The newest Sardine In Outer Space book is more of the same. Sardine, her uncle Captain Yellow Shoulder and Little Louie fly around the universe having light-hearted adventures. They're always running up against space dictator Supermuscleman and his mad scientist Doc Krok. This edition gets a bit meta, as our heroes are not only aware that they're the stars of a comic, but that they also only get 10 pages a story! Guibert and Sfar run with this idea in "Why Don't We Make A Movie?", where famous movie director Kubik tries to convince the gang to let him make a movie about them. The plot he describes comes to life as our heroes have a big space fight with Supermuscleman, but Sardine tells Kubik that his ideas aren't quite as exciting as their real lives.
The book is at its best when the premises are at their most absurd, because the plots are repetitive. The best stories include a visit to the Kingdom of Yummy, with fields of french fries, wild Burgeegies, the ketchup eruptions of Mount St. Heinz, and Weddingcake Mountain--with the King and Queen atop it. Along the meta lines, "The Sabotage Artist" is about a plot to make Sardine's comic unpopular by adding poorly-drawn characters, thanks to Supermuscleman. Then there's the Queen of Applet and her agents Dotcom, Clickalink and Doubleclick, who steal a statue and get tracked by the kids. As I noted in my review of the previous edition of Sardine, the book is best read a bit at a time, because there's not a lot of story or characterization to latch on to. However, it's ideal for younger children, especially those just getting into "real" books and comics. While Sardine's set-up is limited, the wacky scenarios that Guibert cooks up and Sfar playfully draws is a great way to get kids into comics.
Tiny Tyrant, on the other hand, is a stunningly hilarious work because of its tight plots and superb gag resolution. That's no surprise, considering that Lewis Trondheim is a gagman supreme, in addition to his many other talents. He's aided by the fantastically clean & expressive art of Fabrice Parme, whose style is reminiscient of 1960's animation. This clear-line style is a nice match for the frantic and energetic stories of young King Ethelbert, 6-year-old ruler of Portocristo. The king is a spoiled brat and terrorizes his ministers and citizens with his whims. The design of this book is fantastic: panel frames are left out. Instead, each story has a pastel background that brings the most out of the linework and the bolder colors used for the figures.
With the knowledge that Ethelbert is a little spoiled brat who will happily threaten those who disagree with him, Trondheim concocts plots that come up with an escalating set of problems and then devises an unexpected solution. In "The Ethelbertosaurus", the king is told of a dinosaur fossil being found. He immediately wants it named after himself, but balks when he sees it's a tiny creature. Wanting a larger dinosaur, he demands that his scientists create one. Through an unlikely series of events, one is created that immediately menaces him. The creature is sent back in time with Ethelbert (by accident), and the story resolves itself with a wacky set of events that is topped by a punchline that cleverly folds in events from earlier in the story.
What makes these stories so funny is that Trondheim stacks gag on top of gag, giving each story a momentum that plows toward the punchline at the end. Parme is more than up to the task of illustrating these gags, given his exaggerated figures and facial expressions. In "Safety First", Ethelbert is assigned a personal bodyguard. In order to test how good he is, he takes out a contract on his own life, and we proceed to see his bodyguard rescue him from catastrophe after catastrophe. Parme drawing "the Dastardly Detroiters" popping up out of a bunch of garbage cans is a hilarious image, one of many in a story that has genuine excitement from panel to panel. Once again, the final punchline is not only funny, it unexpectedly references an earlier plot point.
In The Professor's Daughter, Sfar and Guibert trade roles for what was actually their breakthrough work a decade ago. Guibert's moody, fuzzy art here meshes well with Sfar's melancholy fantasy romance. What I like best about this story is that its most absurd aspects are played straight. In Victorian England, an archeologist's daughter falls in love with the mummy of a former Egyptian pharoah that has come to life. Sfar understands what makes for a compeling story, because the plot is less concerned with the hows of the mummy's return than why he falls in love with the woman. Sfar spins this into a story of a son's relationship with his father, and crosses it with an ocean adventure, a prison breakout, a courtroom drama, and an absurd encounter with Queen Victoria. The comic almost feels as though it was originally twice as long, but Sfar cut out everything that wasn't essential to the story. Indeed, on the first page of the story, we're introduced to the mummy wearing a suit and out on the town with the titular daughter.
Color is a crucial component in the story's emotional narrative; the washed-out tones (watercolors?) evoke their environment so acutely that one can almost feel the fog or smell the ocean reflected in a cabin's light. As delicate as the coloring is, it's the liveliness of Guibert's figures that add drama to the action. The dreamy quality of the art allows the reader to make an easy transition between the action and several dream sequences, as well as even more absurd sequences like two mummies being laid up in hospital beds. While the book certainly has its share of shenanigans, it lingers in one's imagination because of the underlying sadness and emptiness of all its characters. The attempt to fill that void is at the heart of the book, and even the final page of the book has its own moment of tragedy despite what is otherwise a happy outcome. This book just feels like both artists having an enormous amount of fun riffing off each other, using a kitchen-sink approach to throw in everything they wanted in a story, and leaving out whatever disinterested them. It's simply a pleasure to read, from beginning to end.
Lastly, we have Eddie Campbell's The Black Diamond Detective Agency. It's based on a screenplay, and promises "mayhem, mystery, romance, mine shafts, bullets" and it certainly delivers. The story takes place around the turn of the 20th century in the American west--both in a small town and the big city. The anxiety surrounding the changes in the modern world is a running subplot that winds up holding the key to the story's mystery. The story begins with an argument between a man and a woman and the destruction of a train that kills dozens in his small town that is subsequently attributed to him. The man, John Hardin, is the sort of super-competent but haunted hero that's enormously compelling. Throwing him in with the eponymous private detective agency reminded me a bit of "The Fugitive", except the twist is that Hardin manages to disguise himself enough to temporarily join the agency!
While the story has interesting characters and some intriguing twists & turns, it really isn't much more than a rousing potboiler of an adventure story. What distinguishes it is the tour-de-force of design and composition that Campbell creates on the page. He combines his trademark scratchy style with a washed-out palette that perfectly depicts the grit and grime of the era. Acts of violence are in bold penstrokes and brighter color, popping them off the page. The pages go from full-page splashes to smaller grids to panels placed at odd angles to move the eye along the page with confusing images. Those readers who know Campbell from his autobiographical work might forget that his long-running adventure series Bacchus; he's no stranger to convoluted adventure stories. Still, this book isn't in the same league as something like Fate of the Artist, but it's a more-than-amusing diversion.
Once again, First Second excels at advancing comics that are another strain of "new mainstream" books. These comics are accessible to anyone, and the fact that they aggressively market comics for kids as well reflects the vision of the line's editor, Mark Siegel. He wanted comics to attain the same sort of respect and widespread cultural importance that they have in France, and wisely aimed his books directly at the bookstore market, but has done this so as to attract a wide audience. I wouldn't regard any of the books in this most recent wave as Great Works, but they do address comics' need for more solid, accessible and entertaining works. The term "middlebrow" is a bit too much of a pejorative to describe these well-drawn and written comics. These are, however, comics that anyone could enjoy but are clearly the personal vision of the artists involved.