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Reviews: Squirrelly Gray and YAM: Bite-Sized Chunks

Nick Magazine was one of the last kid-friendly serials to feature comics—in fact, every issue contained a special section showcasing work by some of the industry’s most creative minds. Unfortunately, Viacom just announced that it would be pulling the plug on Nick. As Joe Flint of the LA Times observed, Nickelodeon’s website had rapidly eclipsed the magazine as the network’s most effective marketing tool, making Nick a financial liability for Viacom:

Launched in 1993, the magazine, with a circulation of more than 1 million and a total audience of more than 6 million, was for many years an important promotional platform for the children’s cable network and provided a steady stream of cash… But like other magazines, Nickelodeon has suffered from the double whammy of more of its audience going to the Internet (darn those early adapters) and a prolonged advertising slump. Although the cable network remains dominant, the value the magazine provided as a marketing tool for it had faded over the last few years.

To honor the magazine and its commitment to kids’ comics, I decided to review books by two of its most prominent contributors: James Kochalka, creator of Impy and Wormer, and Corey Barba, creator of YAM.

Squirrelly Gray
By James Kochalka
No rating
Random House, 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-375-93975-4
32 pp., $12.99

Squirrelly Gray is a mischievous rodent living in a monochromatic world—things are so dull, in fact, that it rains every day and his TV set only receives static. To relieve his boredom, he begins wiggling his front teeth, hoping to loosen them and score a visit from the Tooth Fairy. Things don’t go according to plan, however, as a spider web ensnares the Tooth Fairy before she can retrieve Squirrelly’s teeth and a hungry fox decides to make Squirrelly his next meal.

Kochalka complements his narrative with comic-strip panels that not only depict the action but also editorialize on it; on one page, for example, Squirrelly realizes that he won’t be able to enjoy the magic acorn the fairy gave him — that is, until his new teeth grow in. Kochalka’s illustrations are done in a bold, simplified style that makes it easy for pre-schoolers to follow the story. Slightly older readers will be able to tackle the story’s rhyming couplets and cheeky cartoons on their own, as the vocabulary is appropriate for kids reading at a first or second grade level. Best of all, kids and adults will find Squirrelly Gray amusing, even though the jokes are aimed squarely at young readers. Recommended for ages 4-8.

YAM: Bite-Sized Chunks

By Corey Barba
Rating: All ages
Top Shelf, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-60309-014-8
88 pp., $10.00

Between 2003 and 2007, Nick Magazine featured Corey Barba’s YAM, a wordless comic about a young boy living on a tropical island. But not your standard-issue tropical island—La Leche de la Luna is an odd place where television sets behave like dogs, monsters and humans live side-by-side, and cats walk upright and wear parkas (despite the balmy climate). Bite-Sized Chunks collects material from various stages in YAM’s evolution from mini-comic to full-color Nick cartoon. Each story covers a familiar topic—losing a friend, falling in love, feeling scared of the dark—in a delightfully weird way. In “I Hair Flowers,” for instance, YAM attempts to console his friend May, who feels self-conscious about her super-short new haircut. Rather than wait for it to grow back, however, YAM slathers her head with dirt and seeds, watering it until it blooms into a stylish “hairdo,” much to May’s delight.

Not all of the stories work as well as "Hair." “Toy With My Dreams,” for example, is a lengthy (38 pages) meditation on first love in which YAM jilts his friends to pursue an older girl. Though teens and adults will certainly appreciate its Chaplin-esque mixture of whimsy and wistfulness, little ones are likely to be baffled and a little bored, as the story lacks verbal cues explaining YAM’s behavior. Most of Bite-Sized Chunks, however, is perfect for grade schoolers, offering them short, surreal stories with unpredictable punchlines. Barba has a knack for anthropomorphizing just about anything from the aforementioned TV set to a rain cloud; the joy, sadness, and surprise that registers on their faces is palpable, and gives his charming series more emotional resonance than its cute character designs might suggest. Recommended for ages six and up.

Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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