Thursday, January 1, 2009

Under the Surface: Petey and Pussy

Rob reviews the riotous new book from John Kerschbaum, PETEY AND PUSSY (Fantagraphics).


I've extolled the virtues of John Kerschbaum's work from time to time in this column as one of the most underrated humorists working today. His work has never caught on widely in the comics world (though many children have seen his work in Nickelodeon Magazine, among other sources) for reasons that have never been entirely clear. Part of it may be that his character design is intentionally bland. They have a pleasant cartoonishness that belies the weirdness lurking in his strips. Another reason may be the way he suddenly injects violent and visceral scenes drawn in that same cozy style. Kerschbaum also jars his readers with punchlines that are not immediately obvious unless one follows the visual clues in his comics very closely. Kerschbaum is a gag mechanic of the first order, a total master of panel and page composition.
Above all else, Kerschbaum trades in deception, luring the reader in with one expectation and then brutally subverting that expectation repeatedly.


There's a lot going on in each of his pages. Kerschbaum wants to simultaneously achieve a number of goals with his characters Petey & Pussy. He wants to tell a story about the nasty things animals do to each other and themselves. He wants to set up gags on every page and have a funny drawing in every panel, but he wants these gags to build to a master punchline in each story. He uses repetition in unexpected ways for comedic effect. Kerschbaum's style of humor is at once enormously sophisticated, refined & complex as well as crude, scatological and slapstick--sometimes in the same panel. Petey and Pussy are most definitely animals, but they have the heads of balding middle-age men, talk like people and even get service at a bar. They are driven by instincts and lusts that are sometimes hard to distinguish from that of a person and sometimes shockingly animalistic. Petey the dog is very much a dog-as-person (always looking to get laid or drunk) while Pussy the cat is very much a cat: short-tempered, prissy and vicious.


Petey and Pussy have been around for quite some time in other formats, but this book is the first true sustained narrative that Kerschbaum's created. Keeping up a complex narrative in the face of the demand to have gags on every page obviously made this a challenge, but Kerschbaum was up to the task, imbuing each page with a sort of raw power that compelled the reader to keep turn pages even as they were flinching. The action in the book can be defined as the way that friendships and enmities serve to create the story's central structure. Pussy is trying to kill the mouse who taunts it by spelling "Loser" with its droppings in front of its hole but falls prey to the mouse's manipulations. Bernie the bird either wants to be freed or killed, and no one in the apartment is in any mood to grant him any favors. The senile, deaf owner of the pets dodders around, occasionally doing horrible things to the bird in an effort to "clean" it. The longest story revolves around Pussy dropping his eyeglasses into a sewer and the efforts he makes to get them back. The final gag requires a close reading but is well worth the effort.


The backup stories are not quite as strong or complex, but they certainly have their moments. The set-ups for both strips are a bit more conventional but the way Kerschbaum manages to escalate the ridiculousness (and violence) of each premise while at the same time subverting reader expectation is masterful. Kerschbaum loves creating verbal and visual puns as a sort of aside to the overarching narrative, a bonus on the way to larger jokes. What's interesting about his work is that his dialogue is all very literal and direct; the jokes he makes with words are often funny, but rarely complex. On the other hand, the warm and inviting nature of his art brings in any number of readers, but Kerschbaum is often apt to make the visual nature of his gags more obscure, demanding the audience figures it out using the verbal clues he's provided.


Without possessing a slick, exaggerated style, Kerschbaum create a world that favors neither word nor image. Instead, he creates a gestalt that must be apprehended on several different levels simultaneously. His work manages to evoke the violent anarchy of a Warner Brothers cartoon with a level of sophistication that can be found in a New Yorker strip. He doesn't rely on "funny pictures" or funny-looking characters to get across his punchlines; indeed, those funny-looking characters soon become funny in some unexpected ways. The drawings are not mere props for his verbal punchlines and rarely even serve a decorative purposes; they're there to quickly convey information, especially information that's not immediately obvious to the characters.


Every aspect of this book works to sell its gags, even down to its design. The dust cover flaps are "testimonials" by characters we'll meet inside, making reference to events unknown to the reader when they start the book. Jacob Covey, one of the top designers in comics, did the book's design, and it's enormously clever. In the inside front and back covers, look very carefully at what the mice are doing, for example. All told, this book is one of the best of the year to date and certainly the best humor-related publication. Hopefully it won't be the last book we see by Kerschbaum from Fantagraphics.

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