Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Graphic Lit: Comics for the kids

As more and more cartoonists produce comics and graphic novels aimed at adult sensibilities, pundits have been fretting recently that kids — once the medium’s target audience — are getting left out of the equation.

Those fears prove groundless, however, when you take a look around at the plethora of children’s comics available in comic shops and bookstores. Here’s a quick look at some recent releases: 

“Mouse Guard Fall 1152”
by David Petersen

Archaia Studios Press, 192 pages, $24.95.

Petersen’s “Redwall”-influenced fantasy story, about a feudalistic mouse society and a group of mouse knights that must ferret out a traitor, was the big sleeper hit of last year, and it’s not too hard to see why. His art is grounded in just enough realism to make the idea of tiny mice slinging swords and shields seem plausible. And he does a nice job breaking down the big action scenes as well.

Unfortunately, Petersen makes the mistake a number of fantasy authors do, focusing too much on setting up their elaborate universe and not enough on the individual characters. I had a tough time telling the different mice apart, and the revelation of the story’s villain merited little more than a shrug from me. Petersen clearly has a strong vision, but he doesn’t give the reader enough reasons to care about it. Still, that might not matter too much to young readers for whom the notion of tiny mice in capes and daggers is enough to excite imaginations. 

“Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics from an Unpleasant Age”
edited by Ariel Schrag

224 pages, $18.99.

That intensely traumatic period known as the junior high (or these days “middle”) school years are the subject of this anthology. As you’d expect, there’re lots of stories about kids being bullied or betrayed by friends, or just feeling terribly awkward.

Indie icons Joe Matt and Daniel Clowes provide some previously published work on the subject, but the real gems here are by Gabrielle Bell, Lauren Weinstein and editor Schrag, who capably show the casual cruelty and fluctuating social standings kids inflict on one another. If you’ve got a sullen 13-year-old in your house, give them this book and maybe they won’t feel so isolated. 

“Tiny Tyrant”
by Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice Parme

First Second, 128 pages, $12.95.

My absolute favorite out of this week’s selections, “Tyrant” is an absolute hoot with an ingenious premise. Six-year-old Ethelbert is the king of the tiny nation of Portocristo, and whatever he says goes. From there, Trondheim and Parme spin out a variety of great slapstick tales, most of which involve the bratty Ethelbert attempting to have everything catered to him (in one episode, he shrinks the entire kingdom so he won’t seem so short anymore), with events quickly spinning out of control in slapstick — and frequently absurd — fashion. It’s the rare book that parents as well as kids will get a thrill out of. 

“Sardine in Outer Space 3”
by Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar
First Second, 112 pages, $12.95.

The spacefaring Sardine and her friends Little Louie and Captain Yellow Shoulder continue to outwit the villainous Supermuscleman in this latest collection of comical sci-fi stories. As usual, cartoonish, absurd hi-jinks are the order of the day, with planets made of junk food and drawings that come to life. The occasional potty humor will no doubt displease some parents, but Guibert and Sfar’s work is ultimately too silly and charming to get outraged about. 

“Avalon High: Coronation Vol. 1: The Merlin Prophecy”
written by Meg Cabot, illustrated by Jinky Coronado
Tokyopop, 208 pages, $7.99.

This comic book tie-in to Cabot’s prose “Avalon High” books, which transports the King Arthur legend to a modern-day high school, is a complete mess. It’s way too heavy on dull, thudding exposition and clumsy dialogue (in fact, the whole Arthurian legend seems ill-suited to high school life). Worse, Coronado’s awkward, overly angular art amounts to “I’m just going to draw exactly what is written in the text” which should be rule number one in how not to do a comic. Even if you’re a fan of the novels, you should pass on this spin-off.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007



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