July 14, 2022


Everything Is OK. By Debbie Tung. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

One Cup at a Time: A “Cat’s Café” Collection. By Matt Tarpley. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Although “comic” means “amusing,” and comic strips and comic books have a longstanding history of amusement as their main (although not sole) reason for being, cartoonists in recent times – and especially since the pervasiveness of the Internet – have increasingly begun creating works that look like “comics” but are very far from funny. And this does not just happen in graphic novels, which are a sort of hybrid form specifically intended to go beyond more-traditional comic-strip sequences: there is now a whole subgenre of highly serious “comics” intended to discuss matters of considerable import, presumably using the illustrative format as a way to be more approachable than would be the case in a traditional book (even one with drawings). Certainly we live in a highly visual age, in which more and more people have an expectation of pictures to go with whatever words may appear between covers (or online); but whether these decidedly non-comic comics actually reach out more effectively than more-standard books on the same subjects is certainly an open question.

     In some cases, the effectiveness of a highly serious story told in comic-strip form will depend on how closely readers/viewers identify with the protagonist – which is to say the cartoonist, since full-book-length comics of this type are almost invariably autobiographical. Everything Is OK is a good example of the approach. Debbie Tung uses the book to describe her experience with clinical depression – how she realized she had it, how she believes she developed it, how she came to seek help, how she came to start coping with and recovering from the diagnosis and illness, and how she now foresees a brighter future even as she continues to emerge from some very dark depths. The book’s target audience would seem to be people who have or fear that they may have depression. Both the words and the well-drawn illustrations are highly serious throughout – indeed, the black-and-white art has a generally depressive quality that may make it hard for readers concerned about their own mental health to go through the 200-or-so pages in one sitting. Tung does know how to pace her dour commentary, as in her use of four panels – starting with a facial closeup and ending with a portrait of herself walking into the distance – for the words, “Even when I’ve done everything right I can’t help feeling like it’s not enough.” The descent into full-scale depression is discussed in considerable detail: “Even the thought of leaving the house to buy basic things was paralyzing.” “Sometimes it feels like nobody understands me. Heck, even I don’t understand me.” “If you hide something inside yourself for too long, you break.” “I pushed myself to the limit until I couldn’t handle it anymore and there was nothing left of me.” And so on, and on and on: there is a lot of this. Then there is a panic attack, and Tung, in one of her few concessions to an actual graphic presentation (as opposed to a near-literal rendering of herself and other people), shows a gigantic and scary black misshapen thing hovering over her and influencing everything she thinks, says and does – this being the dark cloud of depression that remains with her throughout Everything Is OK. Tung finally sees a doctor at the National Health Service (she is British), explains that “I hate everything about myself” and “I feel like I’m a failure and that I’ve let everyone down,” and is referred for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – the progress of which is detailed in the middle portion of the book. Blessed with an apparently perfect husband (he appears on occasional pages, always being 100% helpful and supportive) and a perfectly empathetic therapist, Tung slowly learns “there is no right way to do life,” so “Don’t forget to be kind to yourself” as well as to others, because “Joy comes in little and ordinary moments.” Yes, the verbiage is quite ordinary, to the point of being simplistic; and yes, the art is by and large illustrative of real life, not using the comic-style medium to any great advantage. This is why it can be difficult to decide just who is supposed to benefit from (if not “enjoy”) Everything Is OK. Tung certainly has artistic ability, shown in occasional flashes of inspiration and periodic use of touches of color. The single best page in the book is entirely nonverbal: its four panels start with Tung sitting beneath a dark cloud, after which she picks up an artist’s palette and a brush, starts to use the paints on the cloud, and in the fourth panel has turned the cloud rainbow-colored as she wears a small smile of satisfaction. That is communicating in a strikingly “comic” (although scarcely funny) way. The book as a whole, though, is so self-involved and ultimately so preachy that its appeal will most likely be confined to people who check out the early pages and identify very strongly with Tung as the main character – not really a “character” at all, but someone using art to chronicle her personal journey to better mental health.

     Matt Tarpley’s Cat’s Café collection, One Cup at a Time, is even preachier than Tung’s book, but looks on the surface much more like a “comic” confection. The art here is simpler and far less sophisticated than Tung’s, and the characters are all anthropomorphic animals named according to their species: Penguin, Kiwi, Snake, Owl, Otter, Hyena, Platy (for platypus), Hedgie (for hedgehog), and so on. The idea of a food-focused gathering place for nonhumans is scarcely new – Paul Gilligan’s Pooch Café is a clear example, and creations such as Georgia Dunn’s Breaking Cat News extend the get-together-spot concept to other venues (a TV station in Dunn’s case). In Tarpley’s work, though, the gathering place is nothing but a venue in which characters encourage each other and exchange sentiments that are intended to be supportive and heartwarming. In a version of Dungeons and Dragons, for example, Snake decides to ask a Slime “to join usss for coffee or tea” and is told, “You overwhelmed the slime with kindness! It joins your party!” On another page, Cat is feeling a bit down, and Rabbit tells him how great he is, so Cat says, “I’m so proud of you! You really helped me feel better!” On yet another page, Rabbit assumes a meditative pose while saying to “look for the little things around you and find your way to the present.” A huge shark, apparently a Great White from a panel showing a lot of teeth in an open mouth (in a pose reminiscent of Jaws), turns out only to offer “lub hugs” and befriends a tiny shrimp. Also, Unicorn gives away a few sparkles to cheer up Hammy. And a page called “Self-Love Is…” is cut from the same cloth as Tung’s book, its four panels concluding with one saying “…asking for help” and showing Opossum heading into the office of “Dr. Pigeon, therapist.” Just about everything here is positive, uplifting, gentle, sweet and, in truth, saccharine, such as “reasons to get up every day” including “to be there for those who depend on you,” and Octopus, at a computer, unleashing a “DDOH attack” – whose acronym turns out to refer to “distributed doses of happiness.” An occasional strip is slightly more pointed, such as one suggesting “digital social distancing” that ends with tossing a cellphone into boiling lava. And Tarpley occasionally goes beyond a single page and even varies the style of art a bit, as in a noir detective sendup called “A Brew to Remember,” a four-page investigation of a broken coffee mug that is actually “comic” in the traditional sense. But even the longer stories here tend to become treacly, as in the meeting and traveling together of Rat and Noot (newt), in which the latter offers to “play ye a tune to empower ye on yer journey” before deciding to go along while Rat searches “for a place where I feel happy and safe” (of course, the two eventually show up together at Cat’s Café). Even Goose, who invariably starts talking with a supposedly evil laugh (“mwehehehehe”), instantly becomes helpful and supportive immediately afterwards. The sole character with some personality turns out to be Kiwi, whose dialogue almost all the time is simply the word “kiwi” and who carries around a small but wicked-looking knife that, of course, he never actually uses in any harmful way (but he looks as if he enjoys the blade just a bit too much, which is what makes Kiwi a bit more interesting than the other characters here). Existing fans of Cat’s Café online are the natural audience for One Cup at a Time, which ends with a section called “Thoughts and Feelings” that is simply seven blank, lined pages to be used to express, well, thoughts and feelings. Warm, empathetic ones are very strongly encouraged, implicitly if not explicitly – comic ones are of far less significance, importance or meaningfulness.

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