I'll confess that I've never been the biggest fan of Steve "Ribs" Weissman. Having read his Kid Firechief stories and assorted strips here and there, I'd always thought his stuff was cloyingly cute. The smartass element of his work was obvious, but it was in a weird no-man's land for me: not charming enough to work as kids' comic but not enough bite or brains to draw me in as an adult. I went into reading his new collection of strips with an open mind but low expectations.
Imagine my surprise when I found myself won over by Chewing Gum In Church, a collection of connecting gags featuring Weissman's little monsters. To put it in high concept terms, the strips feel like Peanuts meets The Addams Family. We follow the day-to-day exploits of Lit'l Bloody (a vampire), Pull-Apart Boy (a Frankenstein monster), X-Ray Spence, Kid Medusa, Dead Boy (a zombie) and Chubby Cheeks (an obnoxious fat kid). There's a gruesome, visceral quality to the strips since these kids are literally monsters, but Weissman's cute figures and thick black line balance the proceedings. What really stands out are Weissman's cruel punchlines and his intensely strange & non-intuitive use of color. Weissman goes from garish two-color strips to more standard four-color comics, with the two-color strips usually nastier. Weissman also has a lot of 4-panel (or more strips on a page), and then also stretches out several stories to a panel a page. This variation allows him to keep the reader off-guard, not knowing exactly where some stories begin and end; it creates a narrative to go along with the gags. Still and all, the gag's the thing here. The best features Chubby & Pull-Apart Boy enjoying a pie, with the latter coming up with an idea to sell them in a yard. Of course, their sign, "Guys With Pies", draws a slightly different (and more perverted) clientele than than they expected!
Like in Peanuts, the kids in the strip are wise beyond their years and can be quite cruel. The meanest of them all is Chubby, who at one point rips off Pull-Apart Boy's arm and starts beating him with it, saying "I'm doing you a favor." There's also a self-awareness at work here, as one character starts riffing on how the strip should be interpreted as a commentary on "middle-class youth" which immediately get turned into a gag. While there's obviously a lot of room for metaphor with his characters and their surroundings, Weissman is firmly rooted in the present, material and (often) the gross-out.
My favorite character is the poor put-upon Kid Medusa, shunned by all and just looking for somewhere to fit in. She envies the ants' sense of purpose and meaning and destroys their hill. She begs the queen of the ants to accept her, and not hearing anything (they are ants, after all), jumps up and down on them in frustration. Medusa then tries to join up with the bees, mistaking their swarming her with acceptance. Finally, she mistook a black widow in her mailbox as a message from her missing father, resulting in a fatal bite and a series of joyful hallucinations. Her story is the book in microcosm: somehow demented and sweet at the same time.