Friday, December 21, 2012

Kid Lit: Super Grammar, Bird & Squirrel, ChickenHare, Amulet, Cardboard

Here's some more short reviews of recent comics for kids.

Super Grammar, by Tony Preciado & Rhode Montijo.This isn't a comic at all but rather a textbook teaching the basics of grammar through the use of super heroes. It's brightly colored, and its figures are simple and bold. It's definitely a bit of shtick, sweetening the medicine of learning grammar with superhero trappings. For example, every example is something you might see in a superhero comic (or perhaps more pointedly, something you'd see in a superhero movie). I'd be curious to see if this is actually being used in classrooms as a supplement, because it's certainly rock-solid with regard to teaching the basics.

Bird & Squirrel: On The Run!, by James Burks. Burks has a lot of experience as an animator, and it shows in this frenzied story of the two unlikely, titular allies as they seek to escape being eaten by an inexorable, monstrous cat. The character design is reminiscent of the sort of thing one might see on Nickelodeon these days: boxy, exaggerated and simple. Burks is quite skilled as a cartoonist and the chase scenes are well-drawn and fairly funny. Beyond that, there's not much "there" there, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker. The characterization is one-dimensional and predictable. It's a book that's enjoyable but instantly forgettable.

ChickenHare, by Chris Grine. This is an adventure series with comedic overtones in the tradition of Bone. It's not surprising that fellow Scholastic stablemate Jeff Smith blurbed the book. Grine clearly had world-building on his mind when writing what was otherwise a straightforward story about two talking animals with unusual qualities trying to escape from a deranged taxidermist. Grine introduces mysteries and ambiguities about his characters and their world that he deliberately leaves unresolved, with an eye on expanding upon these ideas in future volumes. The titular character is tough and clever but not excessively so, and the design is fantastic, with rabbit ears, feathers on his arms and chicken legs. Grine does a nice job of balancing cute and weird in this comic in equal doses, combining them in unexpected ways. Grine is quite skilled at finding a way to inject life into his turtle sidekick, the monkey-like creature and horned girl they also find in captivity. He even manages to inject pathos into the character of the taxidermist and add some real emotional stakes to the proceedings while never forgetting to keep things moving while generating some laughs along the way. There's plenty here that's original and clever but also familiar enough for any kid to catch on quickly. I certainly wouldn't hesitate handing this to someone who had just finished Bone and wanted to read something in the same vein.

Amulet Volume 5: The Elf Prince, by Kazu Kibuishi.The earlier volumes of Amulet had a lot of padding as various pieces were being shuffled so as to set up betrayals and plot twists. The last volume revealed the true "big bad" of the series in order to set up the action and infodumps of this volume. Kabuishi actually makes those backstory drops the most interesting part of the book, especially when Trellis (the elf prince allied with Emily, the young keeper of a powerful amulet) goes back and discovers horrible things about the amulet. By this point in the series, Kabuishi clearly felt like he had already laid enough pipe earlier in the books and just assumes that his readers will remember the significance of every character and plot device. The problems I have with this series are threefold: 1) the character design of the human characters is dull and flat; they lie on the page like video game characters, 2) the protagonist of the series, Emily, is less a character than a walking plot mover, 3) the effects-heavy use of color on every page lends itself to the cold slickness that I found so offputting about Kibuishi's work in his Flight anthology. Kibiushi is clearly skilled and ambitious, and the book has the production values of a summer blockbuster. There's simply no warmth to be found in his work.

Cardboard, by Doug TenNapel. This was the first time I've ever had the sensation of a comic book yelling at me. Cardboard's high concept is very clever: cardboard with magical properties that comes to life when shaped into specific shapes. It's unfortunate that every other aspect of this book is shrill, manipulative, cliched and unpleasant. I've enjoyed aspects of TenNapel's books before despite their usual heavy-handedness with regard to family-related issues, but the characters in this book are startlingly one-dimensional and unpleasant. Even the art feels over-the-top and borderline grotesque on every page; how many bug-eyed moments did he really need to include on every page? Moments meant to evoke sympathy and sadness feel unearned and forced. The Lessons he aims to impart in this book are insultingly specific and obvious, down to the villain of the piece showing that he's reformed at the end when he gets a haircut. I won't even get into his regressive portrayal of gender. This is one of the worst books I've ever read from a skilled cartoonist.

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