What do pets do when their masters are at work? If you belong to Captain Amazing, defender of Metro City, the answer is watch your owner fight crime on the six o’clock news. Tired of being ignored by Captain Amazing, his pets — Roscoe the dog, Fluffy the hamster, Shifty the gecko, and Manny the cat — decide to take matters into their own hands and audition for the role of Captain Amazing’s sidekick. There’s just one problem: Captain Amazing only needs one helper, but all four animals want the gig. When Captain Amazing’s arch-nemesis crashes the auditions, however, Roscoe, Fluffy, Shifty, and Manny must set aside their rivalry in order to save their hometown — and their master.
By Dan Santat
Ages 10 and Up
July 2011, Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0-439-29819-3
210 pp., $12.99
We’re in the middle of a super-pet renaissance right now, as recent projects from Marvel and DC Comics demonstrate. What distinguishes Sidekicks from Pooches of Power and Pet Avengers is point of view; instead of showing us what it’s like to be an animal with superpowers, Sidekicks shows us what it’s like to be an animal who’s owned by a superhero. That might sound like a minor distinction, but it grounds the story in an emotional realism that’s missing from other super-pet comics. The reader can sense just how much Captain Amazing’s animals miss him while he’s gone, giving their quest to become his sidekick extra poignancy.
Lest I make Sidekicks sound mawkish, rest assured it’s not. Dan Santat has a knack for writing tart, funny dialogue as his furry warriors-in-training test out aliases, go mano-a-mano with their first bad guys, and struggle to fill out the sidekick application form. Santat throws in plenty of good sight gags, too; the sidekick audition scenes are a hoot, as hundreds of C- and D-list superheroes line up for a chance to meet Captain Amazing. (There’s a good reason you’ve never heard of The Narwhal.) By far the story’s best joke comes at the end, when one character’s food allergy plays a key role in defeating Dr. Havoc; anyone who’s ever had to pass up a peanut butter sandwich or eat gluten-free bread will appreciate the skillful, humorous way in which Santat turns this everyday nuisance into an advantage for his heroes.
Santat’s character designs are heavily stylized; Fluffy, for example, looks a lot like an inverted triangle with buck teeth, while Roscoe has the square head and shoulders of The Jetsons‘ family pooch. The animals’ solid, almost blocky appearance mitigates against cuteness — a wise decision, I think, especially when the story takes a darker turn in the final act. The coloring and background detail are developed enough to provide a clear sense of time and place without cluttering the layout, allowing the action scenes to flow smoothly.
What I like best about Sidekicks, however, is its ability to speak to kids who like superhero comics — and kids who don’t. Though Santat mocks superhero cliches, his story behaves a lot like a traditional DC or Marvel comic, providing each animal with a backstory, a set of powers, and a stake in the action. The fight scenes are well staged, allowing all four heroes a chance to show off their unique skills. Best of all, the final showdown results in the kind of urban destruction that any superhero connoisseur will appreciate.
At the same time, however, animal lovers can read Sidekicks as a comedy about four pets going to extreme lengths to get their negligent owner’s attention. The characters are original to Santat’s story, requiring no prior superhero knowledge to appreciate. And the tenor of the animals’ interactions will ring true for any kid who has a sibling; the animals’ frequent squabbles and grudging attempts at cooperation will remind many readers of how they interact with their sisters and brothers.
In short, Sidekicks is the kind of crowd-pleaser that won’t spend much time on your library shelves, especially if you take the time to talk it up to your patrons. Recommended for ages ten and up.