September 20, 2018


Squidtoons: Exploring Ocean Science with Comics. By Garfield Kwan and Dana Song. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

From the Films of Harry Potter: Hidden Creatures Scratch Magic. Scholastic. $12.99.

The Last Kids on Earth No. 4: The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.

     Although there are still plenty of cute single-panel comics and amusing multi-panel strips out there, the value of cartoons as a communication device and enhancer has led, in our increasingly visual age, to their use in a variety of ways beyond the traditional ones. Squidtoons is an example. The book by Garfield Kwan and Dana Song is a serious – well, mostly serious – excursion into the ocean realm, filled with information on a randomly assembled but always interesting coterie of sea dwellers. Sections and presentations differ, but all are cartoon-focused and cartoon-guided. “Anatomy of a Coho Salmon,” for example, shows accurately rendered pictures of the fish and explains the meaning of scientific terms for parts of its anatomy: “Operculum (where water exits)” and “Kype (hooked jaw; males only),” for instance. Kwan and Song are careful to lighten things up on a regular basis so Squidtoons does not come across as an illustrated textbook: “Scales (fish chain mail)” and “Pectoral Fins (the steering wheels)” are examples. And sometimes they deliberately introduce a surprising and outlandish cartoon to make a scientific point: they explain that after the salmon dies, its decomposed body is eaten or absorbed by insects, crabs and even trees – and they show a picture of a tree stump whose top looks exactly like the sort of salmon found in supermarkets and fish shops, with the note, “Artistic rendition: They don’t actually look like a salmon fillet.” Turning the pages of Squidtoons means encountering familiar and less-familiar creatures again and again, in no particular order. One section is called “Anatomy of the mouthless, gutless, acid-oozing, bone-eating Osedax” and is about the tiny creatures that “can dissolve whale bones and absorb their nutrients.” Another “anatomy” sequence is “Anatomy of the Market Squid (tastes great with fried batter and lime,” with a cartoon illustration that includes “Siphon (jet propeller)” and “Fin (guides its movements)” but also shows one squid arm holding up a “Fake Mustache (where did that come from?).” The amusing elements are deliberately made so outlandish that readers will not confuse them with the serious ones, and Squidtoons as a whole trades on the notion of cartoons as amusing entertainment to keep things light while making them informative. The blending is very clever indeed, as in “6 Ways to Check If You Are a Lobster,” which includes factual “check your blood” and “check your relatives” suggestions, with well-presented explanations of why to check various things: “Check your voice. Lobsters don’t have vocal cords. Try to scream and see if you can hear yourself.” The unusual cartoon usage in Squidtoons makes its communication of science particularly clear.

     Cartoon characters are infinitely malleable, and that fact can be used to turn them into drawings that reach out to different ages. The Harry Potter films are not for very young children, but the early J.K. Rowling novels were written for preteens (the later, darker ones were more focused on teens and adults), and kids even younger than preteens may be intrigued by some of the additions to the original sequence of seven books and eight films – such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which takes place in Rowling’s universe at a time before Harry’s birth. One way to get the youngest children – even pre-readers – interested in the Harry Potter universe is through cartoons that simplify the characters by making them look much younger and cuter than they are on film or were in the novels. Then put some of the characters in a spiral-bound, open-flat book packaged with a not-too-sharp wooden stylus, create pages reflecting some movie themes, and you have Hidden Creatures Scratch Magic. This is a nicely done introduction-to-fantastic-beasts book whose (+++) rating primarily reflects the fact that it is a one-time-use item: once you scratch off where indicated, there is nothing more to do except reread the text, and since the main point of the writing is to instruct kids to scratch things off, it is not very useful. Still, this is an enjoyable single-use item. One cartoon shows a very childlike Newt Scamander, who, like all characters shown in this book, has a head as big as the rest of his body and sports big, round, solid black eyes. The facing page shows a piece of luggage he has brought with him, containing binoculars, a magnifying glass, a clock – ordinary, non-magical things. But scratching away these items reveals some distinctly magical ones hiding beneath them. Another page shows a very baby-ish Harry Potter, his round eyes complemented by big round glasses, his lightning-bolt scar plainly visible in a “z” shape, wearing his invisibility cloak and being, in fact, partly invisible. The facing page is all black and is said to show a magical creature called a Demiguise, from which many invisibility cloaks (although not Harry’s) can be made. Scratching around on the all-black page reveals the creature. Some pages ask kids to use the stylus to draw rather than scratch – that is, yes, it is used to scratch an all-black page, but kids make their own pictures instead of uncovering pre-existing ones. One page, for example, is for drawing what a dragon might be guarding for you if you had a top-secret vault at Gringott’s Wizarding Bank. The simply drawn cartoons here are entirely nonthreatening (even the dragon and scowling merpeople are on the cute side), and the book offers a set of pleasant single-use diversions whose focus on the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films will likely lead the very young children at whom the book is aimed to want to explore Rowling’s creations, including both the originals and the spinoffs, more closely.

