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Steph Cherrywell’s new graphic novel, Pepper Penwell and the Land Creature of Monster Lake, comes to us from SLG and costs $14.95. It’s an interesting beast, as Cherrywell tells a fairly good mystery while parodying the entire teenaged sleuth genre, which makes this a doubly intriguing comic. The fact that it’s flat-out hilarious helps, too.
The hilarity of the graphic novel begins even before the first page, as on the indicia page, Cherrywell provides us with a long list of previous Pepper Penwell adventures (all fictitious), with titles that include “The Chimney Sweep’s Fallacy,” “Fox, Chicken, Grain, and Death,” “Beheaded by Poison,” “Defenestration at Fenchurch Street Station,” “Case of the Dead Bloke With Knives In,” and “The Pirates of Smuggler’s Cove and Vice Versa.” I want to read some of those adventures, too! This is, of course, all part of Cherrywell’s satire, as teenaged mystery series always show the previous adventures in the series. Then we meet Pepper (Pepperidge P. Penwell), a precocious 16-year-old at an exclusive London boarding school. She solves all sorts of mysteries (her father is a detective at “England Yard”) which, at the beginning of the story, gets her expelled because the headmaster is tired of her solving all the crime and scaring the students’ parents, who wonder why there’s so much crime in that tiny area. Distraught, she discovers a missing persons case her father is working on, and as it involves a girl she has met before, she decides to lend a hand. So she’s off to the northern town of Monster Lake (where the monster lives near the lake, not in it, hence the name of the book), where she starts investigating the disappearance.
Pepper comes across all sorts of good suspects and begins to discover all sorts of nefarious goings-on in the town, and she comes across the monster, which, yes, actually exists. She meets the head of the Chamber of Commerce, who is trying to goose tourism in the area; a couple of locals who make truly horrible food at their inn; a scientist who pretends to be mad but who seems fairly sane; a group of Druids out in the forest who seem to have something to do with Lucy’s disappearance; an 11-year-old who warns people that she’s too adorable for words; and a priest/monster hunter who seems a bit shifty. Pepper is assisted by her sister, Alex, who’s a bird. Yes, at some point in the past she turned into a bird and she can’t get back to being a human. This seems to bother no one. Lucy’s disappearance is simply part of a bigger plot, and once Pepper finds her, she needs to battle against everyone who wants to sweep everything under the carpet. But that’s not good enough for our plucky investigator!
Cherrywell does a wonderful job with the humor in the book. This is a very funny comic, and it’s helped by the fact that the characters play it very straight, so the absurdity of the humor is heightened. Alex’s situation is one of those – she occasionally complains about being a bird, but everyone else just accepts her as one. Cherrywell has wonderful comic timing, and she knows who to use irony to make the situations even more amusing. The characters may be silly, but they’re also very well defined and Cherrywell makes sure to give them all distinct personalities, which makes their dialogue fit them better and also helps highlight the humor of the situations. What’s most impressive is that this is an actual mystery, and there are plenty of clues about what’s going on, and Cherrywell even ups the stakes when some characters are killed. Cherrywell makes sure that Pepper has a real case to solve and real evil people to stop, or else it would just be poking fun at the genre without adding anything new to it. As ridiculous as some of the book is, Pepper actually has something real to do.
Cherrywell’s cheerful manga-influenced art is a treat, as well. She draws all sorts of body types and faces, giving the characters all sorts of personality just from their looks. She puts in wonderful details that add to the humor, and she shifts easily from the actual “world” of the narrative to flashbacks and Pepper’s imagination, giving us a nice inner world as well. She manages to make the monster both scary and a bit ridiculous, which is appropriate given what we find out about it, and she exaggerates a lot of the horror stuff to make it less frightening. Every character not only looks different, but they dress appropriately, too, which is a lot harder than it looks. Cherrywell’s art might not be for everyone, but it fits the tone of the book very well.
I would like to give you a lot of examples of the humor found in these pages, but there’s so much that I just can’t pick which ones to show. Cherrywell even has a “David Caruso-putting-on-sunglasses” moment in here. Pepper is a wonderfully articulate and clever character, so when she’s confronted with the monster, she narrates, “I thanked my parents for endowing me with a vault-secure set of good old stubborn English bowels.” When her father tells her to stop investigating because the case is closed, she instead tells him that she’s going against his wishes, and she has to change from her schoolgirl outift to “rebellious clothes” – which includes “name-brand knickers instead of the kind [she’s] been buying in compressed bricks of fifty!” There’s a lot of silly yet clever dialogue like this, plus a lot of sight gags.
Pepper Penwell is a wonderful little comic for both teenagers and adults, and I’d love to see more of her adventures down the line. Cherrywell does a very good job with both the satire and the straight mystery, and it makes the book far more interesting than if she was just parodying Nancy Drew or the Three Investigators. To paraphrase Cherrywell on the indicia page underneath the “other” Pepper Penwell adventures, Kindly do collect this book, if you please.
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