A Month of Wednesdays: Sara Varon, Kate Beaton and more September comics

Bake Sale (First Second) Sara Varon trades in the anthropomorphic animal characters of her previous comics Robot Dreams and Sweater Weather (and her children’s picture book Chicken and Cat) for a new source of character design: anthropomorphized foodstuffs.

I really enjoyed the waves of cognitive dissonance I got from seeing Bake Sale’s star Cupcake, a cupcake, making cupcakes, and other such weirdness as an animated chicken leg walking its dog in the park, a bag of sugar excitedly ordering brownies and, perhaps most disturbingly, seeing Cupcake chopping up a carrot for his carrot cake…only to visit a restaurant a few pages later and placing an order with a carrot, named Carrot! (Also, there’s a panel where Cupcake learns his place in the band has been filled by a potato, and responds, “A potato?! Everyone knows potatoes have no rhythm!” Why is Cupcake so racist against potatoes? And I’m pretty sure he’s eating mashed potatoes with his meatloaf sandwich in that scene…)

Another difference between Bake Sale and Varon’s previous works? I was able to read it without bawling my eyes out (as I did with Robot Dreams) or even getting a little choked up (as with Chicken and Cat). Which isn’t to imply that her latest is lacking in emotional content—Varon’s cute, simple cartoon characters are remarkably communicative of complicated feelings, and her visual storytelling is masterful. There remains an almost elegiac quality to it.

The story involves baker, drummer and seemingly young New Yorker Cupcake learning a hard, gentle and common lesson about life, facing frustrations, internalizing disappointment and coping with his problems.

Despite the cute artwork and the child-like elements in the world Varon’s created, it’s a remarkably mature work. She’s increasingly proving to be a master at creating characters: From their design, to their deceptively deep emotional lives, to personalities that make them a pleasure just to hang out with.

Readers who enjoy baking should also appreciate the fact that Varon packs the book with many of the recipes Cupcake uses at his shop.

Hark! A Vagrant (Drawn and Quarterly) Man, this is the weirdest issue of Classics Illustrated ever…

If you like comics, chances are you’re already thoroughly familiar with the work of Kate Beaton, and have therefore already read all of the comic strips featuring historical and literary figures in her brilliantly cartooned gag strips.

And if you have already read them, then you’re probably going to want to read them again, which this 166-page hardcover collection reprinting the bulk of Beaton’s Hark! archives, with occasional annotations and commentary culled from her online discussion of some strips.

Of course, if these strips are all available for free online, why would you want to plunk down $20 for a hard copy? Well, it’s better for eyes, is free from the risk of laptop lap-burn and is easier to read in the bathtub (Watch out for paper cuts, though!)

The great benefit of this book’s existence, however, is that it gives all of the comics-concerned media in the world a chance to sing Beaton’s well-deserved praises.

Kinky & Cosy (NBM) Okay, this one actually came out a while back, but somehow ended up in my September pile, so, um, better late than never…?

It’s a hardcover collection of a typical, funnies page style gag strip about two irascible twin sisters in identical dresses—distinguishable by the fact that only one of them wears glasses. What separates it from what you might find in your own local newspaper’s funny pages is that it’s made by someone with only one name (“Nix”), the artwork is super-sharp in a way that shames the phoned-in nature of nine-tenths of what you’ll finding a newspaper in 2011 and the amount of jokes involving dildos.

Nix’s little rascals are bad kids in the Bart Simpson/Calvin/Shinchan mode, but the humor is more fearless, and they have a sort of Looney Tunes-like immortality which allows for something hterrible to happen for the sake of a joke (say, whole buildings downtown being destroyed), only for the status quo to be reset at the beginning of the next.

The book is a very nice package, with a shiny copper colored cover, carefully cut holes on the cover, and googly eyes on the first page, which allows the reader to rip off the girls faces to reveal their eyeball-filled skulls by simply opening the cover.

1-800-MICE (Picture Box) Like Twin Peaks, Matt Thurber’s epic is set in a small town with a peculiar character, one that’s populated almost exclusively with peculiar characters, and which is teeming with darkness underneath the surface, hurtling towards a sort of apocalyptic doom.

Actually, doom is hurtling towards the town, in the form of The Great Partaker, a Nosferatu-looking villainous banjo player who was banished to space, but is now returning in the form of a comet.

That town is Voclano Park, home to humans, evolved animals who resemble anthropomorphic cartoon animals, living trees and even weirder creatures with even weirder names, all of whom live in a delicate, easily upset balance, which several groups seem determined to upset, not understanding how easily it could all come crashing down.

One can start to feel a little like a crazy person trying to summarize the plot, which involves cat-like hermaphrodite Peace Punk bumming around looking for Valhalla, the three warring members of The Banjo Shogunate who seek to defeat one another in order to gain immortality, an arranged marriage between a half-tree woman and human policeman, a double-undercover police detective who might have had a career in adult films, a gang of nihilistic drug-dealers and an evil dentist who advocates suicide for all health problems.

Yes, one can feel like a crazy person talking about 1-800-MICE, so imagine reading it. And once you start, it’s quite difficult to stop yourself from reading it, as Thurber’s huge cast and their twisty, intertwining plots are so full of silliness and suspense that it’s  perfectly propulsive.

Thurber’s art can at times look sketchbook rough and coloring-book simple, but it’s big, bold, expressive and perfectly suited to delivering the intricate plotting in a straightforward manner.

The title, by the way, comes from a service that exists in Thurber’s world. Despite the ubiquity of cell phones and the existence of “Mindbook,” a sort of mental Facebook, there are still some people who are hard to reach. 1-800-MICE allows you to send a message to anyone anywhere in the world, via a mouse. (By the way, did you guys see Chris Mautner's interview with Thurber about the book a few days ago? If not, this link will take you back in time to see it.)

Stargazing Dog (NBM) I’ve gotta ask, Japan—what’s with you guys and the heardbreaking stories of the loyalty of dogs? Takashi Murakami’s Stargazing Dog might not destroy you the way certain tellings of the story of faithful dog Hachiko can, but it’s pretty strong sad stuff nonetheless.

NBM’s translation and collection includes two related stories. In the first, the dog Happie narrates in simple, child-like language about his early life and his long journey with Daddy, the patriarch of a family that disintegrated around the two of them.

Readers, being familiar with human behavior, will recognize signs that all is not well with Daddy and will understand what’s going on around the characters, but Happie’s dog’s-eye-view of the world is more limited, adding an extra layer of tragedy to the events. When bad things happen, Happie can’t really understand them, compounding tragedy with the dog’s own emotions.

The second story, entitled “Sunflowers,” stars a social worker who takes it upon himself to deal with the aftermath of the first story. He too has had a close, positive relationship with a dog—although that too ends pretty sadly—and dealt with very difficult losses in his life.

They’re both beautiful stories, which combine to tell a single beautiful story, with a pretty important lesson at the end, regarding how one should love a dog—or person. You may want to make sure you have a box of tissues handy when you read though. Just in case you, um, get something in your eye.

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