November 11, 2021


Adventures in Aquaculture: The Twenty-Sixth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn 14: Unicorn Playlist. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Sometimes you just want characters to do more of what they have been doing all along. Given the dizzying speed with which things seem to change in the real world, it can be relaxing, even reassuring, to settle into the unreal world of comic strips and cartoons for a while and revisit characters whose new adventures bear a striking resemblance to their old ones – with enough variations to make the time spent with these comic collections worthwhile. For example, readers of Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon know they can expect titular shark Sherman to be reasonably well-meaning (if perpetually hungry) and reasonably clueless about most things, while resident Kapupu Lagoon sea turtle Fillmore can be expected to be devoted to poetry (mostly his own), a failure with the opposite chelonian sex, and an occasional voice of reason in contrast to everyone else’s unreasonableness. The cover of Adventures in Aquaculture encapsulates those two contrasting personalities perfectly, showing Sherman reading one volume of a large pile of Sherman’s Lagoon collections – his version of culture while Fillmore sits nearby reading his version, including 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Captains Courageous, Two Years before the Mast, and something by Patrick O’Brian (author of Master and Commander and similar works). Readers who enter the pages of the book will soon discover the latest shenanigans of familiar characters such as hermit crab, lagoon mayor and professional huckster Hawthorne, who in one sequence has to get rid of a different flim-flam artist – a visiting American pocket shark selling snake oil (well, shark oil); hyper-lazy polar bear Thornton, who at one point develops a bald spot and has to endure lagoon residents’ comments and unhelpful assistance until it turns out he merely has a chocolate deficiency; undersea stone idol Kahuna, who is losing his magic powers until he sprouts arms and legs and goes on a trek to a magical inland waterfall for prestidigitation rejuvenation; and the usual cast of short-term characters, such as two piglet squid who may taste like bacon, a loud-mouthed remora named Party Pete, and a “wise seagull guru” named Barry who speaks entirely in clichés and movie quotes. Toomey always delves a bit into ecological matters as well, and occasionally has his characters provide commentaries on some aspect of popular culture – as when Megan, Sherman’s wife, becomes popular on YouTube and tells a nearby fish that since she is now a celebrity, “I’m guessing you want my views on politics.” Hmm. Definitely some social awareness there – but only in passing and in a lighthearted way, which is just how Sherman’s Lagoon delivers most of its character comedy.

     Aimed at younger readers, Dana Simpson’s Phoebe’s Unicorn series generally pays less attention to societal issues, but there are some signs in the latest collection, Unicorn Playlist, that Simpson wants to be sociopolitically correct. Notably, there is an amusing sequence in which Phoebe learns of a unicorn named “Infernus, the Unicorn of Death,” and is suitably worried until she actually meets Infernus, who turns out to be small and thoroughly adorable and who says “you can call me ‘Ferny’” – and then talks about being neither a boy nor a girl and wanting Phoebe to use the unicorn pronoun “neigh.” Phoebe goes out of her way to say, “Humans have non-binary people too,” to which Ferny replies, “So humans have caught up to unicorns! Good for you.” It is all rather forced and awkward and painstakingly “woke,” clearly intended to establish Simpson’s bona fides with certain groups; but thankfully it does not become a preoccupation of Unicorn Playlist, which otherwise travels in the same pleasant and amusing directions long established for the interactions between Phoebe and Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. Like Toomey, Simpson enjoys bringing in “bit player” characters from time to time – such as Marigold’s sister, Florence, who knows far more about their family tree than Marigold does. Some of the less-often-seen characters really enliven the stories, one example being the unicorn Lord Splendid Humility – whose horn is the only part he ever allows to be visible, even when he poses for a full-year calendar showing that horn poking out of all sorts of different places, month after month: a snowman, a cactus, a box, a leaf pile, and so on. At one point, Phoebe sees the horn in a bush and says, “Hey, LSH,” receiving the reply, “Thank you. Being abbreviated makes me feel humble.” Other unicorns, of course, are far from humble, which is the point – and much of the humor in Phoebe and Her Unicorn turns on Marigold’s self-involvement and the way it contrasts with Phoebe’s personality. Phoebe has her everyday, non-unicorn adventures here as well, such as needing to get store-bought Valentine’s Day cards for her class because her mother rejects her prototype handmade one, which was going to say, “I do not wish you any specific harm, but we both know I am being forced to give you this.” Phoebe also has her usual dealings with friend Max, “frenemy” Dakota, and her own father – a kind of hippie throwback who wears a shirt with the number 42 on it (think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), talks about the multiverse, and plays “Magic Creature Trapper” obsessively on his cell phone. Phoebe’s parents’ and friends’ easy acceptance of Marigold and many other magical creatures is one part of the charm of the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series – in one sequence in the latest book, popularity-obsessed Dakota decides she is tired of being popular with goblins. Unicorn Playlist continues to show Simpson’s skill at creating an unreal (but almost-real) world that does not require forays into the cause-of-the-moment to be engaging, and is all the more pleasurable to the extent that it lets young readers escape for a little while from lives that, even for preteens, are far too often full of stress, demands for conformity, and insistence on adherence to others’ beliefs and behaviors.

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