silly) invention of a way to distribute it to the villagers. The anachronisms and layered ridiculousness are entirely deliberate – and nicely accentuated by Phil McAndrew’s illustrations, which are so exaggerated that they produce characterization far beyond anything offered in the text. Shaman Faboo, for example, has his eyes and extremely long nose at the very top of his head, his ears and mouth at the very bottom, and a long featureless space in between. Gym teacher Mr. Gronk is so hairy that he barely needs to wear the traditional caveman clothing. Dave’s own hair looks as if it is trying to fly into the clouds, and Rockie’s hairdo is about five times the size of her head. McAndrew also manages to make classroom instruction about the six best beasts to hunt amusing by showing the equivalent of a caveman textbook illustrating them, while Reynolds provides “caveman-style” names for the creatures – slothopod, pokeyhorn, rippy-beak, blobby-goo, slugasaurus, and stabby-cat. The naming and misnaming are part of the story: when the kids discover a huge tusked animal that is “really woolly” and so big that it is “mammoth,” they call it “the deadly fuzzy hose-nose.” Silliness of all sorts abounds here – and the art reflects and exaggerates the text in just the right way.

     Comics aimed at adults have undergone many stylistic changes, too – largely driven in recent times by the proliferation of both static cartoons and animations on the Internet. The Internet is also the repository of uncounted numbers of cat-related postings – so what would be more natural than a comic-strip twist on cats? This being the Internet, something unnatural would appear most apt, and that is what Tom Fonder serves up in The Adventures of Business Cat. Some of those adventures have now been collected in traditional book form in Business Cat: Money, Power, Treats, which is a fair sampling of the strip and its peculiarities. Fonder deliberately makes the cat’s-head-on-a-human body completely unrealistic-looking and quite obviously clumsily attached. The body itself is drawn much more realistically, and all the other human characters in the strip are also realistic – which means that Fonder knows how to draw people but, when it comes to Business Cat himself, chooses not to create a seamless (or even semi-seamless) blend of human and feline. The idea of the strip is that Business Cat is all cat when it comes to most of his habits and activities – but exists as a CEO in a human world. So he understands that it is “time to dial up the charm” before a meeting with important clients – then does so by rubbing himself, business suit and all, against the clients, getting cat hair all over them. He uses the executive bathroom – where he has a private litter box. He has a pet of his own, named Kevin – a cat’s body with a human head. Like real-world cats, Business Cat likes to climb up onto desks and squat on computer keyboards – but since he is in fact a full-grown man who happens to have a cat’s head, what he leaves behind is a keyboard smashed and crushed to pieces. He scratches at the door of his office until his assistant, Janet, opens it to let him in; then he just stands there for a while and turns around and walks away – a habit cat owners know well. He sends people to “racial sensitivity training” because they find Internet pictures of cutely posed cats funny; and one thing the instructor does is show a drawing of Garfield and ask, “can anyone tell me why this is a harmful stereotype?” He is afraid of vacuum cleaners, distracted by laser pointers, and forced to cancel a meeting because he has treed himself – again (he knows the firefighter who rescues him by name). The Business Cat strip is essentially a single joke spun out at length, but the unusual drawing style, in its mix of realistic and deliberately unrealistic elements, keeps it interesting – and allows Fonder to come up with some “what did you expect?” plot elements, such as the rivalry between Business Cat and, of course, Business Dog.

     There are some Internet cartoons whose audience is a bit hard to pin down – kids, adults, both or a combination? In the case of a series of Reddit cartoons by Jim Benton of Happy Bunny fame (or notoriety), the “audience” answer seems to be “anyone who knows what Reddit is and how to use it, and doesn’t mind a certain degree of childishness and a smattering of four-letter words.” At least that is a reasonable conclusion based in Man, I Hate Cursive, a collection of some of Benton’s Reddit cartoons. There are occasional Happy-Bunny-like characters here – that is, ones that look cute but talk and behave in an anything-but-cute way – but no recurring ones. These cartoons, both in topics and in style, go wherever Benton seems to feel like going at any particular moment. There is one panel set on an airline, with the captain asking the passengers whether perhaps someone brought along “some of that special airplane gasoline.” There is one panel funny enough to be on the cover – it is on the cover – showing a frustrated wizard saying, “Man, I hate cursive,” while looking at a scroll called “How to summon a [demon?] [lemon?].” Inside the mystical symbol the wizard has created is a smiling, walking lemon, but Benton does indeed make the cursive on the scroll perfectly ambiguous. Some cartoons are multi-panel, like a wonderful one in which a blue-skinned genie emerges from a lamp offering three wishes, and the lucky man holding the lamp first wishes for the genie to develop breasts, then to turn fully human, and then to live happily with him – the final panel shows the man, now older, sitting on a couch with his blue-skinned, bikini-wearing mate, as two children, one of them blue-skinned, play nearby. Then there is the sequence in a coffee shop in which a customer orders an incredibly elaborate drink before walking away disheartened because “I just realized I have more goals for my coffee than I do for myself.” And there is a two-panel strip in which Princess Leia pushes a button on the front of Darth Vader’s armor and piles of freshly popped popcorn emerge from his helmet. And a three-panel one in which Death, tired of harvesting souls one at a time with his traditional scythe, goes online to buy a power mower that is much more efficient. What Benton does so well in this collection is to change drawing styles according to his topics – he not only shows multiple characters but also shows similar ones, such as humans, drawn in distinctly different ways that fit their settings very well indeed. In fact, perhaps the whole collection really is intended, as its subtitle suggests, “for people and advanced bears.”

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