Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Comics Round-Up: The Kids Are All Right

One of the unexpected side effects of reading books electronically is that it's easier to lose track of them -- particularly for someone like me, who thrives on lists and uses growing stacks of books as a goad to action, ebooks are invisible and stealthy and so can be more easily forgotten. Two of the books I'm about to run through came to me as electronic files, while the third has had its review delayed by the usual busy-or-lazy reasons.

Also, all three of these books are in series, and I've written about all three of those series before -- sometimes extensively. So these would have been short reviews in any case -- assuming I didn't start to run off on a tangent, which may be too big an assumption.

Salt Water Taffy, Vol. 4: Caldera's Revenge! is, as the title makes clear, the fourth book in the all-ages series about two boys roaming through often-supernatural adventures in a small Maine coastal town over the course of one summer. (I reviewed the first two together for ComicMix and then the third one here.) Loux's art is still swooping and energetic, and his dialogue quick and funny -- and with a knowing wink that stays just this side of self-satire. The town of Chowder Bay is even more infested with intelligent megafauna than we'd seen in previous books -- not to mention the regular-sized intelligent creatures, of course -- as, this time, there's a nasty sperm whale and a friendly young squid.

But this book isn't a standalone story, like the previous three -- it begins what is at least a two-part story, ending on a clear cliffhanger, with the boys separated and in various kinds of danger. I wouldn't recommend starting the series here -- besides that non-ending, the opening scene also depends on knowing the plot of the previous books -- but it's a great all-ages series for kids (of all ages) who like stories of adventure and interesting animal life.

Possessions, Vol. 2: The Ghost Table is the second in a similarly humorous graphic novel series by Ray Fawkes. (I reviewed the first one, Unclean Getaway, for the 6/10 issue of Realms of Fantasy, so it's not online for me to link.) The main characters are all supernatural entities in the collection of eccentric old lady Ms. Llewellyn-Vane, anchored by Gurgazon the Unclean, a pit demon in the form of a little girl. (Think Regan from The Exorcist, played for laughs: "Step aside, servant! Gurgazon waits for no lackey!")

This time out, Llewellyn-Vane's collection -- recently enhanced by the addition of Gurgazon -- is being compared to that of competing collector Ms. Carter-Hawthorne, and her ghosts are the most annoying, stuck-up collection imaginable. What's more, they're goading Gurgazon -- who doesn't have great impulse control at the best of times -- into trying again to escape and thwart Llewellyn-Vane's preternaturally able butler, Thorne. (And we have learned by now that getting by Thorne will be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, for any ghost.)

The plot is very much parallel to the first volume, with the addition of the rival ghosts, but the real joy of these books comes in Gurgazon's wonderfully over-the-top dialogue -- as during the salad course, when he proclaims "Gurgazon is invulnerable to nutrition! Do you have 'screaming helpless enemies' dressing?" And, like Salt Water Taffy, Ghost Table leads into the next book. Fawkes tells his current story completely in this volume, but this is clearly a middle volume; there's going to be some resolution (or at least a revelation) to the Thorne situation -- and, with any luck, that will be in the next book, scheduled for spring of 2012.

And then there's The Complete Peanuts, 1979 to 1980, which is the fifteenth book -- of a projected twenty-five -- in the Fantagraphics series aiming to reprint Charles M. Schulz's comics masterwork complete and in order. (And I've looked at this series a number of times previously -- though, in the opposite to my usual pattern, I didn't cover the first few volumes at all, and then worked my way up from brief mentions up to full-fledged reviews, and, I suppose, am now working my way back down again --  1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-1964, 1965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978. I also reviewed the 2007 biography Schulz and Peanuts for ComicMix.)

I found '77-78 to be a bit thinner and blander than '75-'76, and even '75-'76 was sliding down the slope of niceness and tennis jokes from the chillier, stronger heights of the late '60s, but those years still had some very strong long sequences and frequent moments of real poignancy. But the two years here are entirely more benign, and less interesting -- even Peppermint Patty, who had taken over from Charlie Brown as the most lovelorn character as the '70s rolled on, gets a sweet little love story of her own in the middle of this book, with a very unlikely beau. The core of the strip is clearly Snoopy at this point, and most of the other characters are a collection of standard reactions and jokes rather than the fuller, more surprising people they had been in earlier years.

The girls particularly come off badly: Sally seems to have forgotten she ever was in love with Linus, and mainly shows up in scenes with her brother, in which her main joke is wanting to take over his room. Lucy lost her cutting '60s edge years before, and is primarily seen as a bad outfielder and a bossy older sister. And even Marcie isn't allowed to be as insightful and quirky as she used to be; her function in these years is to be the straight man for Peppermint Patty's D-minuses.

Schulz's jokes are fine; his characters are likable and instantly recognizable; and Peanuts is never dull. But, in these years, it settled for being a consistently entertaining standard comic strip rather than digging any more deeply than that into the sources of human sadness and discomfort. I'm not expecting the later years of Peanuts to get back to that peak, frankly -- but, on the other hand, before reading these volumes I'd thought the strip had settled down into mediocrity long before it actually did, so I could still be surprised.

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