     One thing comics have spawned is graphic novels, where the whole narrative impetus is carried by (in the best cases) a cleverly interwoven set of drawings and words, neither of which tells the story fully without the other. In their turn, graphic novels have spawned – or evolved along with – a kind of hybrid form of illustrated novel whose pictorial content goes well beyond that of traditional books with occasional illustrations. These works are nevertheless laid out more as traditional books than in the extended-comic-strip format of graphic novels. Some authors of books for preteens handle the amply illustrated novel particularly well, if they have good illustrators who get fully into the spirit of the tale-telling. The Last Kids on Earth, a series by Max Brallier with illustrations by Douglas Holgate, is a good example of using the illustrated-novel format successfully – even though the fourth book in the sequence, The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond, is weak from a storytelling perspective and therefore gets a (+++) rating despite its attractive presentation. An overview of the series makes it seem more stereotypical than it is: there is a zombie apocalypse, and only four preteens appear to have survived it – Jack Sullivan, the books’ narrator, who sees the world as a vast video game for him to play and win; Quint Baker, Jack’s best friend, a brainy inventor type; June Del Toro, Jack’s crush and the token savvy, as-good-as-any-boy female in the novels; and Dirk Savage, hulking brute and onetime bully who has abandoned his former dark side to bring the foursome some muscle. The first three books developed the premise in ever-enlarging ways that brought in a mysterious radio transmission indicating there are other survivors after all, plus various mutated creatures and transdimensional aliens that may have been responsible for setting the whole apocalypse thing in motion or may simply be caught in it themselves. Unfortunately, as the books have gotten more complicated, their basic kids-bonding-to-handle-disaster theme has been stretched to an almost unrecognizable degree, and the whole series lurches, in somewhat zombielike manner, almost out of control in the fourth book. This is supposed to be, of all things, a Christmas story, in which the kids are determined to show the aliens – some of whom are now allies – what Christmas spirit is all about. To do this, the kids completely turn their backs on the notion of taking a trip to find other survivors – the plan as of the end of the previous book. There are several misadventures as Jack tries to create just the right post-apocalyptic Christmas gift for June while helping the aliens understand the (entirely secular) meaning of the holiday. But that is not complex enough for this video-game world. This book also introduces another human survivor of the same age as the fearless foursome – but she is evil (as readers will immediately know from her name, Evie Snark) and wants to help the transdimensional bad guys overcome the transdimensional good guys. This involves some manipulation of the ever-present post-apocalyptic zombie population, which leads to some traps and escapes and whatnot. And then Dirk gets bitten by a zombie and needs to be rescued from zombification, a task that turns out to involve a transdimensional character who is something of a hermit but who eventually agrees to help out by providing a huge eyeball whose juices will counteract the zombie bite if Dirk drinks them in time. The increasing ridiculousness of the plot strands here is not the book’s main issue – it is the flailing about of the story, its unfocused nature, that keeps The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond from being as entertaining as its predecessors. It does, however, have a neat climax, involving a gigantic rat imbued with the consciousness of a transdimensional super-baddie, that clearly sets up the series’ continuation and that fans of these books are sure to enjoy. In fact, readers who liked the first three books will either have fun with this overly complicated fourth one or will, at the very least, put up with it for the bizarre elements of the story and the highly effective and very extensive use of cartoon drawings of the characters that propels the whole thing along.

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