October 15, 2020


Breaking Cat News 4: Elvis Puffs Out—A “Breaking Cat News” Adventure. By Georgia Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

100 Ways Your Two-Year-Old Can Hurt You: Comics to Ease the Stress of Parenting. By Chen Weng. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     The ins and outs of living with kids and/or animals have always been of interest to cartoonists – and as anyone who does live with kids and/or animals is aware, a lot of things that happen in everyday living are very funny. And those that are not would benefit from being thought of as funny – a humorous perspective goes a long way when you are tired, stressed, overcome and overwhelmed by the needs and demands of children, pets or both. Some contemporary cartoonists have found new ways to plumb the depths of family life while skimming the surface of its more-serious elements. In a few cases, such as the Breaking Cat News series by Georgia Dunn, the artists have even figured out how to create comics that will appeal to kids while also having something to say to adults. The fourth of Dunn’s collections, Elvis Puffs Out, is best read by people (from preteens to adults) who already know the cast of characters from the three earlier books. That is because the basic setup is assumed here rather than explained, and some of the recurring characters have “back stories” that it helps to know when following their adventures this time. Still, it is possible to read this fourth book on its own – but if you do, be prepared to want to track down the earlier ones for a better sense of everything that is going on. The foundational premise here is that the Man and the Woman and their two children share their household with three cats named Lupin, Elvis and Puck, and the cats – who are nattily dressed in TV-anchor-or-reporter-style clothing – have their own Cat News Network that reports on matters of interest to cats (such as food, outdoor weather conditions, cats that live in another apartment in the building, troublesome mice that are “local rodent criminal masterminds” and somewhat resemble the thieving Beagle Boys of old Disney comics, and more). Using news-studio settings and remote cameras, to which the Man and the Woman are oblivious, the cats report on household events from a feline perspective, each cat displaying unique personality traits as well as a distinctive appearance and set of expressions (Dunn handles those particularly well). The adventures are, from a human perspective, mundane, but the “feline angle” on them makes them amusing and enjoyable. For example, after a big snowstorm blanks out the view through the home’s windows (“cats woke up today to find everything gone”), a tiny kitten turns up in the snow; and while the humans arrange with a friend who runs a cat rescue to take care of the little one – and end up agreeing to foster her – the cats take her into the fold as a news intern. She soon proves to be more determined and dynamic than anyone expected, and a better organizer of office supplies than Lupin, Elvis and Puck could have anticipated. The different but overlapping realities of humans and cats are a big part of the fun here. For example, the new kitten, Beatrix, keeps moving a particular plant a short distance along a shelf, for reasons that the Man and the Woman cannot understand, assuming this is just a cat thing. It turns out, as the friendly owner of a local bookstore explains when coming to visit the family, that “a maidenhair fern shouldn’t be in direct sun,” which is what Beatrix has been trying to show all week. A fine friendship soon ensues, leading to Beatrix becoming a “bookstore cat,” because she cannot stay with the Man and the Woman (who had to get special permission to have three cats: apartment rules allow only two). This then leads to additional Cat News Network reporting based at the bookstore, and – well, this is the pleasantly meandering, always amusing, sometimes heartwarming way things go in the Breaking Cat News adventures. Like the earlier books, Elvis Puffs Out is a great antidote to the dismal news reporting that goes on in the real world.

     Although both younger readers and adults will enjoy Dunn’s comics, the ones by Chen Weng are strictly for grown-ups – specifically, parents. Essentially, what Weng does is to chronicle, observe and comment on her own family’s life through cartoons that generally feature caricatures of herself, her husband and her children against a plain white background, ruminating on elements of being a family with kids or simply trying to cope with everyday realities. Parents will surely recognize many of the uncertainties and struggles in 100 Ways Your Two-Year-Old Can Hurt You, some of which are tied directly to the realities of 21st-century life. There is, for example, the “learn patience” talk in which cartoon Chen tells her daughter, “wait for your birthday” for a much-desired item, because “delayed gratification is a virtue” – after which, in a drawing labeled “later,” an infuriated cartoon Chen (red-veined eyes practically popping out of her head) is railing against Amazon’s two-day shipping because “I want it TODAY.” So much for that lesson. For lessons of a different sort, there are multiple then-and-now entries here. For example, “Packing for Vacation” contrasts “When I Was Young” (huge suitcase containing a different outfit for every day) with “Now” (big suitcase for kids’ stuff, tiny personal adult bag containing one pair of jeans, one pair of comfortable shoes and one warm jacket). And then there is “Noise,” in which a loud “thump” in the days before kids scares cartoon Chen and her husband into defend-our-home mode – with the fright even greater “after kids” when “it’s been quiet for an unusual amount of time.” Also here are several multi-page “First and Second” entries, showing different parental responses to the first child and the next – under “Hygiene,” for example, feelings go from being sure everything is “washed, sterilized, and air-dried” for baby No. 1 to noticing how funny it is that baby No. 2 is licking the floor. As for the book’s title – well, there may not be a full 100 ways a toddler can hurt her parents, but cartoon Chen and her husband experience a fair number, with each presented based on “weapon” and “target” and ranked with up to five stars for “damage.” For instance, the “weapon: feet” and “target: face” scene shows an adorable little one sleeping next to mom, then suddenly (while still sleeping) kicking full-force at mom’s nose, causing “damage: four stars.” And “weapon: poop” and “target: respiratory system” shows mom and dad inhaling and holding their breath while getting ready to change a particularly stinky diaper – which, when removed, causes “damage: four stars” in a scene that shows the parents nearly passed out, stumbling and retching and with eyes watering. All right, this sort of thing is an exaggeration – all good cartooning is – but it is not much of an exaggeration, as anyone who has been through this sort of thing (that is, any parent) will know. Weng is far from the first cartoonist to explore family life with a humorous touch and try to make some sense of the whole experience, and she will surely not be the last. But her immediately recognizable drawing style, and her considerable cleverness in rendering everyday activities in ways that are just unreal enough to give them an edge, result in a really delightful (and not at all mean-spirited) look at the many challenges (and some of the joys) of raising young children. There may be 100 ways a toddler can hurt parents, but Weng’s book is one way to help parents feel better fast.

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