November 12, 2020


Evolution Is Hard Work! The Twenty-Fifth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Kitty and Dragon 1. By Meika Hashimoto. Illustrated by Gillian Reid. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     The days when comic strips and cartoons were thought to be just for kids are long gone. In a sense, they never really existed: early comics were definitely for adults, and their history as a form of commentary on political and social issues dates back hundreds of years and is quite decidedly for grown-ups. On the other hand, when the United States clamped down on more-adult material in comic and cartoon form in the 1950s, there began an era in which the primary (if not sole) audience for comics came to be children. Yet even that did not last long: by the late 1960s, underground cartoonists were creating subversive comics whose intensity of sex, violence and sociopolitical commentary exceeded just about anything in the era before the Comics Code. Nowadays comics and their offshoots in graphic novels and comic-driven-but-not-entirely-graphic-novel books tend to be aimed at specific age groups, with little age crossover – except in a few unusual cases, such as Sherman’s Lagoon. Jim Toomey has written and drawn this strip for more than a quarter of a century, and through all that time has managed a very neat balancing act between outright silliness for younger readers and a mixture of sarcasm and educational (yes, educational) material for older ones. Toomey displays that same consistency of multifaceted messaging in the strip’s 25th collection, Evolution Is Hard Work! The cover itself encapsulates the different elements of the strip: it shows Sherman, the often-befuddled and always-hungry shark, and his domineering wife, Megan, just starting to crawl out of the water toward a beachfront restaurant labeled “Seafood: All-U-Can-Eat.” The art itself (including Megan’s ever-present string of pearls) is funny for any age, as is the expression on the human who is sitting beneath a beach umbrella and watching the sharks attempt to evolve into land-capable creatures. For older readers, the “evolution” notion is worth contemplating, as is the specific rationale for sharks that can think (and presumably read) to head for an all-you-can-scarf-down buffet. Sherman’s Lagoon is consistently fun and consistently funny, and manages to be thoughtful and even provocative – from time to time, anyway. The latest collection, for example, includes lagoon-focused forms of social media such as Facecrab and Instashark – regarding which the resident intellectual and loner, Fillmore the turtle, says, “I think it’s pathetic how everyone measures success with ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and ‘friends,’” leading Sherman to reply, “If you had any, you’d understand.” Then there is the sunken ship that is rumored to be full of treasure because of a fake Internet story. Hawthorne the hermit crab, resident schemer, decides to take advantage of the mistaken belief by starting a treasure company and selling shares in it – proudly calling his concept the “best idea since cryptocurrency.” That is very definitely a thought-provoking comment for adults – but the amusing drawings and the characters’ expressions will appeal to all ages. Elsewhere, Toomey gets into areas of ecological awareness – a field he explores frequently but too gently to come across as hectoring – by having Sherman and Ernest (the eyeglass-wearing computer whiz of the lagoon) visit the “bizarre and dangerous creatures” living deep in an oceanic abyss, all of whom turn out to be dour and depressed because there is no way to “‘lighten up’ in a world of perpetual darkness and gloom.” Toss in stories such as Megan inviting a lobster to visit and get into the hot tub, and Megan and Sherman meeting orcas and discovering that all of them are named Shamu, and you have the Toomey recipe for yet another comic-strip collection that does an unusually good job of bridging the age gap. Or gaps.

     The cartoon-driven first entry in the Kitty and Dragon series, on the other hand, is targeted very specifically at a single and very young age group. This is a story told in narrative form but driven by illustrations – not really a graphic novel, but a very amply illustrated book in which the pictures of the title characters are the main attraction. Being for very young readers (and even pre-readers, who will enjoy the pictures if the story is read to them), Kitty and Dragon keeps everything simple and sweet: the cover of this (+++) offering even states that the book contains “3 Sweet Stories!” The only thing for grown-ups here is the chance to read the book to or with children – which, of course, is not a bad thing at all. The stories are of the usual unlikely-friendship type. The first is about Kitty meeting Dragon. “Kitty does not like noise” and therefore sets out from a busy farm and noisy town to find a quieter place to live, walking into a wooded area where various creatures warn her to beware of the dragon with “fiery breath,” “long, sharp claws,” and various other typical dragon features. Unafraid, Kitty continues on her way until she finally does meet Dragon – who does indeed have all the standard dragon characteristics, but is so overjoyed to have a new friend that he does not behave in any way that is even the tiniest bit scary. In the second story, Kitty does not feel well – she has a cold – so Dragon reads books about caring for kitties with colds, makes his friend tea with honey, lets her sleep, makes some healthful soup for Kitty to eat, lets her sleep again after eating, and so on. By the next day, Kitty feels better – but now Dragon has the cold, and Kitty has to read about what to do! In the final story, it turns out that the friends are different when it comes to keeping things tidy: Kitty is neat and Dragon is messy. So they have to come to an understanding about the cave they share – which Kitty tries to do with a magical tidying-up potion that does not work out quite the way Kitty hopes (although, of course, everything is just fine at the end). Meika Hashimoto’s stories are straightforward and as simple as young readers could wish, but the real charmers here are Gillian Reid’s drawings of Kitty and Dragon, both of whom are pleasantly rounded, with big and expressive eyes, and with all the charm that anyone could wish for in the first book of a series intended strictly for the very young.

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