A.V. Club Reviews Benson's Cuckoos and Walt Before Skeezix

“New releases include witzend, TW+TD, and Jim Starlin’s Thanos Annual” / The A.V. Club / Oliver Sava & Tim O'Neil / June 24, 2014

It is very difficult to dislike Anouk Ricard’s Benson’s Cuckoos (Drawn & Quarterly), and not just for Ricard’s effortlessly adorable style. Ricard is a French cartoonist whose main output is the children’s book series Anna And Froga, also translated and published in the United States by D&Q. This, however, is not a children’s book. This is a workplace farce with a decidedly dark edge.

If “workplace farce” is well-trod territory in the year 2014, Ricard’s volume bears examination for the ways in which it deviates from that genre’s standards. Despite its setting, it still reads like a children’s book—meaning it adopts the slightly fuzzy dream-logic pacing of a child’s story, filled by breathless “and then, and then, and then” developments. Only in this case the “and thens” are less benign than banal, and by turns less banal than surreal. This is a good approximation of what life in a dysfunctional office actually is: one damn thing after another, each absurd anecdote coming one on top of the other at an exhausting clip, until it all adds up to a simmering mess.

The premise of Benson’s Cuckoos should be familiar to anyone with office experience. Richard (a hapless blue duck-man) is hired to fill a clerical position left suddenly and mysteriously vacant by the disappearance of George (an orange lion-man). No one in the office seems to be in his or her right mind, and many of them resent Richard for usurping George’s spot in the office hierarchy. (No one likes being the new guy or gal in the cubicle farm.) Office life is defined by humiliations and petty annoyances, and Ricard does a great job of portraying just how numbing this parade of grievances can be, and how much even the slightest break in stultifying routine can stand out in the procession of empty days.

The success of the book for each reader will ultimately depend on tolerance for surreal workplace comedy as performed by anthropomorphic animals. Fans of Jason and Tove Jansson (whose Moomins books are also published by D&Q) will find similar pleasures here. This is a beautifully designed volume—colorful, warm, and tactile like a children’s book—but the story within is deeply odd in a decidedly grown-up manner. [TO]

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Gasoline Alley wasn’t born one of the most important comic strips of all time; it arrived at that position gradually. The strip—or rather, the panel—began modestly on November 24, 1918, as a corner of the Chicago Tribune’s black-and-white Sunday page. What strikes the reader first on encountering these earliest panels is not how alien they appear, but how strangely familiar. From the very first, Gasoline Alley was a strip about cars, and it is remarkable how little gearheads have changed in the intervening 100 years. The premiere panel, entitled “Doc’s Car Won’t Start,” shows a crowd gathered around the titular Doc’s automobile, every onlooker offering suggestions and free advice (of dubious quality), and complaining about Doc’s inability to maintain his car correctly: “It’s all in the carburetor [sic], Doc. I’ll fix it for you next Sunday. I’ve always wanted to take one of ’em apart.” Switch out the slang and conversations along these lines could be heard at garages across the country today. 

But Gasoline Alley was not destined to remain a strip solely about cars. The latest volume in Drawn & Quarterly’s Gasoline Alley reprint series—Walt Before Skeezix—offers, chronologically, the very first Gasoline Alley strips, taken from the two years before the introduction of the aforementioned Skeezix (hence the book’s designation as “Volume 0”). But even before Skeezix, this volume reveals Frank King as an ambitious cartoonist eager to burst beyond the limitations of a weekly single-panel car strip. The action soon expands past the boundaries of the garage, following a swelling cast of townsfolk all still loosely moored by their connection to Walt Wallet’s auto shop but each gaining increased autonomy within the ongoing storyline as King becomes more and more confident with his own abilities. 

In light of these strips, the arrival of Skeezix in February of 1921 appears almost inevitable: Walt Wallet finds an abandoned infant on his front porch and adopts him, and from that moment on the characters in Gasoline Alley age more or less in real time. What began as a simple joke panel about automobile repairs transformed into a generational saga filled with love affairs, marriages, and world wars. (Gasoline Alley is still produced to this day, and Walt Wallet is still alive at an improbable 114 as of this writing.)

King’s style is apparent almost from the very beginning, with curved lines wrapped around doughy figures to convey woodcut-like dimensionality on the printed page. D&Q offers its usual stellar job with this reprint volume, offering the reader copiously detailed endnotes and appendices on top of a selection of King’s juvenilia and an excellent introduction by Jeet Heer. While this book won’t necessarily find a place on every comic reader’s shelf, those who seek it out will find a heretofore hidden repository of the medium’s history. Even unfamiliar readers could do worse than to order this from their local library. [TO]

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