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Film, Comic Books
Not too long ago, I reviewed Steph Cherrywell’s Pepper Penwell and the Land Creature of Monster Lake, a delightfully twisted teen detective comic. Cherrywell was nice enough to send me her older comic, Widgey Q. Butterfluff, which SLG published in 2010. It costs a mere $9.95, in case you’re wondering.
The title character of this comic, Widgey herself, is the cutest and most upbeat creature in Snugglepump Valley, where almost everyone is cheery and the villains (who aren’t cheery) are mostly inept and everyone eats candy all the time and the trees and plants are alive and the sun wears a smiley face and has picnics with the cast. Cherrywell is savagely satirizing saccharine kids’ cartoons, but in order for that to work, she has to create a world that works on its own, and Snugglepump Valley is a fascinating place, full of weird factories and buildings, dark corners where the villains lurk, and strange contraptions. Of course, the best way to satirize this kind of story is to make the characters in it far more “adult” than we usually see, so while Widgey and her friends appear to be innocent little creatures, Cherrywell does a nice job subverting those clichés. There’s nothing horribly graphic about the comic, but we as adults acknowledge Cherrywell winking at us throughout the book. On the first page, the sun says, “Good morning, boys and girls … moms and dads … fish and fowl … and especially all you retro hipsters picking this up in the quarter bin twenty years from now!” This isn’t a kids’ book, and Cherrywell lets us know right from the start.
The book features several chapters, each telling a short story about Widgey and her friends. In the first one, she introduces us to all her friends, and Cherrywell lets us know the kind of book this will be. Widgey takes a shower and tells the audience, “And then – the kindhearted north wind gently wafts me dry and polishes my skin until it’s smooth as fresh rose petals!” while she’s shaving her pits. It’s this kind of ironic humor that peppers the book and makes it a lot of fun to read. We meet Buster B. Gooseberry, a rotten little boy who’s always insulting Widgey, and Professor Schoolbug, who’s always creating stuff using SCIENCE! Cherrywell, of course, once again subverts expectations, because Widgey, despite deploring Buster’s behavior, is quite taken with his ample butt, which gets her all hot and bothered. This comes back around when Buster hits puberty later in the book and the professor has to explain the birds and the bees to Widgey and him. The major villain of the book is Lord Meanskull, whose skull floats around in a fishbowl. We think his villainy has to do with the fact that he has a secret crush on Widgey, and it does, but his idea of love is … slightly different than normal.
Widgey and her friends cruise through their adventures, largely oblivious, which makes the characters at once funny, annoying, and weirdly charming. When Widgey wants to save the earth, she tells Meanskull how to be a villain yet still be “green.” Widgey tries to help a human 13-year-old girl, Madison, whose parents are shipping her to Wyoming to stay with her aunt because Madison’s pregnant mom is upset that Madison can maintain a good body image while she gets larger. Widgey rescues Buster from his addiction to sitting on pillows. Something happens to the candy trees in the valley so that they only produce vegetables, which leads to rioting. Widgey visits Santa Claus, who turns out to be a dinosaur. Cherrywell takes this absurdist adventures and makes them even more surreal, adding asides to the reader, clever turns of phrases, and juxtaposition of behavior and dialogue that heightens the absurdity. While the plots are silly, the humor often cuts deep, and it makes the silliness of the stories stand out nicely in contrast.
As with the humor, Cherrywell’s art also serves to highlight both the wackiness of the stories and the subversion of the jokes. Cherrywell creates a fairytale world, populates it with silly creatures, and then adds enough modern touches to skew everything toward the darker humor she employs. She does a wonderful job giving all these characters wonderful personalities, which helps sell the jokes even more. The attention to detail is very nice – the pillow sitters really do look like drug addicts, even though all they’re doing is, well, sitting on pillows. Isaac Newton farting is a superb panel (and a nice payoff of a joke from much earlier in the book). The expressive faces, even on characters who don’t have a lot of features (like the two ants who try to teach Widgey and Buster about sex) are wonderful. The final story, which flashes back to Lord Meanskull’s high school days, is perfectly rendered. Like in Pepper Penwell, the art in this book helps tell the story well and also allows Cherrywell to drop in a lot of goofy details that reward a slow read.
I don’t like this quite as much as I liked Pepper Penwell, mainly because I liked the story in that book more, but this is still a worthy book to track down. Cherrywell has such a nasty sense of humor and the writing and drawing skills to back it up, and I’m glad she sent this my way so I could check it out.
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