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Otto: A Palindrama |Review

Otto cover

Otto: A Palindrama
Writer/artist: Jon Agee
Dial Books For Young Readers; $17.99

Prolific picture book creator Jon Agee (Only Stanley, The Wall in the Middle of the Book) makes his graphic novel debut with an ambitious work of wordplay in Otto: A Palindrama.

What, exactly, is a palindrama? Why, it’s a portmanteau of “drama” and “palindrome,” a word or phrase that reads exactly the same forward or backward.

And therefore every word that appears in Agee’s 140+ page book, whether it is a name or exchanges of dialogue or writing on the many signs and instances of advertising that occur within the book, is part a palindrome.

It’s a subject is Agee is rather familiar with, having previously penned a well-regarded 1994 book of palindromes, Go Hang A Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog! (That phrase makes an appearance in the drama, when our hero Otto is confronted by a man who introduces himself thusly: “I’m Al, a slob. My symbol: Salami!”)

So a typical encounter in the book would find Otto coming across a hobo cooking a pair of bats over a fire. “Hobo Jon. No Job,” the hobo would say by way of introduction, to which Otto can only reply “Oh,” completing the palindrome. “Want a bat?” the conversation would continue, and Otto would answer “Naw.”

The book begins with Otto playing with his dog Pip at home, when his parents tells him to sit down for lunch of wonton soup: “Not now, Otto– Wonton!” But staring into his soup, Otto seems to enter the bowl, and he finds himself and his family on a beach together. When Pip chases after a huge humanoid rat—”Was it a rat I saw?”—and Otto gives chase, he soon finds himself lost on a long, weird, episodic adventure in which he wanders from situation to situation, the encounters all built around set-ups for palindrome gags, some of which are quite elaborate, like a sequence in which he encounters dot painters on a city street, or a cat stacker in a little house, others of which are made only in passing, like the signs on the trucks Otto sees when he hitchhikes to the nearest town of Grubsburg.

The random nature of the plotting coupled with the often artificial-sounding, stilted dialogue gives the book the feel of something between a dream and a stage play, evocative of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (with which it shares its basic structure)

Agee’s art will likely be familiar to many readers who will have encountered his numerous picture books. It has an immediacy and intimacy to it, the hand-drawn nature readily apparent from the not-always-perfect lines, which often allows readers to see where and how Agee put the marks down on the paper. It can have the effect of looking home-made, as if one were reading Agee’s own sketchbook, rather than a mass-produced book.

Though there is a great deal of similarity between children’s picture books and comics, both of which requite a degree of narrative told via sequential art, the order of magnitude in comics is far greater than picture books. Agee seems perfectly comfortable with the new medium, and approaches it as if it were a picture book with many pictures per page. The flow of the book is seemingly effortless.

Having mastered one form of sequential art storytelling long ago, I suppose it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Agee has mastered this kind as well.  Otto is, front to back and back to front, a superb work.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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