June 27, 2019
(+++) ONWARD, NOT NECESSARILY UPWARD
The Bad Guys #9: The Big Bad Wolf. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.
Making Friends #2: Back to the Drawing Board. By Kristen Gudsnuk. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Well, they can’t all be gems. By and large, the books in Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series have so far been a great deal of silly fun, as Mr. Wolf, Mr. Shark, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Snake, and Legs the tarantula try hard to overcome their negative reputations by fighting a set of really nasty tentacled aliens led by an especially repulsive head guy (actually head thing) disguised (some of the time) as a super-adorable guinea pig named Marmalade. And if that description seems to make almost no sense, then it is exactly right, because the books, individually and as a series, make almost no sense. And that’s just fine – usually. But Blabey has been making the sequence increasingly complex, for example by not only including the mysterious Agent Fox but also introducing the entire League of Heroes…and having one episode, involving time travel to the dinosaur age, result in bringing a velociraptor into present times while turning him super-hyper-intelligent and also having the Bad Guys themselves pick up various super-powered superpowers. Whew. Blabey actually gets away with the increasingly silly, increasingly complicated plotting, because neither he nor readers will have any reason to take anything that is happening even one iota seriously. But seriously, the ninth book, The Big Bad Wolf, pushes the envelope a little too far, and envelopes, even those addressed to or by Blabey, can stand only so much pushing. In this book, Mr. Wolf is gigantic and evil and destructive because of events that happened in the last book, Superbad, and get no recap here. Now the remaining Bad Guys have to stop him, except that Legs has to get together with Agent Shortfuse to find a way onto the alien mother ship to try to short-circuit the alien invasion that is happening while Mr. Wolf is laying waste to pretty much everything. Matters are really getting overly complex at this point, with the result that elements of the series that have made it distinctive get short shrift (and in some cases, no shrift). Mr. Snake’s reluctant admiration for Mr. Wolf is based on prior events and is a key to the events in The Big Bad Wolf, for example, but it is used only in passing. Mr. Snake has (imperfect) mental powers that he has to use to try to stop Mr. Wolf from destroying, well, everything, so Mr. Snake has to get into Mr. Wolf’s ear (literally) and whisper sweet somethings into it – things along the lines of “cut it out already.” But this doesn’t work because, it turns out, Marmalade is in Mr. Wolf’s other ear, countermanding everything positive that Mr. Snake is saying. And besides, Marmalade (in alien form) turns out to be able to remove all the superpowers from the Bad Guys – something he never thought of before and something Blabey never got around to mentioning – so suddenly Mr. Wolf and the others are back to just being well-meaning Bad Guys who want to be Good Guys, which solves the destroy-everything problem but leaves Mr. Snake absent, perhaps permanently, and leaves everyone and everything in the clutches of the evil aliens, where they have been all along…wait, that can’t be right. Umm, but it is: The Big Bad Wolf doesn’t really go anywhere, doesn’t really advance the story of the Bad Guys (even in a silly direction), and really just comes across as a setup for the next book, The Baddest Day Ever. That may turn out to be the final one in the series, and if so, that would be fine, because even super-silly sequences eventually run their course, and The Bad Guys has just about run its.
The second Making Friends graphic novel by Kristen Gudsnuk, although aimed at older readers than the ones Blabey targets, shares many of the same approaches and flaws. The Making Friends books are also vastly over-complicated, trying to make up in pacing what they lack in plot coherence; and the second book picks up right where the first one left off, making no attempt to present a back story and not even trying to make first-time readers (if any pick up this volume before the earlier one) feel comfortable or knowledgeable about what is going on. Where Gudsnuk, who targets middle-school readers, differs from Blabey, whose readers are younger, is in wanting her story to have some level of meaning and significance beyond simple entertainment. So she packs it with middle-school tropes involving mean girls, friendship questions, classroom issues and more – and although none of these elements adds much to the story, they do serve to complicate it ever further, to such a point that many plot elements spring up quickly and disappear just as speedily to make room for others. To understand Back to the Drawing Board, readers need to know, from the previous book, that protagonist Dany has magic powers because of a sketchbook that she inherited, and Dany, typically lonely in a middle-school-angsty way, has used those powers to create a best friend for herself. This is Madison, who in the first book frees herself from Dany’s control and starts living her own life, but then ends up as Dany’s best friend by choice rather than by compulsion (or something along those lines). In the second book, the mostly destroyed school (wrecked in the climactic battle at the end of the first book, as is not explained) is back in session, and there are plans to raise money to fix things up, and those plans involve having a typical middle-school dance. In another plot strand, Dany continues to feel inadequate and socially awkward despite her magic prowess and the fact that she has used her abilities to give all sorts of magic to other students. So Dany actually pays the local mean girl to be her friend (one of many plot threads that eventually goes nowhere); and then Dany comes up with the brilliant (?) idea of using the sketchbook to make a clone of herself that will have a more-bubbly, more-extroverted personality and also be better at homework. This goes about as well as might be expected – no, it goes better than expected, because Dany and Cloney get along beautifully and really do help each other, at least until Cloney starts overstating some matters and being a little too forthright about others and…well, maybe this is what might be expected, after all. But wait – there’s more. There is also a school bully who, it turns out, has his own magic (that plot point comes out of absolutely nowhere). And his magic is tied up with a blue dog, a genie of sorts called a “hinn,” and the dog is in a bottle that happens to be in the possession of Dany’s parents (another out-of-nowhere development). And Dany accidentally frees the dog, and learns that her parents have magic as well (hoo boy), and that magic has consequences (well, duh); and by the latter part of the book, it is legitimate to ask not who has magical powers but who doesn’t (that seems to be a shorter list). A huge confrontation with the bully and hinn, which involves people turning into animals (some of them never realizing it), ends up as the book’s climax, but it is neither funny enough nor pointed enough to make Back to the Drawing Board a wholly satisfying sequel. Still, readers who liked the over-complex, over-plotted first book will find at least some elements to enjoy in this even-more-complex, even-more-over-plotted second.