December 21, 2017


Calendars (page-a-day for 2018): Pearls Before Swine; The Little World of Liz Climo. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     In real life, thank goodness, most people are kind to animals and reasonably happy around them. In cartoon life, not so much. Hand-drawn animals are subject to all sorts of abuse, mistreatment, and utilization as proxies for human ills and foibles of all kinds. This can be done on a good-natured basis or, as in the case of Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, in a somewhat darker mood. Pastis is noted for his willingness to create and kill off characters willy-nilly, then sometimes bring them back with the explanation that they “undied.” He does not do this with his major characters, however, and in that way differs from cartoonists such as Scott Adams, who in the early days of Dilbert actually had Dilbert killed to find out whether anyone cared (nobody really did, assuming, correctly, that he would be back). In any case, those who enjoy Pastis’ rather dark and cynical Pearls Before Swine strip and want a dose of it daily throughout 2018 have a chance to get just that with a page-a-day calendar bearing the title “King Wrong” and showing, on the cover, giant-ape-like Pastis climbing the Empire State Building while holding Pig and being attacked by aircraft, including one piloted by Rat. In the Pearls Before Swine world, all this makes perfect sense. So do the strips shown throughout the year. Pastis is a character in his own strip – a scruffy and unpleasant one – and gets treated about as well as do the other characters. Yes, that badly. The short-term characters get it worst, though: for example, famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil shows up to look for his shadow and is promptly carried away by a bird of prey. Regular characters mostly spend their time showing their true personalities, as when Rat gets into politics and promises to create “a compassionate totalitarian dictatorship,” while Goat tackles deeper issues such as the afterlife, asking Pig, “What do pigs think happens to them after they die?” And Pig himself, of course, responds just as his personality dictates: “They get squished between lettuce and tomato and called a B.L.T.” When these three characters get together, Pearls Before Swine is at its – well, swiniest if not pearliest. In one strip, for example, Goat talks about Einstein’s theory of relativity, Pig says Rat explained the whole thing by telling him “they’re annoying and judgmental and ruin the holidays,” and Rat cuts in to say that’s his theory of relatives. Elsewhere, Goat takes one bite of a cinnamon roll and instantly gains so much weight that Rat says he no longer fits in the panel; Biblical ark builder Noah returns to find souls worthy of redemption and is only able to come up with one – his dog, Skippy; and just to make sure hand-drawn human characters suffer as much as hand-drawn animal ones, Rat is seen crushing a man between two airline seats to protest cramped airplane seating, and when Goat asks why Rat doesn’t just contact the company’s CEO, Rat explains that the crushed man is the CEO. “I’m more delighted than I should be,” says Goat – and fans of Pearls Before Swine will share that sentiment all year with this calendar.

     Liz Climo is kinder to her animal characters than Pastis is to his, but The Little World of Liz Climo is just as strange and surreal as Pastis’. Climo does single-panel comics (although sometimes divided into two small panels, and occasionally more) rather than multi-panel sequential strips, so the pacing of her humor is different. Her groundhog tribute for 2018 simply involves a rabbit and skunk wishing a good day to the groundhog, after which the skunk says, “Crap – were we supposed to get him a gift?” Then there is the shark – one of many recurring Climo characters – saying “lobster is the best medicine” to a lobster, who says he thinks it’s laughter, not lobster, to which the shark replies, “Actually I think it’s aspirin.” And there is the rabbit enjoying painting Easter eggs until a chick walks up and says, “Dude, that’s my brother.” Also here is a snake using his entire body as a selfie stick. And a young dinosaur telling his dad that there is an emergency requiring ice cream immediately – when his father asks what the emergency is, the response is, “I’ll tell you after we eat the ice cream.” Speaking of eating, a crocodile comments that the noodles he is having “taste kinda gross,” but when he is told they are worms, he says, “in that case they’re pretty good.” There is also a hammerhead shark that tries to wear 3D glasses but decides they are broken – because, of course, his eyes are not set close together but are on opposite sides of the head from which he gets his name. There are also a pig who makes a Halloween piggy-bank costume by eating another character’s quarters, a killer whale who dons little round ears and says he is a panda, and an armadillo who simply rolls into a protective round shape and looks exactly like a basketball. The fun here is sometimes in the words, as in a phone call where a sloth says he is “just hangin’ around” while the penguin on the other end says he is “chillin’.” At other times, the illustrations make the humor, as when a frilled lizard (characterized by a huge fold of skin around the neck) tries unsuccessfully to wear a turtleneck. Climo’s humor is always offbeat and often surprisingly gentle – this calendar is a good choice for anyone who wants an animal-centric chuckle every day rather than a guffaw at animals’ expense.

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