The Alterna Comics catalog is eclectic, to say the least, featuring titles like The Deadbeat, a family drama about a down-on-his-luck superhero and the daughter he abandoned; Hello, Do You Work Here?, a collection of true workplace stories; and Jesus Hates Zombies, a horror-spoof that pits the Son of God against the undead. That might not sound like the most promising place to find good comics for kids, but Alterna has a solid line of all-ages and teen-friendly titles, among them Bret Herholz’s The Spaghetti Strand Murder, an affectionate send-up of Agatha Christie, and The Unlikely Trio: The Last Barn on the Left, an adventure involving a mouse, a cat, and a dog.
The Spaghetti Strand Murder
By Bret M. Herholz
Ages 12 and up
2008, Alterna Comics, 978-1934985045
72 pp., $6.95
The year is 1920. In a gloomy English manor house, Doland Sloughshire discovers his father’s lifeless body at the foot of the stairs, a single strand of pasta wrapped around the corpse’s neck. Lord Algernon, it seems, was not a beloved patriarch; his family calls the police only after ruling out a trip to the swamp to dispose of the body.
The local detective turns out to be a bumbling fool in the Inspector Clouseau tradition, quickly dismissing Doland, the most obvious suspect, because the detective can’t imagine that “someone who is in line to inherit such a vast amount of money and land would wish to murder his own flesh and blood father.” Over the next twenty or so pages, the inspector accuses just about everyone in the family of committing the murder — even the dog! — insulting them in the process. In one brittle, funny exchange, for example, the detective suggests that Morass Sloughshire killed Lord Algernon because she was his “secret lover”; when Morass protests that she was, in fact, the victim’s daughter, the inspector exclaims, “That just makes it more repugnant!”
As that conversation suggests, The Spaghetti Strand Murder is more appropriate for teens than kids. The script has several passages of PG-13 jokes about incest (see above), nymphomania (one of the characters mistakenly believes that sufferers are compulsive thieves), and holstered guns that will make teens titter, but are pretty tame compared to the sexual content on, say, prime time television. Fans of Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies or Cautionary Tales for Children will appreciate Bret Herholz’s elongated, wraith-like figures and exaggerated Gothic settings, both of which owe obvious inspiration to Gorey’s distinctive, cross-hatched style. Given the risque humor and frequent spoofing of drawing room mysteries, The Spaghetti Strand Murder is most likely to appeal to older teens who’ve read Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers; younger readers will find the story too arch and talky to be engaging.
The Unlikely Trio: The Last Barn on the Left
Story and Art by Scott and Callie West
Ages 5 to 10
2008, Alterna Comics, ISBN: 978-1934985014
$3.95, 34 pp.
In the rural town of Slippery Rock, Lil’ Bit, a small but scrappy mouse, accepts a “triple cat dare” from the other rodents living on Mr. Freeman’s farm: he agrees to visit an abandoned barn just down the road, one that supposedly harbors a deadly monster. Lil’ Bit is brash but not foolish, enlisting help from his pals Mr. Butters, a cat, and Abby, a Shetland sheepdog. When the three arrive at the haunted barn, they discover it is inhabited — by a real-life predator. The three must then work together to save Lil’ Bit from becoming a hungry owl’s dinner.
Though the script is brisk and funny, what I liked best about The Unlikely Trio was the artwork. Scott and Callie West’s pencil drawings have a pleasingly organic quality that’s sorely lacking in so many kids’ comics; readers can actually see evidence of a human hand in the linework. The animals are drawn with care, with special attention paid to fur, snouts, and ears, giving them a warm, life-like appearance. Simple layouts and large panels make The Unlikely Trio‘s storyline easy for beginning readers to follow, even if their skills aren’t quite up to the challenge of tackling the script. For readers in the seven-to-ten group, the script will pose fewer difficulties, though some older kids may find the talking animal concept too “babyish” for their taste.
The bottom line: The Unlikely Trio is a rare treat, a beautifully crafted comic that has heart, soul, and humor. Best for kids in grades K-2.
N.B. According to the publisher’s website, two dollars of every Unlikely Trio purchase will be donated to the ASPCA.
Review copies provided by the publisher.