November 27, 2019


If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em: The Twenty-Fourth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Animorphia Sea and Sky. By Kerby Rosanes. Plume. $9.99.

False Knees: An Illustrated Guide to Animal Behavior. By Joshua Barkman. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

T-Rex Tries Again…Return of the King. By Hugh Murphy. Plume. $14.

     Nobody could possibly mistake the denizens of Jim Toomey’s long-running comic strip, Sherman’s Lagoon, for real-life ocean dwellers. After all, they talk, use computers, hatch money-making schemes, own virtual assistants, create musicals, use indoor plumbing (well, underwater plumbing, anyway), enjoy fancy pillow chocolates, and otherwise behave entirely like human beings. Weird human beings. But one thing Toomey has done exceptionally well for many years – and continues doing in the latest collection of the strip, If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em – is to bring in, amid all the amusement, honest-to-goodness realities of the watery parts of Earth, in a way that raises awareness of ecological and environmental issues. For example, one sequence in the new collection features desert-dwelling shield shrimp, fascinating “living fossils” whose characteristics Toomey describes accurately while building an absurd plot strand around them, in which ever-mercenary Hawthorne the hermit crab tries unsuccessfully to turn them into snack food. Elsewhere, in another of Hawthorne’s schemes – this one involving the creation of a circus of “little ocean oddities” – Toomey provides information on the red-lipped batfish, sea pigs or scotoplanes, and sea angels (angelic-looking sea slugs). And he builds another sequence around triton snails, whose appetite for crown-of-thorns starfish may help preserve the Great Barrier Reef. He even creates strips based on the rescue by the Sri Lankan navy of an elephant that was found swimming (or caught in the current) 10 miles off the country’s coast. Toomey plays all his informational material for laughs – Sherman’s Lagoon is not intended to be didactic, after all. So the elephant rescue, for example, turns into a series of strips in which the elephant wants other characters in the strip to help him train for the Olympics. But Toomey does a consistently fine job of making it clear where the realities of water-animal life end and the silliness begins: he actually has one character introduce the elephant-training material with the words, “Ooh, plot twist.” And certainly a great deal of Sherman’s Lagoon is played entirely for laughs, such as the characters’ discovery and derailing of a plot to merge Microsoft and Facebook into Microface. Still, social commentary lurks not far beneath the surface of the ocean and the surface of Sherman’s Lagoon, as in a series in which Sherman the shark bites through an undersea data cable and causes “a global Facebook blackout” – to which hairless beach apes (the strip’s term for humans) react as if the world has come to an end. The actual characters in Sherman’s Lagoon are as comic-strip-like as can be, but the way Toomey regularly touches base with the world gives the strip more depth (of thought as well as water) than most.

     The beautifully realistic art of Kerby Rosanes in Animorphia Sea and Sky serves a different purpose. Rosanes’ elaborately detailed black-and-white drawings exist to be colored or expanded upon by adults with artistic inclinations – and also to showcase gorgeous but thoroughly unrealistic versions of the animals’ physical appearance. What Rosanes does is to provide a hyper-realistic view of creatures that turns out, on closer inspection, to contain within itself a large number of completely unrealistic elements. A superb drawing of an eagle in flight, for example, shows the bird’s head and legs, and the front section of its wings, completely realistically and very impressively. But as the viewer’s eye moves farther back along the bird, the wings turn out to be filled with tiny drawings of all sorts of items that give the overall rendition a distinctly surrealistic pedigree. Everything from postcards to a ball of yarn to a guitar to a broom to a crown-wearing fish to pieces of hardware to various indescribable oddities turns up in the eagle’s wings, increasing the challenge of coloring the picture and also simply making the page a fascinating one to look at. Another page does something similar for an owl, which not only has a wing containing a small skull and other oddities but also is portrayed as being on a tree branch filled with what appear to be pixies, tiny ghosts, some highly unusual-looking snails, and much more. As the book’s title indicates, some of the creatures in it are found in water: one page shows three sea turtles with highly elaborately decorated shells, plus a number of others given in outline only, so artists can decorate and color them at will (and then take out the page for display: the book features single-sided, removable pages, suitable for framing). Animorphia Sea and Sky will have you looking at reality in a different way, even while coloring some of the drawings at will and following Rosanes’ suggestions for others, such as “complete the pod of orcas” and “draw more jellyfish to fill the page.” An attractive gift book for anyone with an artistic bent, Animorphia Sea and Sky showcases the high quality of Rosanes’ observation of nature as well as his decidedly offbeat way of taking real animals into a world beyond reality.

