This will probably mark the fourth time today that I have attempted to sit down and write my review of this book. Attempt #1 was foiled when I looked at the art and was reminded of old comic strips of the 1920s and 30s. So of course, I had to look at my collection of them. Attempt #2 fell victim to a sudden uncontrollable desire to pluck "Little Nemo 1905-1914" from its shelf for a good long read. Attempt #3 saw me getting really close to success. Unfortunately, I started trolling the comic websites in the hopes of defining what it is about Rosenthal’s style I like so much. Finally, we arrive at Attempt #4 and, I sincerely hope, the moment when I am able to satisfactorily direct your attention to author/artist Marc Rosenthal’s latest, greatest ode to comic strips, comic sensibilities, old timey picture books, and great gags. That is, as long as I don’t look too closely at that edition of "The Comics: Since 1945" sitting on my shelf.
Our hero is one bored kid. There is absolutely nothing going on around him so with an outraged, "PHOOEY!" he kicks an empty can of cat food. A can that, in turn, hits a cat upside the head, causing it to flump to the ground and be chased by a dog. As dog and cat run into a nearby zoo the boy meets up with a friend and complains loudly about the lack of excitement going on. "Nothing ever happens around here! No Way! No How!" Of course, his back is to most of the crazy stuff that’s going on. An elephant has now escaped, barrels and pies are flying, navel oranges ("extra bouncy") escape the confines of an outdoor stall, and soon an entire street of people is rendered chaotic. It’s only when the elephant riding cat is thrown for a loop into the air and onto the boy’s lap that he perks up, sits amazed, and says, "This place is great!" Boredom, it seems, is only there if you expect to find it.
For a book that appears to be so simple, Rosenthal certainly packs in the details. You won’t notice these on a first reading, probably. If you’re reading the book to a kid then the two of you will have more fun making the sound effects and various noises. It’s only when you reach the last page that the kid might turn to you and asks, "Why’s the pirate wearing glasses now?" And sure as shooting, there’s that pirate you saw earlier wearing a pair of Harry Potter-ish specs. Well, where did he get them? So you do a second read and things start to get all the weirder. Is that a woman removing a canoe from the trunk of her car in the middle of a city? And when you go all the way back, isn’t the boy’s inadvertent kicking of a can directly responsible for all the nuttiness that happens as a result? The really impressive detail, however, is an image hidden under the back bookflap. On the endpapers you can see our hero combating his boredom in various ways. These appear to be identical to the positions he was in on the FRONT endpapers… and then you lift the flap. There, walking away with a secret smile is the boy with his new kitty cat in hand. It’s a pity that many libraries paste down these flaps on their books before circulating them. Looks like they’ll be hiding a mighty nice little detail in the process.
In ten years or so a parent might stumble on this book in their local library, note the artistic style, and naturally assume on a first reading that the book was published around the time of Robert McCloskey and the like. This would be a reasonable assumption if you didn’t notice some of the newer elements that sneak onto the pages. The cars may look straight out of "Double Indemnity", but the bicyclists are all wearing rounded helmets. And there may be things like hat shops, black and white televisions, and cowboys, but at the same time they exist in the same universe as businesswomen and people of other races (not many, but still…). There’s a kind of interior logic to Mr. Rosenthal’s world that knows how to remain pleasing to our twenty-first century sensibilities.
My husband and I were killing ourselves trying to figure out what Mr. Rosenthal’s style reminded us the most of. He certainly owes a bit to the old masters, so I hauled out my "Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics" and found some comparisons to "The Katzenjammer Kids" in terms of physical comedy. My husband thought it was far more similar to "The Little King" series of comics by O. Soglow that used to run in The New Yorker. In his dedication, however, Mr. Rosenthal himself prefers to pay tribute the world of Babar and its creator Jean de Brunhoff. But however you care to define it, one thing’s for certain. Rosenthal’s art takes the best of the old-timey styles and rejiggers them into a format replete with bouncing oranges, wayward elephants, and the rare near-signed pirate or two for kicks. And let’s not forget the sound effects. Rendered in a variety of fonts, colors, and shapes they can be anything from the "SHMEK" of a man bouncing off an elephant’s rear to the "POIT" of a feller poking a lady with his umbrella, or the "AAAR" of a disappointed pirate.
With hints of Once Upon a Banana and other accumulative picture book tales, "Phooey!" takes ironic boredom to a whole new level. Old-timey enough to charm mod parents with enough visual gags to enchant tykes of all ages, "Phooey!"’s a keeper. Designed for a close reading again and again and again.
Smell Note: It’s faint but it’s there. That vague wafting odor that hints at cheap binding glue. You won’t notice it at first, but years from now it may grow more pronounced as the book ages. Hopefully subsequent printings (if there are any) will take care of this problem. Sometimes I wonder if this kind of thing is tied into the kind of paper used. Hmm.
Other Web Reviews: Wantz Upon a Time Book Reviews