February 17, 2022


Big Nate: Beware of Low-Flying Corn Muffins. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn 15: Unicorn Selfies. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     The strange sixth-grade stasis in which Nate Wright and his friends exist is a bit odder than usual in the latest Lincoln Peirce collection, Beware of Low-Flying Corn Muffins. Peirce is very good at getting away with the fact that Nate gets out of sixth grade, after Prank Day and with great joy, then has summer adventures, then goes back to school and is – in sixth grade again. There is enough amusement and distraction in Nate’s everyday life, his interactions with friends and family, his self-induced misadventures born of his large (but generally lovable) ego, to keep fans of Big Nate happily ignoring the impossibility of Nate being a sixth-grader year after year (in fact, decade after decade). In the new collection, though, things get a bit more Mรถbius-strip-like than usual, since one of the earliest entries has Nate’s teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, asking him about his summer – and at the end of the book, the last few strips are all about “Principal Nichols welcoming everybody back to school” and Mrs. Godfrey saying “Welcome back, Nate” (with Nate telling art teacher Mr. Rosa he is “ready for another great year of art class”). So this particular collection runs school-start to school-start, with an entire school year and summer included – but the two starts are both of sixth grade. The whole situation is reminiscent of the Red Queen’s words to Alice: "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Not that Nate is constantly running: he takes his time walking to detention, to social studies (Mrs. Godfrey’s class), to Cressly’s Bakery (which sponsors the baseball team on which he plays), and to interactions with neighbor dog Spitsy – except when Spitsy drags Nate along at a running pace for one reason or another. Among the adventures in Beware of Low-Flying Corn Muffins is a description of the reason for the title – the actual event not being shown, which leaves plenty to readers’ imagination. There is also competition between Nate and Dee Dee to dig up enough in-school dirt for a really good gossip column; Nate’s upsetting discovery that Mrs. Godfrey is a major fan of Nate’s favorite TV show, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”; Nate’s agreement, under duress, to create self-deprecating comics, only to give up because “I’m simply not mockable”; Nate’s repeated use of the same excuses for not doing homework – except it turns out his teachers have been tracking his claims; Nate becoming a mall elf when School Picture Guy, the minor and odd character perpetually wearing a bandage strip on his forehead, is hired as Santa; Nate getting ready for puberty and shaving because he has a single hair on his face, which eventually turns out to be a piece of fuzz; and the surprising discovery that sweet and lovable friend Chad, when he takes a “sorting hat” quiz based on the Harry Potter books and movies, turns out to belong in the darkest house, Slytherin. Throw in a discussion about potential tattoos (Nate would opt for his favorite comic-book character, Femme Fatality), and Beware of Low-Flying Corn Muffins proves to be yet another of the reliably amusing Big Nate collections at which Peirce has been so adept for so many years – in fact, since the strip started in 1991.

     There is an element of the perpetual present in Dana Simpson’s Phoebe and Her Unicorn series, too, although it is not as central to the events, which are rarely school-related. Given the pervasive magic in this series, the specifics of its time frame really do not matter, as they do in school-focused comics. It is the relationship between Phoebe and Marigold Heavenly Nostrils that is always the focus here, to such an extent that all other characters are minor ones. Still, those less-important characters have some significant roles to play. In Unicorn Selfies, a couple of strips featuring Phoebe’s parents, who are well aware of Marigold and thoroughly accepting of the magic surrounding Phoebe, are noteworthy. In one, her father sees an “enchanted doodle” just as it disappears – Marigold has inadvertently animated it temporarily. His comment: “I envy you your weird childhood.” Elsewhere, Phoebe tells her mother that “the rainbow orb will be here soon” to take Phoebe to “the unicorn family reunion,” for which she did “a load of socks so I’d have enough.” Phoebe’s mom’s startled response is not about unicorns or rainbow orbs, but is: “You did LAUNDRY?” She calls out the news to Phoebe’s dad, who responds with “Oh happy day!” And that leads Phoebe to remark, “Kinda miss when the unicorns and the rainbow orb would have been the surprising bit.” The unicorn family reunion turns out to be a highlight of Unicorn Selfies, since Marigold has never met her parents and has to figure out how to react to them and how to rebel against them (since that seems like the thing to do). Also at the reunion, Phoebe re-connects with Infernus, the Unicorn of Death, a small and super-sweet unicorn whose parents, who are equally delightful and supply cupcakes, turn out to be named Maledicta Unavoidable Catastrophe and Onyx Darkbane, Foreteller of the World’s End. The only member of that family with a genuine dark side turns out to be Infernus’ sister, Buttercup Jeweled Delight. Speaking of names, Phoebe gets her unicorn name in this collection: Marigold dubs her Speckleface Spiderhooves, in recognition of Phoebe’s freckles and fingers. There is plenty of other soft-pedaled and pleasant magical interaction here as well. There is the pixie-built clubhouse kept safe from intruders by the Protective Cloak of Shabbiness: it looks dull and ordinary from the outside, but is a golden palace within the concealment. There are multiple selfie filters showing Marigold looking decidedly strange in multiple ways. There are temporarily missing shadows: Marigold gives hers and Phoebe’s a day off. And there is an interesting, more-thought-provoking-than-usual sequence in which Phoebe talks about a movie she loves called “Confetti Canyon: The Curse of the Exploding Hat,” then learns that Internet commenters hate the film; this leads Marigold to borrow Phoebe’s phone and shout at it, “It is YOU who is bad, Internet!!” To which Phoebe replies, “That shouldn’t help, but it kinda does.” Nevertheless, Phoebe cannot resist reading comments about the movie; these get her tremendously upset; and Marigold asks, “Why should you care that people on the Internet disagree with you? It does not make your opinion any less valid.” Phoebe has to struggle with that comment, and the whole situation becomes a bit of a learning experience not only for her but also for readers – who generally do not get very much that is meaty from Phoebe and Her Unicorn, making the few substantive elements stand out all that much more. And the comparatively trivial ones that make up most of Unicorn Selfies are just fine in their own right.

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