January 13, 2022


Cat Kid Comic Club No. 2: Perspectives. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession. By Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     Graphic novels have matured as a medium to such an extent that they can now tackle more-mature topics – aimed at children and adults alike. This is a positive development, taken as a whole, but does mean parents considering graphic novels for younger readers – say, through preteens – have to pay more attention to the books before buying them, since embedded lessons and viewpoints may show up in unexpected places. Certainly the graphic novels by Dav Pilkey – including the Dog Man and Captain Underpants series – seem an unlikely place for societal commentary and expression of views on real-world issues. But in the second Cat Kid Comic Club spinoff from the Dog Man series, Pilkey lays on, rather heavy-handedly, some life lessons that replace his usual jocularity and fondness for bad puns. The title of the book, Perspectives, is a clever hint of what is to come, since artists (including the tadpoles/froglets in Cat Kid’s comics class) need to know how to create perspective in their drawings – but as Flippy the fish (“Daddy” to the class members) points out, “Perspective isn’t just about drawing!!! It’s also about understanding! It’s about seeing the world from someone else’s point of view!!!” Oh yes, there will certainly be a message here – and in fact, there has already been one (a different one) by the time Flippy makes his pronouncement. It comes in the form of one comic created by class members, “Supa Fail 2: Old Lady’s Revenge.” This has the evil old lady create a “polluter computer” that stomps around creating a nefarious “carbon footprint” until Supa Fail stops it with “carbon tacks” (even though this book’s intended audience may not get the pun on “tax”). Well, the comic is certainly prejudiced against old ladies, but Pilkey does not mind that. Elsewhere, Flippy automatically blames and punishes Melvin when he and Naomi get into one of their frequent arguments – but, again, Pilkey does not mind that. What he does mind is someone being unfair to Naomi, which happens at a flea market that also features games. The operator of a knock-the-cans-over game encourages Melvin and gives him balloons even though he can barely throw the ball – and then nearly ignores Naomi when she performs brilliantly, calling her “little girly” and reluctantly giving her a single balloon after giving three to Melvin. This lets Pilkey have Naomi say, “Girls have to work harder than boys and we still get less!!! Less respect, less money, less freedom, less opportunities, and dopes like you never even notice!!!” So Melvin, suitably chastened, creates a comic about how wonderful Naomi is, and an important lesson is learned. The lesson is that it’s all right to portray all old ladies as nasty and it’s all right if “Daddy” punishes a boy for something he did not do, but it is not all right to shortchange a girl. Of course, this is not exactly the lesson that Pilkey thinks he is teaching, but it is the one that careful readers of Cat Kid Comic Club No. 2 will get. Pilkey probably hopes he can guide young readers carefully through the minefield he has himself created – and maybe he can. But there are pitfalls to using a graphic novel for young readers to try to tackle societal issues – doubly so when this book is so different from the first Cat Kid Comic Club book, which readers of the second really need to know (since Cat Kid is nearly absent from the second book, and Pilkey gives no background on the club and no information on how the whole set of circumstances came to be). Some of Pilkey’s trademark silliness does make its way into Perspectives, through class-created comics such as one about time travel to Chicago in 1871 and the accidental igniting of the city’s notorious fire, and one about Chubbs McSpiderbutt, whose rear end becomes a spider body after he is spider-bitten there. Also in the book is the second comic-club creation mixing poetry and photography – a highlight of the first book that is again genuinely intriguing (and surprisingly serious, in this context) in its combination of haiku with actual photos of nature. But the real seriousness here, in sections about a “carbon footprint” and flea-market (and by implication societal) unfairness to girls, is ham-handed and disappointing in its earnest political correctness.

     The intended audience for Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell’s Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession is quite different from Pilkey’s: Campbell’s is a graphic novel that is emphatically for adults only (given some of the drawings and some of the language). And it turns out that the key word in the title is not “murder,” which is what will likely draw readers to the book, but “memoir.” The book is first, foremost and to the greatest extent about Campbell: her interests, her background, her family, her concerns and worries and habits and hobbies – watching or reading about true crime being a major preoccupation and a thread that runs through the entire book. But it is only a thread: the book’s first pages suggest there is more murder analysis here (that is, analysis of why Campbell and many other people are so interested in murder) than in fact there is. This is a book for “murderinos,” that word being introduced toward the end in connection with material about murder-focused podcasts. And it is a book that goes into very considerable detail tracing the events in some significant serial-killer cases – notably those of Ted Bundy and Tom Capano – while swerving constantly into more-or-less-interesting side channels, such as a biography of author Ann Rule (who, among other things, actually knew Bundy). There are some surprising (and surprisingly light) moments in the book, such as one involving a whodunit that shows an owl asking “who?” and an illustration of two skeletons with remotes “binging docuseries” (which should be “bingeing,” for what it’s worth). There is also a full page showing 20 different expressions, each going with different words, and labeled “How to React to Forensic Files or really, any true crime show.” But far too much of the book – for those more interested in its ostensible topic than in Campbell herself – shows the author interacting with people and/or reminiscing. Typical word-balloon sequence: “Back to me!!! And my obsessions! What came after Zodiac? I lived in L.A. Worked at a film festival. Became very into documentary. And non-fiction! I guess I just fell in love with true, hilarious, dark stories. Probably why I became a cartoonist. But what does any of this have to do with murder?” Good question, that last balloon – and the answer is “not much,” but also “a great deal in terms of Campbell’s interest in murder.” Murder Book is really not focused on murder, or murder obsessiveness, but instead is as scattered as Campbell’s thoughts seem to be: she draws herself doing stretching exercises with her mom, repeatedly shows herself going to the bathroom (complete with urine stream in one panel), and continually lurches about in the narrative while returning again and again to her primary focus on herself – “I am my mother’s daughter!! I am chill, but I am so not chill. I am relaxed, but I also cannot handle if there isn’t, like, a plan for the day?!?” A little self-awareness goes a long way; a lot of it, which is what Campbell offers, does not go nearly so far. She does include an occasional pop-psychology comment related to people’s interest in murder (from a psychologist or otherwise presumably knowledgeable source). And she does establish her adult bone fides through some drawings (full frontal nudity of one male suspect, although it makes sense only if you know what “A.S.M.R.” means, since she never explains the acronym) and through some writing (“Tom, we did anal last week”). But Campbell is so self-engaged that she makes odd narrative errors. She misquotes John 3:16 by leaving out “so,” and it comes out, “For God loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son…” On one page (237) she writes “which lead to” instead of “which led to”; on another (241) she writes “that’s now how it works” instead of “not how”; on still another (253) she uses the nonexistent word “empathasized.” She also crowds many panels so much that the drawings almost disappear – and in numerous cases she omits drawings altogether, turning Murder Book at times into an almost graphic novel rather than one using art to propel the story. This is a decidedly adult-focused work that ultimately offers little insight into the reasons many people delve so deeply, even obsessively, into murder books and TV shows and podcasts and more; but it offers considerable information on Campbell herself, her true-crime preoccupation clearly being an important element of her life and interests. Readers who find Campbell and her discursive style intriguing will get much more from Murder Book than those actually looking for a book about non-criminal preoccupation with murder.

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