First Second continues to build on their impressive stockpile of comics aimed at kids with collections of Lewis Trondheim's Kaput & Zosky and Joann Sfar's Little Vampire. Both of these comics have appeared in English in other formats, at least in pieces. Some Kaput & Zosky shorts were translated in the much-missed Trondheim spotlight series The Nimrod that Fantagraphics used to publish. A couple of the Little Vampire stories were published by Simon & Schuster five years ago, but the series ended there. First Second, with their solid design, aggressive and smart marketing and understanding of how to reach their desired audience, picked up the banner for Sfar and Trondheim.
Little Vampire is the prequel of sorts for Vampire Loves, another charmingly ambling set of stories featuring the friendly vampire. Little Vampire lives in a haunted castle with all sorts of monsters and ghosts. His desire to go to school leads to an amusing sequence where his mother and father (who turns out to be the Flying Dutchman) arrange for the whole menagerie to attend a school at night. He does the homework for a human boy, and the two wind up as fast friends. Sfar manages to make the monsters and ghosts simultaneously friendly and gruesome. Maintaining that balance is his best trick--the supernatural in all its occasionally frightening forms is on every page, yet the boldness of Little Vampire and the boy Michael offer a reassuring presence for even the youngest of readers.
The stories are Sfar at his best. The first story is about friendship, the second is about standing up to bullies, and the third is about animal cruelty. Sfar manages to get across lessons in the least didactic manner possible, thanks to his lively line, attention to the forward propulsion of the story's action, and vivid colors. At the same time, he's not afraid to go off on tangents and character soliloquies, trusting his audience enough to know that they'll realize that he'll snap back into the main narrative shortly. The second story, "Little Vampire Does Kung-Fu", takes a pretty simple idea (Michael must deal with a bully) and takes it into some very odd directions.
Michael and LV step into a painting in the haunted castle, where a rabbi points him in a direction where he can learn kung-fu. In a hilarious sequence, Michael goes through a clever series of vignettes to achieve his quest--only to find that the castle monsters have eaten his tormentor. Realizing that that would never do, he and Little Vampire have to consult a group of sorcerers to bring him back to life, but not before nearly sparking a wizard war. Finally, the bully was brought back to life a little too effectively--he became a monstrous giant who nearly squashed our heroes before they got a little help from LV's father. This story encapsulates what Sfar does so well here--he creates a narrative that doesn't talk down to children, but rather respects their intelligence and thirst for the unusual, the bizarre and even the scatological, all while crafting characters that are enormously sympathetic, distinctive and affectionate. Above all else, these stories are funny--the drawings are funny to look at, and his dialogue is filled with punchlines, plays on words and even amusing non sequiturs.
On the other hand, Lewis Trondheim's Kaput & Zosky is done in the tradition of the Warner Brothers or Terrytoons--stylish, hilarious and glorious cartoonish violence for its own sake. These stories are about two inept intergalactic conquerors whom, despite their taste for mayhem, find themselves foiled on every planet they visit. These stories were mostly drawn by Eric Cartier in a style very similar to Trondheim's, and they were later adapted for an animated series that was once aired on Nicktoons. This collection also contains a number of "The Cosmonaut" strips, written and drawn by Trondheim. In gag stories like this, Trondheim is at his best because his plots unfold like puzzles, slowly unveiling the story's clever solution (and resolution) in hilarious fashion.
For example, a planet where every being obeys them not only frustrates their desire to conquer bloodily, it winds up driving them off the planet when Kaput's suggestions of things he doesn't want to happen come to pass. On one planet, when Kaput wins on a slot machine and doesn't want the money (preferring money stolen), the money keeps doubling and doubling until he owns the entire planet--and then walks away because he doesn't want to rule a world without "kicking butt". They conquer another world by getting elected in a democratic process and are forced to flee when they're expected to live up to their promises ("...the ugly shall be beautiful!"). The duo are fleeced by a traveling arms merchant who sells weapons and something to overcome them to both our protagonists and the planet they're trying to conquer. When Kaput manages to solve the problem of the annoying salesman in a very direct fashion, it leads to the natives learning from his example and driving them off.
Like all of his comics aimed at kids, Trondheim really makes them for his own enjoyment first and foremost. As a result, any adult can read and enjoy them for the liveliness of the art, the clever storytelling, and the way he manages to slip between sophisticated and crude humor so effortlessly. The "Cosmonaut" interstitial pages fit in perfectly with this style of humor, and are perhaps even more vicious and scatological than the Kaput & Zosky strips. This book is not quite as appealing as the stories from Dungeon , mostly because these are deliberately one-note characters designed to fit a certain kind of story design. These stories are pure parody, sending up sci-fi's hoary cliches while still managing to utilize clever premises. Kaput & Zosky isn't the first book I'd recommend for someone looking to explore Trondheim's work, but it still serves as an example of his long winning streak in comics--I don't think I've ever read a Trondheim story that wasn't at least clever, well-crafted and enjoyable to read at worst, and transcendentally brilliant at best.