Comic Strip Collections: Cul de Sac, Pearls Before Swine, and Max Overacts

With the general decline in newspapers, the best way to keep up with your favorite comic strips are book collections. Some of the most interesting short comics these days may not be carried in your local paper, or they may not even be syndicated. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed reading recently. (The publishers provided review copies.)

The Mighty Alice: A Cul de Sac Collection

by Richard Thompson
Andrews McMeel, $12.99

I had no idea this strip was so charming and imaginative and freshly funny. (I know I contributed to a benefit zine for Thompson last summer, but that was because I had sympathy for a cartoonist with Parkinson’s and he was so well-recommended.) This is the first time I’ve gotten to read Cul de Sac in large chunks, and it’s wonderful.

The Mighty Alice is the four-year-old who anchors the suburban comic. This is the fourth collection, following Cul De Sac: This Exit, Children at Play (collected together with author commentary as Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland of Classics), and Shapes and Colors. You don’t need to know anything more than this, though: Alice is annoyingly precocious and sees the world in her own creative terms, where she clearly centers it.

It reminds me of two old favorites, Peaches, Queen of the Universe (although Alice is nicer) and Yotsuba&! (although Alice is smarter). It’s nostalgic, in a way — once upon a time, we all had the chance to explore and imagine without the concerns that bother those around her, her parents and older brother Petey. She’s selfish, gloriously so, which makes it all the funnier when she gets her comeuppance, as from a jack-in-the-box.

Alice also has some classmates and her preschool teacher Miss Bliss. Her world is so beautifully realistic and yet, this isn’t one of those strips where you have to have a family like the one shown to relate. The punchlines are much more vivid … and unusual. Then there’s the distinctive visual design, which makes clear that these are drawings, with a varying pen line and vaguely scratchy appearance. Yet Thompson can draw anything, it seems. I forget I’m seeing art when I read it, a high compliment.

Cul de Sac captures the bizarre obsessions and peculiar dementia of everyday modern suburban life, including Christmas sweaters, sibling interaction, picky eating, minivans, advertising culture, and summer camp. This book is full-color, which still surprises me when we’re talking about comic strips.

Team Cul de Sac: Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinson’s

edited by Chris Sparks (designer of CulDeSacArt.com)
Andrews McMeel, $29.99

Speaking of Thompson’s Parkinson’s, a portion of the proceeds from this benefit hardcover will benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation. It reprints artwork donated for a similar purpose; the originals will be auctioned off online through June 10 with the proceeds going to Parkinson’s research.

It’s a coffee table book, with a bunch of other artists providing comic strips, or more often, pinups, of Thompson’s characters (often interacting with their own), but it’s for a good cause, and the contributors are quite impressive. They include Bill Amend (Fox Trot), Sergio Aragones, Danielle Corsetto (Girls With Slingshots), Jim Davis (Garfield), Evan Dorkin, Cathy Guisewite, Dustin Harbin, Lynn Johnston (For Better or for Worse), Roger Langridge (who draws Petey’s favorite “Little Neuro”), Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine), G.B. Trudeau, and Bill Watterson, who provides an oil painting of Petey. But that’s only a few — there are many more cartoonists and artists who participate. Many provide accompanying notes commenting on the inspiration behind their piece or a moment with Richard Thompson or their own experiences with motion disorders.

The book also contains an introductory profile of Thompson, telling how he got the strip started and how he was diagnosed, among other key moments. It covers the formation of the book project and some of Thompson’s influences and family background. It’s a great resource for those interested in more about the man behind the strip, or for those who need a reminder of how kind artists can be to each other when one’s in need.

Pearls Before Swine: Because Sometimes You Just Gotta Draw a Cover With Your Left Hand

by Stephan Pastis
Andrews McMeel, $12.99

I used to love this strip, one of the few modern good ones carried in my local paper, but after reading the good-natured humor and caring outreach of the above two books, it seems a bit mean-spirited. It’s certainly got a very different mood, with cynicism instead of curiosity ruling the day.

Maybe it’s that, after reviewing Only the Pearls, the Pearls Before Swine iPad app, I feel more like my sense of humor doesn’t match the author’s. I don’t find the cover all that funny, for example, although I applaud him doing whatever he wants in the face of his syndicate, foolhardy as it may be. He acknowledges that it reflects his “general obnoxiousness” in the introduction, also written in the same style.

Certainly, there are plenty of fans who appreciate this approach, and for them, this is more of the same, even better. Rat tries to hang out with Civil War re-enactors. Zebra isn’t helped by an elephant officer trying to work out a compromise between him and the crocs who want to eat him, although the pachyderm cop is a great visual. Pig has a sheep stalker. The crocs drill for gophers. My favorite (and the only time I could relate to him) was when Rat went searching for a company with good customer service.

Of course, there are the requisite cartooning jokes, when a version of Pastis argues with his characters, or those with unauthorized cameos from elsewhere on the comic page. One sequence memorializes Cathy Guisewite’s retirement with her character’s spirit floating through for a few strips. I was unsurprised to see it turned into a fat joke.

Max Overacts

Max Overacts cover

by Caanan Grall
Occasional Comics, $19.95 + $8.00 shipping

I first saw Grall’s work in the Zuda book Celadore, released just as that imprint was ending. He has since moved on to this webcomic, about an aspiring thespian schoolboy who makes everything around him dramatic. His favorite thing is to soliloquize.

This collection, “Hold on to Your Stubs”, is labeled Volume 1 and collects the first 142 strips, with 12 additional not posted online, all in color. Although somewhat expensive to try blind (due to the small press and use of color), it’s a great introduction, especially since it jumps right in. You quickly get a sense of Max’s over-sized personality (and how annoying it is) through his everyday family and school situations. Sometimes he practices ventriloquism, talking to a puppet. As the book continues, his relationships develop, especially with a girl in his class.

Each page is one strip, since they’re double-tiered and typically have eight or more panels. Grall’s cartooning is excellent, balancing the emotionality of the characters and their exaggerations in clear, readable fashion. One of my favorites was a trip to the dentist, with Max demanding to be treated as an alien and climbing all over the chair. I didn’t see the punchline, with the dentist demonstrating his own imagination, coming.

Even if you don’t want the book, check out the website. Max Overacts was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic last year.

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