October 04, 2018


Big Nate Goes Bananas! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

The Agony House. By Cherie Priest. Illustrated by Tara O’Connor. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $18.99.

     Nate Wright has now been 11 or 12 years old, and in sixth grade, for more than 25 years, but his trials and tribulations show no sign of ending anytime soon. Good thing, too: Lincoln Peirce’s long-running strip remains one of the freshest and most character-driven comics around, and the collections of it show again and again that Peirce has lost none of his talent for wringing amusement out of Nate’s everyday life. That includes interactions with all the usual suspects in Nate’s world in Big Nate Goes Bananas! There is social-studies teacher Mrs. Godfrey, Nate’s primary adult nemesis, who is going to be absent for a while, having her gallbladder removed – with her substitute being intense-workouts-are-all-that-matter Coach John, Nate’s other adult nemesis. Nate never manages to get the better of Mrs. Godfrey, a well-developed character whose problems with Nate arise from her perception that he is talented and scholastically able but simply terminally lazy. However, Nate does get back at Coach John on the school’s Prank Day, in a hilarious sequence of “This Is Your Life” strips that are cringeworthy even for someone as narrow-minded and dull as Coach John. Nate’s friend Teddy tells Nate, “This is some of your best work,” and readers will agree. Yes, Nate does have his moments. But his primary sixth-grade nemesis, Gina, has hers, too, as when she complains to Mrs. Godfrey that Nate is exhaling noisily and making it hard for her to concentrate, so Mrs. Godfrey says, “Nate, stop breathing.” Among the other interacting-with-Nate characters are his feckless and clueless father; his older sister, Ellen; the neighbor’s dog, Spitsy, who constantly drools and always wears an Elizabethan collar and who has, in effect, become Nate’s dog; sweet and naïve Chad, who here shows himself capable of a surprising amount of annoyance under certain circumstances; Nate’s crush, Jenny, who wants nothing to do with him and is paired with Artur, whose constant niceness and multiple talents drive Nate crazy (well, crazier); and – more prominently in this collection than earlier ones – Nate’s Uncle Ted, a ne’er-do-well middle-aged nonentity who lives with Nate’s grandparents and is lazy, video-game-obsessed, and so completely incompetent in the basics of adult life that Nate is delighted when his father comes home from a trip during which Uncle Ted has been staying with Nate. Throw in appearances by School Picture Guy (dressed as a pirate to advertise a beach-community mini-golf attraction) and brainy, book-reading neighbor Peter, whose mother wants him to go outside to play and thinks Nate is just the kid to get him interested in exercise, and you have a recipe for enjoyment no matter which way Nate turns – and no matter which pages readers of Big Nate Goes Bananas! turn to.

     Big Nate is a thoroughly modern comic strip in many ways, despite the timeless quality of some of its characters and interactions. Comics of another sort and an earlier era are central to Cheri Priest’s intriguing (+++) novel, The Agony House, in which Tara O’Connor’s illustrations play a significant part. The book’s characters and basic plot are nothing special: family decides to restore run-down house that turns out to be haunted, requiring intelligent preteen girl and her friends (new and old) to track down a mystery and let the ghosts rest so the life of the still-living can go on. However, the nature of the mystery and the route to its solution are quite interesting: they lead through a long-ago time in the world of comics, a time in the early 1950s when the imposition of strict censorship through the Comics Code of America (CCA) destroyed many of the greatest comic books ever created (such as the E.C. line, whose horror comics are still chilling today) and forced many great cartoonists out of the business or into the production of formulaic pabulum. In The Agony House, protagonist Denise Farber discovers, in the attic, an old, unpublished comic book featuring a female crime fighter named Lucida Might. This – thanks to the knowledge and the help of a standard-issue nerdy neighbor – eventually, after many twists and turns, leads to the discovery of who is haunting the house and why. But although the outcome of the book and many of its plot points are straightforward, the method of getting from start to finish is highly creative. Lucida Might’s eyes stare intensely from the book’s front cover, above a picture showing a modern person, presumably Denise, standing beside a car and facing the boarded-up, menacing-looking house of the title. Remove the wraparound cover and look at the actual cover of the book, and there is Lucida’s full face, above a pleasant-looking version of the same house, with Lucida herself standing beside a sports car and gazing at the building. This interaction of the real, modern world with the fictional comic-book world of the 1950s is what lends The Agony House its primary interest. And Priest does not assume that readers will think to take off the wraparound cover to see the Lucida scene on the cover itself: the same scene appears as an illustration within the narrative, as part of the many comic-book sequences that are included throughout and that advance the story cleverly while keeping its mysteries intact. As it happens, the foundational mystery, which involves one person assuming the identity of another, is never satisfactorily resolved: the “why” is missing. But the ghost-story elements are neatly handled, and the foray into the era of CCA censorship gives this book an intriguing element of pop-culture history that is rarely explored in modern fiction – and that may give preteen readers pause as they encounter contemporary demands for censorship of various ideas and viewpoints.

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