March 11, 2021


Candy Hearts. By Tommy Siegel. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

I Hope This Helps: Comics and Cures for 21st Century Panic. By Tommy Siegel. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

In Love & Pajamas. By Catana Chetwynd. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     Those cute little candy hearts that proclaim words of love and amusement become, in Tommy Siegel’s cartoons, much less cute but, often, much more amusing – certainly amusing in a more-pointed way. Candy Hearts uses the flat surfaces of the sweets to display messages of all sorts – mostly showing the numerous ways in which people can miscommunicate. Siegel places the hearts on more-or-less-human bodies – they have arms and legs, although no additional anatomy. Then he creates poses taken from everyday human life and uses the hearts to communicate feelings that remain generally unexpressed. For instance, a heart kneels on the floor, holding a ring box that is open to show another heart (his sweet-heart, of course) an engagement ring. On the box-holding heart are the words, “Will you marry me.” On the seated heart are the words, “Please God not in this Chipotle.” What happens next is left to the reader to imagine. Along the same lines, two hearts are holding hands while walking. On one are the words, “Clinging to new relationship to avoid self-inquiry.” On the other – whose second hand is holding a cell phone – are the words, “Prematurely withdrawing to avoid self-inquiry.” And then there are the panels containing more than two hearts. One has two larger (adult) candy hearts, the words on one saying “Staying married but only” and those on the other continuing the thought: “for the sake of our children.” At their feet are two smaller (child) hearts, one with the words “Please for the love of God” and the other continuing the thought: “just get divorced.” OK, Siegel does not exactly have an upbeat view of humanity, or relationships, or communication, but he does have a clever and offbeat way of displaying his generally downbeat perceptions – as when two hearts are seated on the grass, a leashed dog between them, with one heart displaying the words, “I hope this isn’t a test run for kids” while the other displays, “Dude obviously this is a test run.” That is a simple two-heart drawing. At the other extreme is a three-heart drawing set at a luggage carousel labeled “Emotional Baggage Claim,” where two hearts both display the words “Not mine” while bags labeled “Ex issues” and “Daddy issues” move past them. Farther along the carousel is a third heart with the words, “How are all of these bags mine” – not only waiting for the two still moving along but already surrounded by ones labeled “Fear of abandonment,” “Anger issues,” “Fear of commitment,” and “Mommy issues.” Whoa, that’s harsh – and dark. And funny. And that pretty well sums up the worldview that Siegel presents in Candy Hearts. Sweet, it isn’t.

     Siegel came up with the Candy Hearts concept about a year into a self-generated attempt, ultimately successful, to produce 500 comics in 500 days. Good thing he did, too, because the art he shows in his chronicle of that time period – collected in I Hope This Helps – is neither as original nor as offbeat as the “heart” concept on which he eventually settled. Siegel, who plays in a band, started doing drawings for fans during the band’s long drives from venue to venue. He decided on the 500-day-500-cartoon plan partly out of desperation and partly out of a need for something to do during those interminable times between concerts. But most of the narrative he offers in I Hope This Helps about his geographical and artistic journey is at best mildly interesting, and most of his drawings are quite derivative: other cartoonists have used the one-eye-on-face-and-one-floating-by-the-head style; others have shown people with huge bulbous noses; others have created sequences of drawings with related captions (“A Guide to Mustaches,” “What Your Coffee Drink of Choice Says about You” [also “Your Guitar,” “Your Houseplant,” “Your Sandals” and many more]); others have tried riffs loosely related to New Yorker cartoons (one woman to another while they have cocktails: “Honestly, ever since I withdrew from the world and submerged myself in videos of round animals, I’ve been feeling so much better!”). A few of Siegel’s ideas work reasonably well, such as side-by-side bullet-point comparisons of “Star Wars vs. Star Trek,” “Movies vs. Films,” “How to Cope in Los Angeles vs. New York” (one bullet point: “psychedelics and surfing” vs. “coffee and therapy”), “Scrambled Eggs vs. Cereal,” “Babies vs. Dogs,” and so forth. But nothing in I Hope This Helps works very well except for the early candy-hearts cartoons, which also appear in the book Candy Hearts. As a result, I Hope This Helps is a (+++) book that is really only for people who want to know how Candy Hearts came to be, or who are fans of Siegel’s band (which is called Jukebox the Ghost for unexplained and possibly unexplainable reasons). Siegel turns out to be good enough to recognize a clever idea when he has one – but not quite good enough to abandon all his less-good ideas before turning them into a less-good book. Still, his heart eventually turns out to be in the right place – or at least his hearts do.

     Real-world candy hearts are supposed to be small tokens or representations of sweet and loving sentiments. They are little things that point to big ones. And in fact, as Catana Chetwynd shows with In Love & Pajamas, there are lots of little things in everyday life that point to the big sentiments that collectively add up to love. This sweet and warm (++++) book simply offers everyday events in cartoon Catana’s life with her cartoon husband, John, using those events to show the intimate intricacies (and intricate intimacies) that make up a loving relationship. For instance, Catana is seen pouring herself a cup of coffee, walking away, then thinking of John, and then going back to pour coffee for him, too. This is a very little thing to do, but it is through the hundreds and thousands of such tiny things that a relationship is built and strengthened. Some of Chetwynd’s panels are about personality differences: she searches for her purse, then for her phone, then for where she parked her car – while he is seen looking at “my oil change receipts from my first car, right where I filed them 14 years ago!” Other panels have a slightly wry view of mundane matters: a single-panel page shows Catana looking at John and saying, “When I’m done being mad can we go get burritos?” Some sequences are simply cute: John is taller than Catana, so while they are standing in the hot sun, she repositions him just slightly to give her some shade. Other sequences handle stereotypical male-female differences in amusing ways: Catana needs four panels to get ready for the day by taking a shower, brushing her hair, doing makeup and choosing an outfit; John’s routine consists simply of changing from sweatpants to real pants. And then there are the “meet cute” panels, which take the traditional concept of romantic-comedy films into real life – for instance, Catana and John text “miss you” on their respective cell phones even though they are in two rooms of the same home; and when they are actually in different places, they talk on the phone about being reunited in two hours, which is just one hour twice, which is 30 minutes four times, or a mere 15 minutes eight times. It is true that a little of this lovey-dovey stuff goes a long way, but it is also true that Catana’s chunky, simply drawn characters – with big eyes that, somewhat surprisingly, do not look like the now-so-common eyes created or influenced by manga – act in realistic enough ways so that the overdone elements of In Love & Pajamas stop just short of being too treacly to enjoy. There are half a dozen stickers at the back of the book that neatly encapsulate its themes, showing panels in which Catana and John walk together under an umbrella, lift each other up for hugs, or just sit together so closely that they seem almost to be a single character. Few people in the real world are quite that close, but many wish they could be, making In Love & Pajamas something of an aspirational book as well as something of an inspirational one.

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