October 25, 2018


The Adventures of Superfish and His Superfishal Friends: The Twenty-Third “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Penguinaut! By Marcie Colleen. Illustrated by Emma Yarlett. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

     Incongruity is fun at any age. Of course, the word itself is best not used when addressing children – or some adults, for that matter. But the concept makes sense, in different ways, for people of all ages. Jim Toomey, who has been writing and drawing the Sherman’s Lagoon comic strip since 1992, is well aware of this. His central character, Sherman the endearingly dim and un-self-aware shark, is surrounded by fellow underwater denizens who have changed little over the years and who share with Sherman all sorts of ridiculous characteristics – to which they periodically draw attention. For instance, in The Adventures of Superfish and His Superfishal Friends, Fillmore, the green sea turtle and resident intellectual of the strip, finds an article about a scientific study showing that fish can recognize differences between human faces. Part of Sherman’s Lagoon, a distinctly adult part, is its periodic inclusion of real scientific (often environmental) information, and this happens to be a real study. But Toomey has his cartoon creations use it in consistent-with-their-character ways, which means that when Sherman mentions the article to Ernest – a kind of teenager-ish fish and computer hacker who, improbably, wears glasses despite lacking anything for earpieces to attach to – Ernest says he saw the story already, “which, I believe, is even more impressive.” Sherman wonders what Ernest means, and Ernest replies, “That fish can read.” And there you have one example among many of Toomey “breaking the fourth wall,” letting readers in on the notion that the characters in Sherman’s Lagoon are well aware of how silly, not to mention impossible, their antics and activities are. Much of what happens in the strip is distinctly for adults, yet is handled in ways that even children will enjoy. Hermit crab, lagoon mayor and all-around schemer Hawthorne, for example, is constantly involved in one mildly nefarious money-making plot or another. That is certainly a grown-up sort of activity – and adults will likely think of Hawthorne types they have encountered over the years. But the specific ways that Hawthorne tries to swindle people have a level of childlike amusement about them. For instance, in The Adventures of Superfish and His Superfishal Friends, Hawthorne at one point decides to get Sherman to take up professional wrestling, with Hawthorne as his manager. “It’s all a show, you know,” says Hawthorne. “How well can you act?” Sherman responds with another of Toomey’s breaking-the-fourth-wall comments: “Are you kidding? I act in this comic strip every day.” But then matters move along, and Hawthorne books Sherman to fight a variety of opponents who seem blissfully unaware that everything is just an act – leading Hawthorne to encourage Sherman at one point by saying, “Keep bleeding. The crowd loves it.” No real blood is shed in the making of the strip, of course, not even when Sherman goes up against “The Masked Marauder,” who turns out to be his wife, Megan. That is a kind of traditional situation-comedy plot, and even kids too young to know how traditional it is – or just what a situation comedy might be – will appreciate it. Toomey manages to be engaging for readers of many ages – and the way he occasionally slips some real science and environmental awareness into the strip means that people of all ages have a chance to benefit from, not just laugh at, Sherman’s Lagoon.

     Toomey often plays with matters of his characters’ size, as when Hawthorne asks Sherman what he does “besides being huge” and Sherman, looking down – way down – at the hermit crab, responds, “I put up with little jerks.” Marcie Colleen and Emma Yarlett play with size issues as well in Penguinaut! But since this is a picture book for very young readers, there is no snappy dialogue here and no attempt to mingle adult-oriented and child-focused material. “Orville was small,” the book starts, showing the little penguin in his habitat at the zoo. “His friends were BIG,” the text continues, showing Orville at play with an elephant so large that only part of it fits onto a two-page drawing. And then Colleen and Yarlett get to the point of Penguinaut! They show the big animals having big (and clearly imaginary) adventures, such as flying through the air and deep-sea diving – and have Orville decide that even though he is small, he will have a big adventure of his own. He plans to go to the moon, possibly by learning to fly, using a really long ladder, or building a super-springy catapult. His much-larger friends think the whole idea may be too much for the little penguin, but “Orville flippered out” at being diminished, writes Colleen; indeed, Orville decides he does not need the encouragement or support of anyone else, and is determined to make the journey all by himself. After multiple failures, Orville manages to make a spaceship from old cardboard boxes and other discards, powering it by shaking “a half-filled soda bottle,” and sure enough, he takes off all by himself “through clouds, over stars, and straight to the moon.” But once there, Orville realizes that being all alone on his adventure is not really very much fun. So he imagines his friends are with him – Yarlett’s portrayal of the animals as constellations is an amusing and wholly suitable touch – and soon Orville returns to the zoo, where “the proud Penguinaut felt BIG, too.” Lessons learned: small stature does not mean small thinking; it is possible to accomplish things alone, but they are more fun when done with friends; and, as the final page of the book says, “being together was out of this world.” That last page shows a new cardboard spaceship labeled “Together,” containing lots and lots of the zoo animals, and just about to blast off for who-knows-where. The basic message here is that the “where” does not matter as long as you go wherever-it-is with good friends – and while the message is delivered in an age-appropriate way for young children, it is certainly one from which adults can benefit as well.

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