December 19, 2019
(+++) ALL-AGE ANIMAL ADVENTURES
Bird Brain: Comics about Mental Health, Starring Pigeons. By Chuck Mullin. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
All Cats Are Introverts. By Francesco Marciuliano. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy 3: Time Trout. By Doug Savage. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Cinderella Rex. By Christy Webster and Holly Hatam. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
The comings and goings and ups and downs of not-quite-real animals appeal to just about everyone, from adults to young children to very young children – but in different ways. Adults seem to like things wry, even sarcastic, and in some cases – such as Bird Brain – foundationally very serious even while they have amusing elements. Chuck Mullin’s Bird Brain is all about her bouts of overflowing anxiety and depression, and her attempts to cope with them by creating amusing pigeon drawings and sending them out onto, of course, social media. This is not traditional “funny animals” cartooning, and the extent to which it is different is made clear through the serious essays that Mullin includes to introduce the book and that she also places within each of its sections: “Bad Times,” “Relationships,” and “Positivity.” Those essays are pretty heavy going, especially for anyone who has ever experienced even a modicum of anxiety, much less the amount about which Mullin writes. In fact, the book might have been more immediately appealing if Mullin had started it with a few of her pigeon presentations and then used her essays to explain what was going on. Since she didn’t, readers may want to skip the essays at first, check out some of the pigeon stuff, then read about how and why the whole book came to be: “I’ve always loved drawing, but it surprised me just how much creating these pigeon comics helps me; they’ve become my tether to existence, my voice when my mouth fails me. …I hope that their nihilism can burst through my invisible bubble and into yours to connect us. A strange sort of connection, but a connection nonetheless.” Well, the connection is made pretty effectively through Mullin’s words, but is even better in her comics, which feature anthropomorphic pigeons with weirdly floating eyes (one is in each pigeon’s head where it belongs while the other floats off to the side somewhere). For instance, one set of panels shows a pigeon waking up to a “bad brain day” and calling in sick to work, then feeling even worse for lying about being ill, and finally burrowing under the covers and declaring, “I’ll just live under here forever now.” Another shows two pigeons walking side by side, with one thinking, “Oh no, an awkward silence! Quick, say something! Anything!!” And the other is thinking, “I like that we can have these quiet moments.” The seriousness of the topics that Mullin tackles puts Bird Brain outside the usual realm of comics and cartoons, and also means the book will not be appealing to everybody – in fact, “appealing” is not really the right word for it at all, “helpful” being much more apt. Nevertheless, the use of cartoon animals to communicate some very complex adult topics is evidence that comics can tackle a great deal more complexity than they are often given credit for – and can do so with sensitivity and without the need to be snide or sarcastic.
On the other hand, a certain amount of snide sarcasm can be appealing, and it proliferates, to a greater or lesser degree, in many animal-focused books – certainly where cats are concerned. The result is works such as All Cats Are Introverts, a little gift book in which Francesco Marciuliano pens supposedly-from-cats poems celebrating felines’ well-known habits of being aloof and unresponsive, and suggesting that those characteristics flow not from standoffishness but from deep and pervasive introversion. Yeah, right. The fun here is partly in the photos – cats are nothing if not photogenic – and partly in the juxtaposition of apt poses and expressions with free-verse poems such as “Wanted,” which reads, “Send me a hint/ Show me a sign/ Pat your lap/ Your sofa/ Your chair/ Let me know/ In no uncertain terms/ That you want me to come over/ I won’t/ But I like to be invited/ Going to be over here for a while.” Or there is “More Than You May Know,” which goes, in part, “More than the honorable to a promise/ More than the endeared to a love/ More than the righteous to a cause/ I will be loyal to you/ I will be there for you/ I just may not be around you/ For long stretches at a time…” And there is “Elsewhere,” which neatly captures what cats’ human companions like to think a cat is probably thinking: “…My mind is always moving/ From daydream to daydream/ Never stopping to hear/ What you just named me/ Or who you said you were again.” Humans who coexist with cats will certainly recognize the feline personality in these smidgens of poetic whimsy, which confirm again and again that cats’ toleration of human beings is merely a form of acceptance in which cats, introverted or not, put up with people to a certain degree and not beyond. Or, as Marciuliano puts it in “One Too Many,” directly and pointedly, “Maybe I wouldn’t/ Nap so much/ If people didn’t/ Exhaust me so often.” And there you have it encapsulated: why cats sleep up to 20 hours a day.
