Anyone who’s read many of Renée French’s highly-detailed black-and-white comics, like her surreal, dark and disturbing meditation on migraines and ants h day, or perhaps her off-kilter family melodrama about deformity and surgery The Ticking, may be a little surprised to hear her name in the same sentence as the words “kids comic.”
But then, that’s one of the great virtues of the Françoise Mouly-edited Toon Books imprint—securing some of the greatest cartoonists in the world to provide new work in a format and for an audience that may not be their natural one, and in the process providing first comics for young readers that also happen to be great comics.
For Barry’s Best Buddy, French’s style has been highly modulated to be more simple, more open, more cute, but it is still recognizably hers. The penciling is less detailed, and the spaces between her lines digitally colored.
There are two main characters, Barry, a bored and blasé, maybe even depressed-looking, bird, and his pal Polarhog, who looks vaguely like a bucktoothed polar bear.
One day, Polarhog awakens Barry from a nap in his dull, gray house and insists on taking him for a walk, promising a surprise at its end. The entire time, big, remarkably cute ants pass them in the foreground, carrying mysterious objects (paint, light bulbs, a flag with a picture of a pile of poop on it) for a mysterious purpose.
The book is oriented horizontally, so that each two-page spread forms a single, eighteen-inch long image, in which the pair appear repeatedly, sharing a funny conversation as they progress through the book. The ending took me by surprise, although it is perhaps an obvious twist; I was too engaged with the dialogue and the ants to wonder overmuch about the exact nature of the surprise.
Grown up comics fans will certainly want to check this out just to see French do kids comics—the ants here, for example, are a marked, puppet-show echo of those in h day—and kids will find a typically engaging, fun and funny story that begs to be reread almost immediately.