March 22, 2018
(++++) COMICS BEYOND KIDS
Big Nate: Silent but Deadly. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The “Mutts” Spring Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
I’m Not Your Sweet Babboo! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Packaged with pull-out posters, “More to Explore” sections and other enhancements, some of Andrews McMeel’s comics collections are aimed directly at children – a fact that shows that so many of the same comic strips are, when taken as a whole, not just for kids. Of course, among modern strips as among older ones, some cartoonists do primarily target younger readers – as Lincoln Peirce does with Big Nate, whose presumed audience is around the same age as the strip’s sixth-grade central character. Nate’s inflated sense of his own importance, intelligence and abilities is the central element of the strip, and the fact that Nate never lets life get him down when it is repeatedly shown that he is less than he imagines himself to be is what makes him appealing (and a potential role model for readers of the same age). Peirce specializes in “character comedy,” with Nate and the rest of the cast (mostly his classmates and teachers at P.S. 38) being known quantities whose interactions with Nate and with each other provide the humor. Thus, in Silent but Deadly, what is funny about a series in which super-brain Gina falls for silly and clumsy but cute and endearing Chad is that Gina having a crush on anyone is so out of character, while Chad being oblivious to Gina’s feelings is in character. And when Gina finds out that Chad does not “like” like her (or any girl), and that affects how well she does on a test, her vow never again to “let personal feelings get in the way of academic achievement” makes perfect sense because of who she is. The “character comedy” elements of Big Nate even extend beyond the humans in the strip: an especially funny sequence in Silent but Deadly involves Spitsy, the inept, cross-eyed dog (who always wears a protective Elizabethan collar), and Pickles, the cat belonging to Nate’s friend Francis, having a “lovers’ spat” that is resolved by playing “their song.” The book’s slightly scatological title refers to Nate’s super-sensitive nose being able to identify all sorts of things and people by sniffing the air – the point being that Nate does have some quirks that set him well apart from everyone else, but spends most his time over-estimating his abilities in areas where he does not excel. One area where Nate is strong is basketball, and one of the best sequences here has him involved in a one-on-one dispute with another team’s point guard, who is considered far better than Nate and makes sure Nate knows it. The climax of this series of strips has Nate doing the unexpected: bypassing his own ego and helping someone else on his team score the winning basket, thus taking the arrogant opposing point guard down a peg and showing that when he has to, Nate can actually take others’ needs and feelings into account. It does not happen often, but it does happen occasionally – and is one reason kids of Nate’s age (and probably their parents) will find Silent but Deadly and the other Nate collections so amusingly interesting. The full-color, pull-out poster of the book’s front cover is a little something extra to enjoy.
Patrick McDonnell’s marvelous Mutts strip is very clearly aimed at adults, with its frequent bows to fine art, earlier comics, and societal issues such as conservation and the adoption of animals from shelters. But some of the characters in Mutts are children, and the sweet simplicity of many of the strips easily crosses generational lines, as is shown in The “Mutts” Spring Diaries. This is the fourth Diaries collection: the first was simply The Mutts Diaries, the second was for winter, and the third was for autumn. Presumably a summer grouping will show up at some point. The selected strips within these collections are put together to reflect whatever season is mentioned in the book’s title, which means The “Mutts” Spring Diaries is mostly about new growth, showers that being flowers, Easter, birds returning from flights south, and so forth. Those themes show up here with typical Mutts twists, as when Mooch the cat perches in a tree and sings discordantly from a branch, leading a nearby bird to tell Earl the dog, “I hate karaoke night.” Earl and Mooch are the central characters around whom Mutts is built, and some of McDonnell’s uses of them are sheer genius, as in one panel in which multiple Earls and Mooches rain down in a setting that duplicates the famous “rain of men” in René Magritte’s painting Golconda. Not all readers, adult or child, will catch all the art and older-comics references in Mutts, but it is not necessary to do so in order to enjoy a strip that is generally drawn very simply but contains considerable depth of thought: Mutts may seem childlike but is not childish. McDonnell has a lot of fun with stereotypical comic-strip scenes, as in one strip showing Earl and Mooch lying on a hilltop watching clouds, as many other characters have elsewhere. In Mutts, the two friends see an elephant, then a pink sock (Mooch’s favorite toy), then a fish, and then simply a cloud, leading Mooch to exclaim, “Finally!” Also here are strips in which McDonnell embellishes literary or environmental quotations: “The Earth is what we all have in common – Wendell Berry” includes three black-and-white panels of elephants, people in a city, and a polar bear, followed by a larger, full-color panel of Earl and Mooch siting beneath a tree and contemplating nature all around them. Even when Earl and Mooch act doglike and catlike, they do it with Mutts flair, as when Mooch finds a ball and Earl cannot stop himself from insisting that Mooch throw it (Earl’s eyes get huge and he exclaims “Throw it!” again and again and again). Mooch complies, but comments to the reader (in his particular style of speech), “I think it shmight be time for an intervention.” There are also several “Shelter Stories” here, in which endearing animals warmly and amusingly ask readers to choose a special friend at a local animal shelter. And the “More to Explore” section at the back of the book fits McDonnell’s themes well, showing how to build a bird feeder and giving information and suggestions for backyard bird watching.