The use of cat photos gives a veneer of realism to All Cats Are Introverts, but many books for younger readers dispense with even the slightest pretense of reality and simply create adventures in which animal-ish characters, usually humans thinly disguised as anthropomorphic nonhumans, get into various scrapes and difficulties and then get out of them. A typical graphic-novel example of this approach is the Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy series by Doug Savage. A moose wakes up in the forest one day and discovers that he has laser eyes. He befriends a rabbit, and they have adventures that also involve a deer named Frank (whose leg Laser Moose has a habit of shooting off) and a raccoon who keeps sewing Frank’s leg back on but who insists he is not a doctor, no matter what the other animals call him. In the third Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy book, Savage introduces “Time Trout,” so called because he encounters a human time traveler who conveniently drops his time-travel device – which, conveniently, falls into the river and is just the right size for a trout to eat, and which, also conveniently, reads the trout’s brain waves so the fish can go hither and thither in the time stream. This causes various predicaments for Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy: one future has the entire forest on fire, another features an invasion by flying saucers, and in one section of the book the moose and rabbit re-encounter an enemy from a previous book, Aquabear, who is half bear and half fish. None of this makes a lick of sense or is intended to – it is all there for mild adventure and mild amusement. Of course, the many mixups can only be solved if the trout returns everyone to the right place and time and the “time hopper” device is destroyed, but the trout refuses to allow the device’s destruction, because “being a fish is so boring” and “I want to keep having adventures” and “I finally feel like I’m truly living my life.” Eventually the trout’s selfishness leads to Laser Moose being marooned 78 million years in the past and fighting dinosaurs, while Rabbit Boy fails in an attempt to recover and destroy the time-travel device, until the trout finally realizes the error of his ways and gives up the time hopper – returning it to the original time traveler but then, at the last instant, joining the time traveler in going back to the future and a different and presumably more exciting life there. Silly and meaningless, Time Trout is simply an amusing illustrated journey for young graphic-novel fans who do not care much about plot consistency or character development, but kind of like the notion of a moose that shoots laser beams from its eyes and hangs out with a faithful rabbit companion.
Dinosaurs are only a part of Time Trout, but they are whole point of Cinderella Rex, a board book – aimed at the very youngest readers and even pre-readers – in which the well-known Cinderella story becomes well-nigh unrecognizable. Well, some basic themes are there, such as the royal ball and fairy godmother – here, a Fairy Triceratops. But Cinderella Rex – who is, yes, a T. Rex living with her “stompmother” and “mean stompsisters,” who are other types of dinosaurs – here wants only to dance, but is not allowed to because she is kept too busy cleaning things. The whole family is invited to a ball at the local castle, but it takes so long for Cinderella Rex to help her “stompsisters” get ready that they go to the dance without her, and “she could only dance alone in her garden,” a tear dropping from one eye as she gracefully whirls about in front of a nearby erupting volcano. There is nothing here about a possible royal marriage – this is, after all, a book for very young children – but there is a lost-shoe moment with the most amusing element of the story: Cinderella Rex “tried to pick it up, but her arms could not reach it.” True: she is a T. Rex, with those famous tiny arms! Anyway, the prince recovers the shoe and takes it around town to find the graceful dancer he had seen, simply because he wants someone to teach him to dance. And eventually “Cinderella Rex moved to the castle” and “her stompsisters had to clean up for themselves” and everything ends swimmingly…err, danceably. A simply told story with a few amusing elements and a lot of absurd ones, Cinderella Rex is enjoyable in its use of multiple types of cartoon dinosaurs enacting an age-appropriate version of a familiar fairy tale – a small treat for the youngest children, provided that they find green-skinned, huge-headed-and-huge-toothed central characters adorable.