April 01, 2021


Ozy and Millie. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Ozy and Millie: Perfectly Normal. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Big Nate: In Your Face! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Although currently known for her long-running Phoebe and Her Unicorn comics, Dana Simpson had a previous strip, also long-running, that contained many of the same elements of homespun, gentle, offbeat, appropriate-for-many-ages amusement: Ozy and Millie, which ran from 1998 to 2008. Started in black-and-white on the Internet (where else?), Ozy and Millie eventually made it into book form in several specialty collections, and some of the strips are now showing up – in color, no less – in more-mainstream form. And that is a good thing, because “mainstream” is where they belong. Although the totality of Ozy and Millie reflected Simpson’s political views and contained some mild (and quickly outdated) social commentary, many of the strips have a timeless quality that deserves to be seen and enjoyed (and laughed at) by a wider audience. Two Andrews McMeel collections of the strip are most welcome for making that possible. The title characters are fifth-grade foxes, or rather human fifth-graders drawn as foxes; and, not surprisingly, they have opposite personalities that help make them best friends. Their full names contain hints of Simpson’s style of humor in the strip: Ozymandias J. Llewellyn and Millicent Mehitabel Mudd. The grandiosity and referential nature of the names – his to Shelley’s poem Ozymandias (which Ozy actually quotes in one panel) and hers perhaps to the Don Marquis cat Mehitabel, friend of cockroach typist Archie – contrast with the characters’ mundane concerns to very amusing effect. And Simpson hones that contrast to a fine edge (without, to continue the metaphor, ever becoming really cutting: there is nothing deeply sarcastic in Ozy and Millie). Millie lives with her mom, who was obviously much like her daughter at the same age and therefore usually knows exactly how to handle her, as when Millie abruptly asks for $700 and her mom says “sure, here you go,” handing her the money – leaving Millie completely stunned and her mom saying, “I always wanted to try that.” In another example, Millie says “life is fair” so her mother can no longer tell her, “no one ever said life is fair” – so her mom switches to, “No one credible ever said life is fair.” As for Ozy, he lives with his stepdad, who happens to be a dragon because – well, just because, which is also the reason Ozy almost always wears a top hat. Most of the enjoyment of the strip comes not from the central characters’ interactions with their parents or even with other, minor characters (such as the prototypical “mean girl” and the usual school bully). The fun comes from the way Ozy and Millie play off each other, each knowing the other’s foibles and weak spots and finding them endearing, amusing, or both. So when Millie worries, “Is there something wrong with me?” Ozy says, “Yes. That’s why we’re friends.” When Millie claims to be a great artist because nobody understands her work, Ozy observes that she has drawn “‘the blob’ eating a pecan pie,” so Millie says, “Dang it, people do understand my work,” and Ozy says, “If it helps any, we don’t understand much else about you.” Ozy tends to be the straight and somewhat straitlaced character, Millie the more out-of-control and rebellious one, but Simpson does such a good job of refining and polishing their personalities that their interactions seem to flow from genuineness rather than authorial manipulation. Thus, it makes perfect sense for Millie to decide she will find and vanquish evil people; then to decide that Ozy is evil because he plays mind games with her; then for Ozy to ask, if she vanquishes him, “Who are you going to get to play ‘Thoreau vs. Emerson Jello Death Match’ with you?” And to top that line, Simpson has Millie say, “I must vanquish evil that isn’t personally convenient!” The fact that she says this while wearing overalls – her usual costume – somehow makes the whole thing more piquant. And funnier. Ozy and Millie is no longer around (it ended, appropriately, with Ozy’s dad marrying Millie’s mom), but the chance to dip into its not-quite-Phoebe brand of sense and nonsense is very much welcome.

     While some cartoonists, such as Simpson, move on from one kind of strip to another, others, such as Lincoln Peirce, spend their time (and many years) refining and polishing the same basic idea. Peirce has drawn Big Nate for more than a quarter of a century, and his focus on the perennial sixth-grader (a touch older than Simpson’s Ozy and Millie) has only gotten sharper over time – although it remains odd that Nate goes through summer vacation again and again and always re-starts sixth grade afterwards. (It does not pay to think too much about time loops in comic strips.) The well-oiled machine of Nate’s world moves along very smoothly in the latest collection of the strip, Big Nate: In Your Face! The theme-and-variations form comes to mind here and is handled very adeptly by Peirce. For instance, Nate’s longtime student nemesis, super-smart Gina, is, as usual, a foil for Nate’s much more scattered intelligence (and much bigger mischievous streak). Here, though, a strip sequence has Nate’s friends pointing out all the ways in which Nate and Gina are similar. Even one of the teachers notices the thematic similarity of stories written by Nate and Gina and comments on it. That teacher is not, if course, Mrs. Godfrey, who is Nate’s teacher nemesis and who shows up again and again in that role, even intruding into an imaginary landscape that Nate is thinking up for art class (Nate imagines her as blue-skinned, polka-dotted, and carrying a huge pile of homework for Nate to do). The main focus in this collection, as in others and in the strip as a whole, is on Nate and friends Francis and Teddy, but Peirce – who does develop other characters over time, widening the scope of Big Nate while retaining its focus – also uses super-adorable Chad more often here. Nate recruits Chad to do school-newspaper interviews, for example, because teachers know Nate will twist their words if they speak to him. Nate shows Chad just how likable he is by asking a girl what she weighs – she of course shouts to Nate that it is none of his business. Then Nate has Chad ask her, and she immediately replies, “112. You’re adorable.” Peirce also focuses one sequence on Teddy’s decision to break up with his girlfriend, Paige – with Nate refusing to handle the breakup for him and Teddy eventually, after quite a few convoluted thoughts, having the courage to tell Paige they should not be a couple anymore. Paige, it turns out, is fine with that (“you’re a nice guy, but it’s not like you’re my dream guy”) – leaving Teddy thoroughly nonplussed. In addition to expanding on characters’ personalities and adventures, Peirce revisits some of his favorite themes here, as usual. There are the screamingly loud demands of Coach John, Nate’s enjoyment of the Klassik Komix store (where he becomes an intern), and Francis’ love of books of trivia – to the annoyance of both Nate and Teddy. What Peirce has done so well for so long is to mix the more-or-less-expected elements (the figure-skating obsession of Nate’s sister, the fecklessness of their dad, the oddities of neighbor dog Spitsy) with more-or-less-unexpected ones (Nate’s grandfather taking painting lessons from a TV-painting show whose host is long dead, Nate’s “secret Santa” problem involving a gift of lug nuts). Peirce has the many variations of Nate’s universe down to a science, but the way he combines and juggles them is an art – one that shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment