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Review: DC Super Pets

Last year, Capstone Publishing launched a new line of chapter books starring DC Comics’ most famous superheroes. It was a great idea in principle — a sure-fire way to interest reluctant readers in longer, more complex narratives — but the execution was uninspired, with flat, lifeless artwork and bland stories. I’m pleased to report that the latest batch of Capstone superhero readers are a marked improvement on the first, thanks, in no small measure, to Art Baltazar’s charming illustrations and Sarah Stephens’ playful scripts.

DC Super Pets: Midway Monkey Madness
Written by Sarah Hines Stephens and Illustrated by Art Baltazar
Ages 4-8
Picture Window Books, January 2011, ISBN: 978-1404866195
48 pp., $4.95

DC Super Pets: Pooches of Power
Written by Sarah Hines Stephens and Illustrated by Art Baltazar
Ages 4-8
Picture Window Books, January 2011, ISBN: 978-1404866201
48 pp., $4.95

The concept behind the DC Super Pets line is simple: take the famous (and not-so-famous) animal sidekicks of Green Lantern, Superman, and Wonder Woman and feature them in their own crime-fighting adventures. It’s a smart way to package superhero stories for young readers, as it offers something for kids who are already familiar with characters like Batman and Aqua Man, as well as kids who are more interested in animals. The Super Pets concept also liberates the creators from the burden of following well-established storylines; Baltazar and Hughes go to great pains to incorporate villains and supporting characters from the DC canon, but the plots are looser and more imaginative than the comparable books in Capstone’s DC Super Heroes line.

Midway Monkey Madness, for example, features one of the best-known animal villains in the DC universe: Grodd, the telepathic gorilla who made his comic book debut in 1959 fighting The Flash. Over the last fifty years, Grodd has tangled with the Teen Titans and the Justice League, making him a natural choice to play the bad guy in an adventure starring Beppo (Superman’s monkey friend) and Gleek (the Wonder Twins’ simian sidekick). Pooches of Power follows a similar template, pitting Ace the Bat-Hound and Krypto the Super-Dog against another familiar DC villain: The Penguin. The actual conflicts even bear some resemblance to canon story lines — in Midway Monkey Madness, for example, Grodd frees animals from a circus — but the stakes are lower, and the puns and pratfalls more abundant than in more straightforward superhero fare.

Art-wise, the DC Super Pets look a lot like Baltazar’s Tiny Titans. Each character is drawn in bold, rounded lines and simple but pleasing shapes. The bright pastel color scheme and animorphic rendering of vehicles, buildings, and other props adds another element of visual interest to the illustrations, as do the incorporation of bold, comic-book sound effects into the body of the text. In a nice touch, Baltazar frequently punctuates the dialogue with what I call super-emoticons — small reaction shots placed at the end of a sentence. (Beppo and Gleek’s round faces make a swell substitute for conventional emoticons; I’m tempted to incorporate them into my own blogging.)

Writer Sarah Hines Stephens — who has penned over sixty kids’ books — does a fine job of crafting an engaging narrative that challenges but doesn’t overwhelm beginning readers. Though the text is occasionally saddled with cliche phrases (e.g. “Ace took off like a shot”), Stephens writes in a lively style that will expose readers to a variety of sentence constructions and new vocabulary words. Both Midway Monkey Madness and Pooches of Power include a glossary of terms, though I’m not entirely convinced that the definitions are as helpful as they’re intended to be; I’m pretty sure that young readers will be able to figure out what a Batarang is, but may be stymied by other, less colorful terms in the text.

That said, both Midway Monkey Madness and Pooches of Power would make solid additions to a classroom or school library; the attractive artwork, jokey scripts, and animal heroes are guaranteed to appeal to boys and girls alike. Capstone recommends the books for readers aged four to eight, though the text is too challenging for kids on the lower end of the range to read on their own. Recommended.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

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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