Sunday, July 3, 2011

Quick Comments On Kids' Comics

I receive a lot of comics to review, and the next few weeks will be devoted to playing catch-up. First up is a survey of the many comics aimed at kids and teens. It's common knowledge in the world of publishing that the only segment of the book market that's still thriving is the young adult category. Scholastic is the publisher that caught lightning in a bottle with the Harry Potter franchise and later duplicated that feat (albeit on a much smaller scale) by reprinting Jeff Smith's Bone series in color. As such, they are still very much all-in with regard to comics aimed at various age groups, as this survey will indicate. Other publishers, like First Second, have also achieved success by concentrating a great deal of their output on all-ages material. Let's take a look to see what approaches are in vogue with regard to story and art, from roughly youngest audience to oldest:

The Super Crazy Cat Dance
, by Aron Nels Steinke . (Baloon Toons/Blue Apple Books. Aimed at ages 3-6). This is modeled after Francoise Mouly's Toon Books line, right down to the shape and design of the book. Of course, those books were modeled after Golden Books and other classic book designs for kids, which are heavy on decorative properties. Steinke has an idiosyncratic voice as a writer, a tone that winds up being perfect for a kids' book. That's partly because while he channels Dr. Seuss for the rhymes about cats that make up most of the book, he screeches to a halt to actually write about the title dance in a way that's genuinely amusing and unexpected. His line is simple but he adds a lot of detail and "eye pops" on every page, making this an ideal book for a child to read again and again as they take in new images. Lastly, the colors in this book are simple but warm & inviting, providing an interesting contrast to the predominant use of black as a background color. Steinke seems to have really found his niche with this book.

Gumby's Gang Starring Pokey #1, by Michael Aushenker & Rafael Navarro. (Gumby Comics. Aimed roughly at ages 7-10.) This is an agreeably dopey comic jammed with funny visuals, dumb puns and just plain nonsense. In other words, this time travel story is a snug fit in the continuum of strangeness that is the world of Gumby & Pokey. Navarro's loopy line and Lance Borde's garish colors give the reader something interesting to look at in every panel. Gumby and Pokey are funny-looking characters to begin with, but Navarro's drawings of Gumby & Pokey as Run-DMC, cube-headed people of the future and Gumby climbing the Trojan Horse are simply funny apart from their larger context. Aushenker's references to 80s rap, the Minutemen, and Suicidal Tendencies are meant to fly over the heads of any kids who happen to be reading the comic (sort of the way The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle did). Aushenker's frantic, silly and absurd style of humor is a contrast to the gentler, slower pace of the original cartoons, but creator Art Clokey designed these clay characters to be flexible in every sense of the word. Aushenker clearly respects the source material but exploits that flexibility to expand the world and references of its star characters. I don't think every kid who reads this would like it, but a certain kind of kid to whom absurdism is appealing would no doubt re-read it endlessly.

Adventures In Cartooning Activity Book, by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold & Alexis Frederick-Frost. (First Second. 78 pages, aimed roughly at ages 6-12.) The follow-up to the excellent comics/textbook for kids encourages cleverly disguises its exercises as fun activities. The book follows a knight in search of adventure who is encouraged by an elf to draw. The reader is asked to draw increasingly more complex objects, starting with free-form doodles to copying a simple horse to making up food items to draw in a fridge. From there, the reader is introduced to sound effects, decorative aspects of drawing, simple perspective, backgrounds, dialogue, sound effects, lettering, panel sequencing and transitions, motion, and the passage of time. To my eye, it looks like Frederick-Frost's line is responsible for most of the figure work, with his simple brush line and supple figure work delighting the eye at every turn. There's a warmth and approachability on every page that's designed to draw in readers, but the book also challenges its readers with the final exam of doing all the work (save panel design) for a 14-page story. Hopefully, there will be future activity books that up the ante a bit further.

Pilot & Huxley: Their First Adventure, by Dan McGuiness. (Graphix!/Scholastic. 62 pages, aimed at ages 7-9.) There's a reference to South Park in this comic, which I thought odd given its target audience. In many respects, the smart-ass give-and-take between the title boy characters and the deliberately crude, stilted art make this a sort of action-adventure version of South Park, minus the swearing and sex jokes. McGuiness does actually land plenty of good gags in this silly book about two boys hopping between dimensions, but the computer-drawn art is crude to the point of distraction and too many of the gags rely on gross-out humor. It's also surprisingly meta for a comic aimed at kids. None of that would have been a problem if the art (and that goes for the garish coloring) was simply more interesting to look at.

Missile Mouse: Rescue on Tankium3, by Jake Parker. (Graphix!/Scholastic. 158 pages, aimed at ages 8-12.) It's no surprise that Parker has a background in animation, given the clean lines and functionally attractive use of color in this book. This science-fiction story is an entirely tidy adventure that focuses on its episodic plot and simple characterization. Parker's anthropomorphic mouse hero is a triumph of character design, as is his primary antagonist in the book, the Blazing Bat. Parker skillfully introduces visual elements early in the book that either wind up becoming plot points or recurring bits of comic relief. The result is a smooth, pleasant read that is generic and not especially memorable, in part because the main character is such a generic action hero. Like many an animated action feature, the focus on action over character makes it difficult to create a connection with the titular character. Still, the clarity of action, simplicity of the humor and crispness of the color & character design will no doubt be appealing to readers at the younger end of its target audience.

