Robot Reviews: Thrizzle and Red Monkey

Tales Designed to Thrizzle, Vol. 1by Michael KuppermanFantagraphics Books, 160 pages, $24.99

The Red Monkey Double Happiness Bookby Joe DalyFantagraphics Books, 112 pages, $22.99.

It's tough to be a humorist these days. Time was when simply pointing out the money-grubbing crassness of our culture in a clever way was enough to ensure laughs. Not no more. These days we're well aware the stuff we like is junk. We're far too hip to be told that the emperor wears no clothes. Surrounded by an increasing array of banal and inane pop cultural detritus, what can the modern satirist do but mock the utter absurdity of it all?

That's the path taken by two cartoonists in the Fantagraphics stable -- Michael Kupperman and Joe Daly, though they travel down that path in very different ways.

Michael Kupperman should, by this point need little introduction. His work has appeared on Saturday Night Live, the New Yorker and the Cartoon Network; he's had his work featured in two separate Marvel comics recently, including the just-released Strange Tales; and his ongoing series Tales Designed to Thrizzle is one of the regular indie pamphlets that seems to draw a wide array of readers, regardless of affinity for the comics medium in general.

Looking at Tales Designed to Thrizzle Vol. 1, which collects the first four issues of the series in a handy hardcover format, it's not too hard to see why. Kupperman uses the format and language of 20th century junk culture -- advertisements, bad cop shows, old comic books, children's books, etc. -- but fills them with odd juxtapositions and nonsensical behavior. He will often mash up two seemingly unrelated genres, so that you have crime noir inexplicably mixed with, say, a nature documentary (how else to explain Modern Chimp Barber Romance or the Buzz Aldrin Mysteries?).The people in Kupperman's world are often very excited about utterly mundane matters as well ("Look Bob! There are rodents in that garbage can!"), not unlike your average Hostess pitchman. What's more, he does so at a maddening pace, moving from scenario to scenario at a speed that would make the Monty Python gang's head hurt.

The incongruity ultimately underscores how useless and silly a lot of the material we grew up on and continue to consume today really is. Though far from savage, at its heart, Thrizzle has some rather pointed things to say about the crap we consume on a daily basis. Plus, it's really, really, really funny.

Like Kupperman, South African cartoonist Joe Daly also mines an absurdist vein, though his latest graphic novel, The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book, is decidedly more focused and narrative driven than Thrizzle.

Daly's previous work for Fantagraphics was Scrublands, a collection of offbeat, hallucinatory tales that owed quite a bit to the underground comix era of the 1960s.

Double Happiness doesn't tread quite so far into that territory, though it has a healthy appreciation for the surreal. The "Red Monkey" of the title is actually Dave, a red-haired freelance illustrator and would-be cartoonist, who, through some bizarre turn of the genetic wheel, is blessed with monkey feet.

The book is divided into two tales. In the first, "The Leaking Cello Case," Dave is faced with a challenging art assignment (drawing bricks for a catalog) but is endlessly distracted by an ongoing series of interruptions. These include: his girlfriend, who comes to call it quits, his hippie bud, who wants to borrow some dough and eat his cereal; and the quiet kid from down the hall, who just needs a place to hang while his mom minds the restaurant.

The biggest distraction though is the upstairs neighbor, a hostile foreign gentlemen, who seems to be making loud noises and doing ... something ... involving cellos and ... frogs.

The story builds nicely, generating a good deal of laughs from Dave's stoner attitude towards his increasingly odd day. As good as that is, though, the second tale, "John Wesley Harding" is the decided winner. Here Dave and hippie bud Paul go on an increasingly knotty and increasingly freakish adventure involving a nature sanctuary, a missing capybara, baboons, a seedy private detective with a habit of unzipping his fly, a ruthless real estate developer and a vaporizing ray. Or maybe not. The whole thing could just as easily be one big misunderstanding.

This is basically Herge by way of the Big Lebowski with a little bit of Repo Man thrown in for good measure. And I'm not making those references just to appear hip. Red Monkey fairly drips with that sort of out-of-place reference to movies, TV and comics, both in the plot and in the character's hashish-inspired dialogue ("That was a great moment when Kermit the Frog and Ray Charles sang together on the Muppet Show, hey dude?") Indeed, Red Monkey's characters are so observant of pop culture ephemera they seem hardly surprised by the bizarre twists and turns their own story takes.

Daly's art is strong here, especially in "Harding," where his character designs seem more confident. He maintains a near-perfect nine-panel grid structure throughout the entire book, and rarely moves his camera beyond a mid-level viewpoint, all the better to maintain the book's low-key, chatty, and very funny tone.

It's unfair to compare the two really, Kupperman is the more inspired cartoonist here, perhaps because he refuses to rely on a single narrative but pinballs around from reference to reference willy nilly. I really enjoyed Red Monkey though, and hope people take a chance on the book. Daly might hail from Cape Town, but sensibility-wise, he's coming from the same place as Kupperman.

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