November 02, 2017
(++++) IN THE MIDST OF IT ALL
Dream Jumper, Book Two: Curse of the Harvester. By Greg Grunberg & Lucas Turnbloom. Art by Lucas Turnbloom. Color by Guy Major. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Stick Cat #3: Two Catch a Thief. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.
The notion of beginning a work in medias res, in the middle of things, has a long and honorable history. The phrase itself dates to the work of the Roman poet Horace, writing around the year 13 B.C.E., and he was referring to how works of much earlier times were constructed. Nowadays, given the frequency with which books are issued in series rather than as single volumes, it is possible not only to begin an individual book in the middle of things but also to start an entire series in the middle, if one so desires. The approach, however, works better in some cases than others. Both Dream Jumper and Stick Cat are a lot of fun, but readers would do better to begin with earlier series entries than to make the characters’ acquaintance for the first time through the latest volumes. The reason is that both the latest books build on what has happened before, and in the case of Dream Jumper, very little in Curse of the Harvester makes sense unless you have read Nightmare Escape, which started the sequence. This series works because of pacing and the fine coloring by Guy Major more than because of any originality of plot. Greg Grunberg and Lucas Turnbloom – the former an actor, the latter an experienced graphic novelist and cartoonist – go for a mixture of straightforward narrative and offbeat (even amusing) illustrations, but their basic good-vs.-evil structure is highly formulaic. In fact, it is even more so in Curse of the Harvester than in the previous book, as we meet evil characters serving other evil characters because they are, you know, evil, and one particular bad guy (bad thing, actually) is supposed to have been destroyed long ago but has somehow survived and is threatening the good guys again – the sort of thing that even young readers will likely have encountered before. It is the series’ structural specifics that need explaining, which they do not receive in this second entry. The whole notion of “dream jumping” – the ability to move from one person’s dream to that of another – is reasonably clear here. But the way protagonist Ben Maxwell became a dream jumper, the way he and his friend Jake have turned dream jumping into a business, the reasons powerful evil characters appear in typical skeleton-and-darkness guises while good ones show up in cute forms such as those of a bunny and a gopher – these and other elements are simply assumed background in Curse of the Harvester. And the sleep lab where something important is going on (something very unclear in the context of this specific book) is totally unexplained, as is the background of Dr. Alexson, who runs the lab and is here taken over (in yet another unoriginal plot twist) by one of the dark forces of the dreamworld. For those already involved in the Dream Jumper graphic novels, Curse of the Harvester will be fun despite its clunky recurrent exposition, which includes stilted dialogue: “A hideous creature called the Harvester has cursed him! …If Jake falls deep enough into sleep, he’ll be pulled into the dream world and delivered into the hands of the Harvester, who will then feed Jake to his master, the Vortex of Nowhere!” There are still touches of humor here – at one point Jake tells Ben, “You’ve been reading way too many graphic novels” – but this is, by and large, an action-packed book that carries readers along through pacing that mostly verges on the frenetic. It will confuse anyone who has not read its predecessor and will be enjoyable for anyone who has read it and has been waiting for more of the same.
A much milder series, presented as heavily illustrated novels rather than in full graphic-novel form, is the Stick Cat sequence created by Tom Watson on a track parallel to that of his Stick Dog books. Instead of a five-dog pack roaming the suburbs looking for food and having mild but amusing adventures, the Stick Cat books feature two city-dwelling felines in adjoining high-rise apartments who hang out together and, in the first two books, manage improbable rescues of humans who get into ridiculous-but-dangerous situations. It helps to know this background to understand why the cats say they are determined not to do yet another rescue at the start of Two Catch a Thief, the third book in the series. The rest of the background either falls into place bit by bit or is omitted in favor of keeping the story moving. The animals here, like those in the Stick Dog books, are drawn ultra-simply, with sticks for legs and rectangular or slightly ovoid bodies – hence the title critters’ names. Watson likes to “interrupt” the Stick Dog and Stick Cat books to make occasional authorial comments, pretending in them to be a preteen creating the books during math class. In the case of Stick Cat, he is a boy just discovering that a cat-loving girl is kinda cute and maybe sorta likes him – in fact, she is the reason he has started writing about Stick Cat. This is not much of a background story, but it helps to know it before starting Two Catch a Thief, and Watson includes enough of it to set the scene. Somewhat harder to understand is the relationship between Stick Cat and the cat next door, Edith, who is a less-interesting and less-attractive sidekick for Stick Cat than are the canines who accompany Stick Dog. Edith is both ultra-egotistical and mentally dim, a combination that is not really as funny as Watson (or his preteen alter ego) seems to believe. Edith’s misinterpretations and selfishness are supposed to come off as cute contrasts to Stick Cat’s clear thinking and analytical ways, but a lot of the time they are just unpleasantly simple-minded. In Two Catch a Thief, the plot involves a burglar who is somehow crawling around in the ventilation ducts of the building where Stick Cat and Edith live, and who comes into Stick Cat’s apartment to steal things belonging to Stick Cat’s human, Goose. The burglar, for some reason, carries tuna along with him to feed to cats – this makes no sense whatsoever, although it might be sensible for a burglar to carry food to distract dogs – and Edith resolutely refuses to care about the thefts happening in front of her eyes or even to acknowledge that they are thefts. She dubs the burglar “Tuna Todd” and happily eats the treats (which are not even laced with something to put possibly intrusive animals to sleep; again, this makes very little sense – Two Catch a Thief is much more poorly plotted than the Stick Dog books). Even when the burglar moves to the apartment Edith shares with her human, Tiffany, Edith does not see him as a thief, instead complaining about all the things she does not like about how Tiffany treats her. In fact, Tiffany treats Edith extraordinarily well – and it is only when the burglar decides to steal Edith’s collars (he has correctly identified valuables early in the book but now suddenly decides that Edith’s “jewel”-encrusted collars contain real gems) that Edith rethinks her view of him. Most of the fun in the book occurs after this, when Stick Cat and Edith band together to stop the thief – then Edith’s dimness proves accidentally helpful, which is a genuinely amusing touch. Even though Watson’s authorial persona in the Stick Cat books does not exist, Watson’s desire to create light and amusing cat-focused books to complement his dog-focused ones does make sense in real-world terms (young readers, after all, may prefer cats to dogs and may therefore not want to read the Stick Dog series). Two Catch a Thief will be enjoyable for anyone who already knows the Stick Cat series and enjoys its underlying premise and its protagonists. Stick Cat himself is a pleasant enough character, and if Edith falls short, that will not matter to readers of Two Catch a Thief if they have already decided, based on the two earlier books in the series, that they like her personality.