April 12, 2018


Floundering Fathers: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Evil Emperor Penguin #2: Evil Emperor Penguin Strikes Back! By Laura Ellen Anderson. David Fickling Books. $8.99.

     Because so many animals are so all-fired gosh-darn cuddly and adorable, especially when drawn as cartoon characters, it only makes sense that some people will take them to the opposite extreme and make them decidedly uncuddly and unadorable. Stephan Pastis has been doing this for years in his Pearls Before Swine comic strip, so it is no surprise that he continues doing it in the strip’s latest collection, Floundering Fathers. Pastis is quite determined to make his central animal characters less attractive than…well, than any other characters in the strip. Which is really saying something. Take those stick arms and legs that Pastis creates for Pig, Rat, Goat, the crocs, et al. Pastis knows how to draw more-realistic-looking limbs – maybe not much more realistic, but somewhat more realistic – and does so when portraying his own in-strip cartoonist character and a wide variety of single-use entrants, such as the farmers being sold at a farmers’ market and the people to whom presidential candidate Rat speaks about his campaign, who are seen in that strip’s final panel holding a pitchfork and torch. So Pastis is clearly being quite deliberate in giving his primary characters as little potential cuddliness as possible. He then extends that plan by what he has them say and do. For instance, Rat challenges Goat to drink a beer “every time a CNN political analyst begins their [sic] answer with the word ‘look,’” and one panel later, both Rat and Goat are completely buried in beer cans. For another instance, cartoon Pastis presents “a syndicated cartoonist’s top ten list of topics that generate the most complaints,” among which are race, religion, sex, drugs, Fox News, and praise for or criticism of Barack Obama; and in this strip’s final panel, Rat says, “I saw that Black Muslim Obama on Fox News,” and Guard Duck chimes in, “Do you think he has sex while on drugs?” Clearly animal matters in Pearls Before Swine are cast about willy-nilly, if not like pearls before swine, then like cubic zirconia before – hmm, no, that would probably insult someone somewhere somehow, and that is part of Pastis’ job, self-created. The rest of Pastis’ job is to think up awful and outrageous puns and wordplay and have his characters react a smidgen negatively when cartoon Pastis presents the material. For example, there is a strip about a man named Richard who names a potato company in Decatur, Georgia, after himself and now has so much money that he controls the town; so the whole scenario, cartoon Pastis announces, refers to “the Dick’s Tator Decatur dictator,” leading Rat to suggest, “Let’s go punch him in the face repeatedly.” Oddly enough, all this is considered family humor, more or less, to the extent that it must be “family humor” to be included in the slow death spiral of newspapers, whose demise is possibly being hastened by defining Pearls Before Swine as “family” anything. So much for using animals to appeal to people’s warm and welcoming side.

     Laura Ellen Anderson’s graphic novels about Evil Emperor Penguin and his minions do not go quite as far into the world of anti-cute as do Pastis’ comic strips – after all, Anderson is reaching out to children as readers, while Pastis’ work is emphatically not for kids. Why, Anderson even has a unicorn in Evil Emperor Penguin Strikes Back! True, the book’s back cover shows abominable hench-snowman and top minion Eugene riding the unicorn while shouting, “To the lair of evil!” But both Keith the unicorn and Eugene are drawn in a rounded-enough way to retain vestiges (in fact, more than vestiges) of cuddle-ability; and besides, who can dislike a book whose contents page features the art that Eugene draws and tapes to “the Fridge of Evil” in Evil Emperor Penguin’s Antarctic lair? Like the first book in this series, this second one gets a (+++) rating because, as much fun as it delivers, it tries so hard to be clever that it repeatedly trips over itself. The cast of characters remains the same here as in the first book: EEP himself; the small and adorable Eugene (who loves hugs, rainbows and unicorns, but still hangs around with EEP and supports EEP’s plans for world domination); the very tall, intellectual, monocle-wearing purple-octopus henchthing named Number 8, although referred to as “Squid” by EEP; and scowling, mustachioed Evil Cat, mastermind of all things that are anti-EEP but still evil. Kids who had fun with the first book will enjoy this one equally, with its “super computer of evil” running “OS-evil” and utilizing the “USB of evil.” The “paint palette of evil” is enjoyable, too, especially when Eugene ends up within a number of famous paintings (the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Munch’s “The Scream,” and more) that kids probably will not know but that parents will enjoy seeing in this context if they happen to dip into the book. The eventual outcome of the interrelated adventures here – told chapter by chapter – is that EEP, of course, fails to take over the world; and Evil Cat also fails; but Eugene succeeds, sort of, thereby proving that niceness and being “cute and fluffy” can conquer all. More or less. Apparently there is room for cuteness, even in works featuring critters who are determined, at all costs, not to be even the slightest bit cutesy.

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