May 02, 2019
(++++) SWEETNESS AND LIGHT, OR NEITHER
The “Mutts” Summer Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Glitch. By Sarah Graley. Graphix/Scholastic. $14.99.
Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts is a delight in any season, and now there are books showing that for all five of them. Yes, five seasons. The “Mutts” Diaries was followed by The “Mutts” Winter Diaries, then The “Mutts” Autumn Diaries, and then The “Mutts” Spring Diaries, and now The “Mutts” Summer Diaries. Apparently, in McDonnell’s world, the seasons, after getting an overview, run from winter to autumn to spring to summer. But Mutts is so much fun anytime that the sequence scarcely matters – and really, each of these books is simply a seasonally focused reissue of Mutts strips related to that particular season and gathered from various Mutts collections through the years. The gentle amusement of this comic strip is quite unlike anything to be found elsewhere: McDonnell’s art, imbued with the spirit of long-ago cartooning but always possessing a contemporary twist of its own, generates a feeling of timelessness that goes beautifully with the small but notable adventures of Earl the dog, Mooch the cat, and the many other creatures (human and nonhuman) who inhabit their world. This being a summer-themed collection, there are quite a few strips set at the beach, where Earl and Mooch and their humans go for vacation and where Crabby the crab, Mussels Marinara the mussel, a whale named Engelbert, and various other characters come into their own. Here, Earl and Mooch meet a lobster who, told that scientists believe that lobsters do not have feelings, says he does not believe that scientists have feelings. They find a snow-cone stand, where Mooch says he always wondered what happened to the stuff after it was shoveled; and a corn-dog stand that leads Mooch to decide that all his “meals should be on a shtick.” Earl and Mooch have adventures along a boardwalk, too, and fun listening to shells to hear the ocean, but the heart of Mutts (a strip with a great deal of heart) is encapsulated in a simple three-panel sequence showing Earl and his human, Ozzie, just sitting side by side on the sand in the first panel; in the second, Ozzie gives Earl three pats on the head; and in the third, Earl is thinking, “Vacations are good.” Even in a sweet summer like this, though, McDonnell finds room for some of his “cause” comics, an integral part of Mutts. There are “Shelter Stories,” urging adoption of animals, featuring Mooch and then Earl making their biggest possible pleading eyes to “inspire thousands of shelter adoptions.” There is also a “Farm Animal Sanctuary” sequence, in which Mooch looks at a cow and observes that “it’s a lot easier to milk an almond” and baby chickens are identified as “my peeps.” Sometimes McDonnell simply gets carried away with his own artistic ability, as when a single panel shows Earl standing on the beach with a very realistic-looking dragonfly twice his size atop his head and Mooch saying, “Shoo.” But more often, McDonnell speaks through his characters, as when a shark approaches Earl and Mooch, who are standing on a pier, and says, “Save the sharks!” Mooch immediately proclaims, “YESH!” And then he tells Earl, “He had me at ‘save.’” Animals “have” McDonnell at “save,” too, while comic-strip lovers have plenty of opportunities not only to save Mutts strips in various collections, seasonal and otherwise, but also to savor every one of them.
There appear to be “cause” elements in Sarah Graley’s graphic novel Glitch as well, but they are handled rather awkwardly and seem grafted onto a story that clearly reflects Graley’s own life and interests – as Mutts reflects those of McDonnell. But unlike McDonnell, Graley never brings her characters particularly close to likability. Glitch is one of the now-very-common books based on the notion of being trapped in a video game (there is even a series of novels with that exact title, Dustin Brady’s Trapped in a Video Game). Graley’s protagonist is a singularly clueless and rather unpleasant 14-year-old named Izzy, who lies to pretty much everyone pretty much all the time and gets away with it simply because Graley wants her to. This is presumably the character based on Graley herself, although one would hope Izzy has more rough edges than Graley does. Izzy has a best friend named Eric, who is not a boy although she has a boy’s name and is drawn with male features, a male shape and androgynous hair. This too presumably reflects Graley’s personal life or some sort of advocacy: at the end of the book Graley thanks “my partner, Stef, for helping me figure out the twists and turns in the story early on” and for doing the book’s lettering. However, if there is a “cause” lurking here, it is scarcely the central point of Glitch, which appears to be intended simply as something of a romp – despite periodic references to Izzy having been bullied at school, comments that are used to show that her parents are clueless rather than to indicate that they are involved and concerned. Izzy is truly messed up: the book starts with her and Eric eagerly awaiting the release of a new video game called “Dungeon City” and pledging not to play it until they can do so together – until, a mere five pages later, Izzy breaks the promise and creates a transparent lie about wanting to check disc quality so she can play without Eric. That Izzy is some BFF! Izzy soon finds herself sucked into the game, where she learns from a one-eyed robot character that she is the usual “chosen one” who will save the entire video-game world. Izzy tells the robot, Rae, that she is “a strong, independent woman” who does not need his help, then needs him to help her get out of tight spots – but will not take his hand to be led away (another very weak “cause” element, perhaps?). Izzy gets bitten in the game, returns to the real world and finds the bite is real, then promptly lies to her parents about it and blames the family’s blameless cat. “Lying to us isn’t okay,” her mom says (her parents are interracial, by the way; this is irrelevant to the story but, yet again, perhaps some sort of weak “cause” element). Izzy promptly repeats the lie, more forcefully, then runs up the steps of her home shouting incoherently. And all this is simply setup for an ongoing foray into “Dungeon City” with Rae. When Rae tries to explain the game, Izzy repeatedly says “skip” because she thinks she knows everything already. Then she chooses how to play the game and makes Rae turn her, “a strong, independent woman,” into a Space Witch with gravity-defying hair and a sweater made of stars. Um, well. That Izzy is quite a bundle of contradictions, and often distinctly unpleasant. Graley never quite manages an effective balance of the twin elements of the story – those in the real world and those in the video game – and the whole plot creaks constantly and nearly collapses under its own weight, especially as it starts to become clear that Rae is not at all what he claims to be. Yes, Graley eventually engineers a reconciliation between Izzy and Eric, and the two of them join forces to defeat the “Dungeon City” evil because “we work better together as a team.” But neither the video-game elements nor those of real-world friendship seem genuine in any significant way: Glitch is all for show, the authorial hand moving the characters and events around being always very apparent. What gets the book up to the level of a low (+++) rating is the pacing of the story, which is well done, and the art, which handles the graphic-novel format nicely by varying panel sizes, eliminating panels altogether in some places, and allowing characters to form and re-form (in both the video-game and real-world sequences) in ways that nicely reflect their thoughts and plans, trivial though those may be. Glitch is not a very good story and Izzy is definitely not much of a protagonist, but Graley does have some artistic skill and a good grasp of the graphic-novel medium. For young readers devoted to graphic novels, especially ones who imagine that video games are genuinely significant in some real-world way, those positive characteristics may be enough to make the book enjoyable.