May 26, 2022


Your Pal Fred. By Michael Rex. Viking. $12.99.

     All the usual appurtenances of a Mad Max-style world are here: the gigantic machines looking like assemblages of spare parts, the bombed-out or burned-out buildings, the wasteland views, the weirdly costumed characters, the opposing armies that exist solely for the purpose of attacking each other, the urchins scrambling for meals or simply to avoid conscription, and so on. Isn’t that fun?

     Well, yes, actually it is, since Michael Rex turns this post-apocalyptic pastiche of a graphic novel into something suitable for preteens by focusing all the action on the title character – and, not coincidentally, ensuring that matters are not taken too seriously by, among other things, having those vast conscripted armies fight each other with goop and slime, not bullets or arrows or swords or anything else that might be pointy or dangerous.

     Your Pal Fred is also my pal Fred and everyone else’s pal Fred, even the pal of rival warlords Lord Bonkers and Papa Mayhem – whose names, like so much else here, reflect the world-laid-waste vision while at the same time making fun of it. Fred is a kid-shaped robot, accidentally activated by brothers Plug and Pug as they fight over a single “lump-loaf” that is all they have to eat. Fred’s first task is to show the brothers how to share the loaf evenly – one of them gets to cut it and the other gets to choose his preferred piece – and of course Fred assures Plug and Pug that he is not after their food because he does not eat food, and “I don’t pee or poo either. I’m low-maintenance.”

     With that out of the way, Fred can turn to bigger matters – after he, Plug and Pug are captured by one of the monstrous sweeping-up machines that roam the wasteland pressing unfortunate “dirt-folk” into the warlords’ armies. Fred does not enjoy the lack of niceness that he sees everywhere – one of his responses to positive actions is to give out happy stickers, and he sees little reason to do that amid the warlords’ realms – so he decides to visit both warlords and ask them please to make nice with each other so everyone will be happy and everything will be good for everybody.

     You can imagine how that goes down. And if you can’t, no worries, since Rex imagines it for you. With a fine sense of pacing and a delightful mixture of the absurd and potentially (but not really) scary, Rex – after escaping from one of the pickup machines with the help of a new friend named Wormy – heads for Lord Bonkers’ headquarters, choosing it because it is closer than Papa Mayhem’s fortress. Some of Rex’s best scenes contrast Fred’s solo walk through vista after vista of destruction with the ultra-sweet robot singing “La La La” and “Beep Bop Boo” as little musical notes appear around him to show that he is singing, or at least vocalizing to a happy beat. Along the way, Fred meets Junkboy, who is chasing the reappearing Wormy, who has stolen potatoes that Junkboy stole from someone else; and Fred defuses the whole situation by complimenting Junkboy on his scary-helmet-making skill and giving him a sticker that says, “I’m a good egg!” (Somehow the characters here remember eggs and appreciate ones that are fried sunny-side-up and have yolks that smile.) Junkboy runs away as “jailtrucks” appear again, but Fred will re-encounter him, and Wormy, and Pug and Plug, as the story progresses.

     Progress here involves Fred actually meeting Lord Bonkers, who promptly runs him up “the rod,” where Fred enjoys being struck by lightning, confusing Lord Bonkers so much that the warlord actually listens when Fred requests an end to the fighting – a suggestion that leads to Fred being booted out of the warlord’s castle. Literally booted out, by a giant boot that knocks him to the spot where none other than Wormy is waiting for him. The two are captured by another jailtruck, which is fine with Fred, since this one takes them to Papa Mayhem’s headquarters, where Fred tries the same niceness as at Lord Bonkers’ place, with similar results: here, Fred is thrown into “the boom room,” where a huge-handed drummer constantly pounds drums to drive prisoners crazy. Predictably, Fred refuses to cooperate, deciding he loves the beat and dancing to it – perplexing both the drummer (whose hands Fred especially compliments) and Papa Mayhem. And so Papa Mayhem sends Fred back to bring a supposed friendship gift to Lord Bonkers, but the “gift” is actually a silly insult, so a great big final battle between the respective armies is about to ensue, when – thanks to Fred – the warlords make a startling discovery that turns everything into sweetness and light and happiness and unicorn rainbows.

     OK, not unicorn rainbows, but yes to that other stuff. The whole scenario is outrageously silly, including the eventual revelation of why the world came to its doom: an over-the-top mixture of war, a comet strike, aliens, robot apocalypse (not Fred-like robots), plus “millions and millions of cats” peeing on everything until “the world stank of cat pee.” Well, yuck. But it’s a funny “yuck.” And that is a pretty good description of Your Pal Fred as a whole: a funny yuck, with a great deal more of the funniness than the yuckiness. Graphic-novel fans with a taste for apocalyptic, kind-of-bonkers, not-quite-mayhem – and the message that sweet niceness eventually overcomes sour nastiness – will have a wonderful time being pals with Fred.

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