November 25, 2020


Cat Kid Comic Club. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

     It was inevitable, when Dav Pilkey created Cat Kid as a sidekick for Dog Man, that the super-cute, naïve and sweet kitten would become a star of Pilkey’s books (that is, those drawn as if by preteens George Beard and Harold Hutchins) all on his own. And that stardom probably made the new Cat Kid Comic Club series inevitable, since stars insist on twinkling on their own rather than in the shadow of other stars (ok, that makes no sense astronomically, but it does where Dog Man and Cat Kid are concerned).

     Inevitable or not, Cat Kid Comic Club is a lot of fun, and knowing Dog Man is quite unnecessary: nothing in the new series even refers to the previous one. Cat Kid (wearing his usual adorable black mask) is simply on hand to introduce 21 baby frogs – that is, tadpoles – to the wonders of visual storytelling. Flippy the fish, an overly serious adult who is not happy with stories about violence and poop, provides a mild counterpart to Cat Kid’s encouragement and toleration, and a specific tadpole named Molly helps the rest of the club figure out forms of storytelling .

     This sounds mild when explained so basically, but in fact the book is tremendously funny because of how it does what it does. There are the basics of cartooning discussed, to be sure, but the way the tadpoles absorb them is what makes the whole process so enjoyable. For instance, one self-important character named Melvin thinks up a story about a toothbrush named Dennis who wants to become a lawyer representing dinosaurs, draws it as a really lame comic, then includes an “About the Author” page full of self-praise for “one of the world’s most important major voices in graphic literature” who wins the “no bell prize for graphic novels” (which is a picture of a bell with a line struck through it).

     And that is only a small part of what happens here – because what Pilkey manages to do, very cleverly indeed, is to accept the likely difficulties that young would-be cartoonists might have getting started in the real world, then translate those problems into scene-stealingly funny concepts. Thus, when most of the kids in class fail to produce anything because they fear that what they write and draw would not be any good, Cat Kid gives them the assignment to fail – to make a “supa dumb” comic that would be embarrassingly awful. This really gets the students pumped, especially when Cat Kid says it is fine to work together collaboratively: “United we shall lose!” And the comics that result, while admittedly pretty awful, are also super-delightful: one is about a monster (rather than muenster) cheese sandwich, another about “The Cute, Little, Fluffy Cloud of Death,” and so on. The drawings for each comic are quite different from those for the others, as if they really were created by different artists, and the topics are just the ones that Pilkey’s usual audience will delight in – such as the story of a huge dog whose poop foils “bad ninja guys” and saves the world from destruction (Pilkey rarely loses sight of his, umm, roots as the creator of Captain Underpants).

     What Pilkey does so well here is to convey genuine information about graphic creativity even while telling a story that is full of silliness and cuteness (bundled). Thus, after Flippy self-righteously calls for an end to the gross and violent topics the class is exploring, he summons two other Pilkey characters, the doctor and Nurse Lady, to read just how awful the kids’ work is – and is promptly told that he is overreacting and that even Shakespeare’s work is “all death and violence and fart jokes.” And when two members of the club want to create something by mixing poetry and photography, Pilkey shows a genuinely intriguing (and surprisingly serious, in this context) set of haiku mixed with actual photos of birds, flowers and trees.

     Cat Kid Comic Club fits quite neatly into the Pilkeyverse (Pilkey’s universe, if you prefer) through its character use, overall appearance, skewed but age-appropriate sense of humor, and general silliness of purpose and execution. But there is some depth here as well, just as, in the Dog Man books, Pilkey creates titles that parody those of serious literature: Brawl of the Wild, for example, and Grime and Punishment. One of Pilkey’s great skills involves teaching while seeming to be doing something else altogether: yes, he loves toilet humor and hyper-exaggerated violence, but what grade-school kid doesn’t? (And Pilkey very effectively channels his grade-school self through the medium of George and Harold, even though neither appears at all in Cat Kid Comic Club.) This first entry in a new series succeeds on just about all levels: as an amusing sendup of comics of all sorts, and schools in general; as a genuinely useful guide to the basics of coming up with ideas and getting them down on paper; as a fun-to-look-at set of adventures in “comic stripping” (Pilkey never uses the phrase, but it has just enough “punniness” to fit what he is doing); and even as a mildly educational book in its own right – including, at the back, information on how some of the characters were created and where the haiku concept comes from. Fans of Dog Man and Captain Underpants will not be at all disappointed in Cat Kid Comic Club, and this is a series that can draw even more readers (and would-be visual artists) into Pilkey’s admittedly eccentric orbit. And “eccentric orbit” is a concept from astronomy that holds up perfectly well in the Pilkey realm.

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