Sidekicks, by Dan Santat. (Graphix!/Scholastic. 224 pages, aimed at ages 8-12.) This is a book about the super-powered pets of a generic (but older) superhero named Captain Amazing. It's got two chief assets: the chunky & blocky drawings are expressive and funny, and Santat lets the characters dictate the action at all times. The plot is simple and the twists are telegraphed, but both serve simply as a stucture for the four animal characters to interact. The emotional plot of the book involves three of the animals (a dog, a hamster and a newly-arrived chameleon) wishing they could spend more time with their master, a hero on the verge of retirement. The hero decides to get a new sidekick, and the dog (Roscoe) decides to try out for the role. When the hamster (Fluffy) and chameleon (Shifty) decide to do the same, they encounter the cat (Manny), their former "brother" who had run away from home after a long stint as the hero's sidekick. That emotional structure is imbued with genuine warmth to go along with slapstick, and it's the key to the book's success. The story is otherwise pretty silly superhero boilerplate, but each character's personality drives the book in different ways. The dog is loyal but stubborn, relying too much on brute force; the cat is prickly but clever, slowly letting his guard down with regard to his brothers; the hamster is good-natured and relentlessly loving; the chameleon is a bit baffled but eager to fit in. Santat's use of color is expressive and appealing, spotlighting his idiosyncratic visual style. This was the best of the Scholastic books by far.

Ghostopolis, by Doug TenNapel (Graphix!/Scholastic. 268 pages, aimed at teens.) I've always found TenNapel to be a clever cartoonist whose comics tend to wind up being all over the place. This book is no exception. It's a love story about a shiftless ghost hunter and a clever ghost. It's a family rapprochement story. It's a sick child story. It's a monster story. It's a quest. It's an action/adventure story with fantasy elements. It's a story about belief. Gross-out gags are mixed with cloying sentiment. It's not complex as much as it is cluttered, with some characters possessing rich backstories and others lacking enough depth to justify their heroic arcs. There's plenty to recommend in this volume (the character designs, unsurprisingly, are all top-notch, with clever variations on familiar designs), but it simply doesn't cohere--especially at an emotional level.

Bad Island, by Doug TenNapel (Graphix!/Scholastic, 224 pages, aimed at ages 10-13.) This book by TenNapel has a much tighter focus, following a family of four and their life-and-death adventures after they get shipwrecked on a mysterious island. Like Ghostopolis, this book concerns a dysfunctional family and how the extreme conditions of an adventure scenario provides a crucible for its repair. In particular, TenNapel zeroes in on wayward sons, and Bad Island provides a clever set of parallel narratives regarding two sons trying to assert themselves as adults in different but equally inappropriate ways. TenNapel quickly sets up the personalities of each family member before putting them on the island, and then jacks up the danger & action quotient steadily. The connections between scenes and flow of the action are reminiscent of Carl Barks at times, and his character design (as per usual) is elastic, animated and expressive. The one sour note of the book is the character of the mother, who is at first a sour scold and doesn't advance much past that. The female characters in both of his books are one-note: the wacky girl in this book, as well as the bitter mother & sadly scorned ex-girlfriend in Ghostopolis. Those latter characters go through what I call a binary arc, switching from unhappy to happy without the same sort of journey as the male characters. As a result, that change feels forced and unearned. On the whole, the action in this book is compelling and the family elements ring true without being too didactic.

Bone: Quest For The Spark, Book One, by Tom Sniegoski & Jeff Smith. (Graphix!/Scholastic. 218 pages, aimed at teens.) Smith's Bone series is the gold standard for young adult comics over the last twenty years after it initially garnered an enormous adult audience as well. While Smith won't be writing new stories himself, the Bone empire rolls on with a new series of novels written by long-time collaborator Sniegoski and illustrated by Smith. This book is right in the Bone pocket: sinister & mysterious force threatening happiness in the valley; a young and unlikely hero teaming up with a group of Bones; a desperate quest to find the one thing that can defeat the enemy, picking up strange allies along the way. Sniegoski's take on the Bone mythos is perfectly competent, but I've always felt that his writing was a bit on the broad side--which is saying something, because Smith certainly went for some broad punchlines throughout the course of his original series. In this book, he reins himself in a bit, but he lacks that certain quirky something that made Smith's series such a huge success. This being prose instead of comics doesn't help matters much, given that the kinetic quality of Smith's panel-to-panel transitions carried so much of the series' momentum. As a result, the book winds up being a pleasant visit with some old friends but not much more.

The Good Neighbors: Book Three: Kind, by Holly Black & Ted Naifeh. (Graphix!/Scholastic. 112 pages, aimed at teens.) This book is radically different from the others on this list, in that it's not a "boy's adventure" action quest. In terms of packaging and even certain story elements, there's a certain resonance with the mega-successful Twilight novels. The cover features a young woman clearly being torn between two different lovers (which is indeed the case, as the story reveals). How this book is radically different from Twilight is that the female protagonist here is a decidedly active one, as opposed to the more passive Bella. I had not read the first two books in this series and so missed the full emotional ramifications of the initial premise: an odd teenage girl named Rue learns that her mother is in fact a faerie and that she has all sorts of magical powers. The end of the second book finds her city being merged with the land of Faerie, with all of its attendant nastiness and a potential war brewing between the two peoples. Rue's struggle is being caught in-between, with no clear choices for resolution: between her mother and father, between being human and immortal, between her boyfriend and a newer lover, between her friends & the life she knew and a different life in a magical realm. Black, the writer, wrings every bit of angst possible out of these conflicts, rendering the entire book an overwrought series of pained internal monologues. After a while, this gets to be tedious. To her credit, Black doesn't cop out with any easy decisions at the end, and the choice Rue makes is a surprising one in many ways. Naifeh's work is excellent throughout; his shadowy pages are reminiscent of a slightly more cartoony Gene Colan. He does his best to add life and atmosphere to the story, contributing nicely to its downbeat mood. While I am far from the target audience for this book, I appreciate Black attempting to steer away from cliche' as much as possible while still including the sort of story elements that that audience expects from a fantasy series.

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