The latest Peanuts reprint contains both a pull-out poster and a “More to Explore” section, the latter focused on helicopters because of one especially noteworthy sequence included in the book: the comic-strip series that for the first time has Sally calling Linus her “sweet babboo” (first use: January 27, 1977). Linus strongly objects to the characterization – hence this book’s title – but the phrase became one of Charles Schulz’s lasting contributions to comic strips. It shows up during a series of strips in which Linus is stuck on a slippery barn roof and has to be rescued by Snoopy, who functions as a helicopter piloted by Woodstock – hence the helicopter-oriented material at this book’s conclusion. Both the helicopter rescue and the “sweet babboo” phrase result from a “love triangle” involving Linus, Sally and a girl named Truffles, whose appearance is unusual for a Peanuts character: she has a bigger nose and much bigger eyes than Schulz’s other characters do. Truffles disappeared after the “sweet babboo” series, showing up for the last time on January 29, 1977; adult fans who may remember her will enjoy rediscovering her in this collection. The book includes several other notable multi-strip sequences as well. One of the longest and funniest has Peppermint Patty enrolling at a private school because she is not a very good student – and ending up in an obedience school for dogs, courtesy of a brochure she gets from Snoopy. She does well and graduates, only to be told – after she brings in her diploma to prove her graduation, also bringing along her lawyer (yes, Snoopy) – that she was not in a school for human children after all. Her explosive anger at Snoopy over the whole incident leads to her fighting (outside the visible panels) with the never-seen cat next door (whose name, we learn in this collection, is “World War II”). She thinks the cat is Snoopy in disguise – but the real Snoopy shows up at the last minute to turn the tide of the fight and repair his relationship with Peppermint Patty. The complexity of this series and the way the characters’ personalities are interrelated and used to advance the story show just how skillful Schulz was once he had developed his characters fully and figured out multiple ways to involve them with each other. This is also clear in other extended sequences in I’m Not Your Sweet Babboo! There is, for example, one in which Snoopy falls in love and decides to get married; invites his brother, Spike, to be best man; and Spike runs off with the bride, who is never seen – and who then deserts Spike for a coyote. Another extended Snoopy sequence features another minor female character, this one named Molly Volley – a tennis player with a hair-trigger temper who first appeared on May 9, 1977 and lasted a lot longer than Truffles did: Molly’s final appearance was on September 16, 1990. In the series in the current collection, Molly and Snoopy play doubles; Molly dominates the play and yells her calls loudly at the other (unseen) players; but at the very end, when there is a question about whether a ball hit by the other team was in or out, Snoopy indicates honestly that it was in, so he and Molly lose (and she does not appreciate the “smak” on the cheek that Snoopy gives her in consolation). Schulz had the remarkable ability to make young readers think Peanuts – a strip that was a major influence on McDonnell, among other cartoonists – was intended for children, while simultaneously having adults realize just how grown-up some of the strip’s themes, interactions and concepts could be. This latest collection confirms once again the unique way that Schulz managed to make Peanuts truly a comic strip for the ages – all ages.