     Joshua Barkman does something similar in False Knees, but his approach is different. Barkman’s drawings of animals are in color and are completely realistic: he has observed the wildlife near his home in Ontario, Canada, very carefully, and he reproduces the creatures’ appearance elegantly. But what Barkman then does is imagine discussions among the animals that are as far from reality as possible. Several “How to Draw” pages in the book neatly encapsulate Barkman’s approach and provide readers with clues to the remaining pages. Each “How to Draw” page starts with a panel called “Shapes,” showing the basic way he creates a creature’s appearance. Then comes a panel called “Detail,” in which the initial black-and-white, chunky drawing is smoothed, rounded, colored and made quite realistic. And finally there is a panel ascribing some wholly human characteristic, unrealistically, to the completed drawing. In “How to Draw a Chickadee,” for instance, the last panel features “ingratitude.” In the more-general “How to Draw a Bird,” the final panel shows “hostility.” In “How to Draw a Deer,” the final panel shows “determinism” and has the deer saying, “Free will is an illusion.” In “How to Draw a Rabbit,” the last panel offers “sass.” And actually, there is considerable sass in many of Barkman’s drawings. One has a beautifully drawn blue jay say, in the first of two panels, “Some say I’m really vain about my looks,” and then in the second panel say, “But I’m also clever and hilarious!” Another has two very real-looking black birds discussing their musical tastes, with one explaining, “I’ve been getting into some ambient-anthro recently. Like, chain saws, industrial fans, rush-hour car traffic – early traffic, though. The later stuff is crap.” Elsewhere, two squirrels discuss food storage, with one saying, “I organize it chronologically by harvest date, then by species, and then further by size.” Then there are the two raccoons discussing life in general, with one commenting, “You know what I really don’t understand?” The other asks, “What’s that?” The reply: “Well, like, the vast majority of things.” And then there are the seagulls, one of them wondering, “What is the culminating result of consciousness? Where does this path end?” The other says that “it has something to do with those fries on the pier.” It is the juxtaposition of thinking and commentary like this with excellent, realistic drawing that makes False Knees always unusual, often amusing, and sometimes surprisingly thought-provoking.

     There is really only one realistic element in Hugh Murphy’s little books about the trials and tribulations of a huge, carnivorous dinosaur trying to exist in the modern world. That is the way Murphy draws T-Rex’s tiny arms in comparison with the rest of his body – an anatomically accurate portrayal that, in fact, is the basis for almost all the humor in T-Rex Tries Again…Return of the King. This little (+++) book is not quite as much fun as Murphy’s two previous ones, T-Rex Trying… and T-Rex Trying and Trying: the humor here is more forced, as if Murphy himself is trying just a bit too hard. Still, some of the predicaments of T-Rex are worth a chuckle, or several. There is “T-Rex trying to wrap a tiny gift,” holding a small bag in one of those little arms while trying vainly to reach the bag with the other arm. There is “T-Rex trying to squish a spider in the corner of the room,” reaching up toward the ceiling with a swatting tool but smashing his head into it long before he can get the swatter, held in one of those little arms, close enough to accomplish anything. There is a page called “T-Rexes trying to box,” showing the boxing gloves in color on both the T-Rexes’ arms (Murphy’s drawings are otherwise black-and-white) – with neither T-Rex able to reach the other, their arms being too short. There is “T-Rex trying to use chopsticks,” being unable to get them to work together, much less able to get his little arms to reach his mouth. And there is “T-Rex trying to plunge a toilet,” in which the short arms cannot get the plunger anywhere near the commode, while the huge head is banging into the bathroom wall. Murphy’s books are essentially one-joke presentations, but there is enough amusement built into that single scenario to make a work such as T-Rex Tries Again…Return of the King an enjoyable potential stocking-stuffer for people who are less concerned with the realities of animal depiction than with the improbable situations to which humans can imagine subjecting long-extinct creatures such as T-Rex.

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