When I was a kid I got to read comics that I had no business putting my grubby little hands on. You see my grandmother had carefully left all my dad’s old Superman, Superboy, Metal Men, X-Men, etc. comics intact so that when we went to visit I’d root through them and read ‘em until there was little left but a pile of yellowed pulp. The result of this research during my early childhood is that I’m one of the rare grown women you might meet with a working knowledge of late 50s/early 60s comic books characters culled directly from the source. So I know my superheroes. Oh yeah. And what’s more, I know my superhero pets. I know my Krypto the Super Dog from my Gleek. You bet. This is lucky since 2011 appears to be the year of the super pet. First off, you have the launch of the DC Super-Pets books, taking this old characters and giving them a visual update not too far off from what you might find on The Powerpuff Girls (Mojo Jo-Jo not included). In tandem with this release comes a new graphic novel from Dan Santat. Sidekicks (not to be confused with the Jack Ferraiolo title of the same name) follows the adventures of some supercharged pets as they set out to prove their worth to their similarly spandexed master. It’s one of those books that you just feel good reading from start to finish. Gorgeous stuff.
Captain Amazing is the defender of Metro City. Nuff said. Yet in recent years, he’s been feeling the weight of his age. It’s time for the Captain to look for a new sidekick. He hasn’t had one, really, since his cat Manny ran away from home. As of now, that leaves Roscoe the dog, Fluffy the hamster, and Shifty the chameleon. Both Roscoe and Fluffy are determined to get the job, and Fluffy recruits old Manny to help him train. Yet even if he does manage to make an impression, that may have to take a backseat to an old villain who is back in town with sinister plans. And when Captain Amazing fails to be up to the job of defeating the baddie, it falls to his pets instead to save the day.
I like how tight the plotting of this book is. For example, at one point during the tale Fluffy is handed a peanut so that he’ll remember something important. Later, the plot demands that he use that same peanut to save the day. See that? Santat sets ‘em up and knocks ‘em down. There’s a really enjoyable order to the way this story falls out. One person I spoke to felt that the flashback scene to when Manny the cat was a member of the household should have gone at the beginning of the book, but I disagree. I like how Santat doles out his information piece by piece. The more the characters learn, the more you learn. I also like how one character’s surprising discovery that he has powers is telegraphed throughout the book (though, this being a comic, it’s not something kids are necessarily going to spot).
Of course, it’s the art that’s amazing. It’s not difficult to see why this book took a whopping seven years to write when you note the care and attention Santat has lavished on each and every panel. Kids do love and prefer full-color GN offerings, and in this Santat does not disappoint. “Vibrant” is probably the best way to go about describing his style. Some folks have a basic familiarity with a pen that serves them well, but have a hard time transferring their illustration style to the graphic novel format. Panels alone can confound even the most accomplished artist. Santat’s advantage here may or may not be that he has worked in the world of animation, at least a little. Visual storytelling is a difficult art to master, but storyboarding your own plots can help. What it can’t do is teach someone how to shake up points of view, panel sizes, and more. Mr. Santat handles such visual games with aplomb. He even works in a couple little instances of mild manga-related techniques for spice. As a result, the book on a visual level leaves a lot of its competitors in the dirt.
The book is oddly lacking in one staple of the superhero genre, though: The origin story. Generally speaking, folks like to know why a person or critter has a power. The interesting thing about Sidekicks is that at no point do we hear where any of these powers came from. This causes the reader to wonder how common superpowers are in this world. Does everyone have them? Just a few folks? When Captain Amazing has auditions for a sidekick, does everyone who comes have powers? It’s probably due to the limitations of space in a graphic novel that we don’t have answers to these questions. So it is that we only know by the end of the book how two of the pets discovered their powers. The rest of the world is a mystery.
This title is being released at the same time as a different book with the same name, Sidekicks by Jack Ferraiolo. Of course, Ferraiolo’s story is a middle grade chapter book about a good sidekick and an apparently evil sidekick. It’s interesting, in that light, to wonder why Santat didn’t indulge in an evil sidekick or two of his own. Or at least ONE female character (though Shifty could easily be a . . . nah). That said, Sidekicks does stand apart from the usual superhero genre. Kids get tired of seeing the same old, same old all the time. The fact that super pets have never been turned into a CGI animated feature before is probably more a matter of time than anything else. A suggestion, Hollywood? Why not go with Sidekicks? Fun, a bit of visual splendor, with enough honestly funny moments and angry hamsters to satisfy even the toughest of fans. The sole regret? That when this book hits my library shelves I’ll have to find a way to answer all those kids who immediately demand of me “Where are the other comics by Dan Santat?” Patience, kids. Let’s take one good thing at a time. And this is, above and beyond anything else, a very good thing.
On shelves July 1st.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
- Order a copy before June 1st and you could end up with a Sidekicks Limited Edition Set.
- Download a preview PDF of the book, if you’d like to see it firsthand.
- Get a behind-the-scenes look at the sketches and the art.
If nothing else, you can rely on Mr. Santat to create a stunning video or two for his newest. Crank up the volume on yer old electronic doodads and get an earful of these: