Saturday, April 19, 2014

Me Likes You Very Much

Written and Illustrated by Lauren Barnett
Published by Hic & Hoc

A variety of vegetables, birds, and other normally non-vocal objects and animals go through life insulting each other and generally be humorously unpleasant in this collection from cartoonist Lauren Barnett.

Originally posted online on a blog called "Me Likes You," which continues to this day here, the strips are very much in the style of one-panel gag comics you might see in the newspaper or in the New Yorker.

Except that in this case, they're actually funny.

I have a complex relationship with gag comics. When they work, they're some of the best thing you'll read in the humor end of the comics spectrum. My current favorite working in the genre is Sam Henderson. He understands that the key to making it work isn't playing it safe. To do a gag strip that's truly funny, you have to be willing to be unpleasant and uncomfortable, going in directions that would get you banned out of the newspaper within a week.

In short, this is the kind of thing that can only work online/in the indie comix world. While it reduces the potential readership, of course, it improves the quality of the gags significantly.

Barnett understands this and immediately lets the reader know what kind of jokes they are in for. The first official page has two birds (frequent protagonists in the collection), one of whom is stupid drunk and forcing its sober friend to deal with it. I've been on both sides of that one, and I suspect Barnett has as well.

From there, the jokes come fast and furious, ranging from the simple ("I'm as cool as me," says a cucumber to another, overheated veggie) to the subtle (a cassette expresses a sigh) to the crude ("I thought you were a stupid asshole and I guess I was right," says one bird after the other brags about their diet), balanced nicely across the pages. It's very rapid fire, with Barnett never lingering too long over a particular joke.

That makes this a quick read, which at $14 might be an issue for some. While there are about 175 comics in the collection, the nature of the jokes and the minimal details provided in the art do not invite a reader to linger the way that you might with, say, something from Kupperman or even the master of the one-panel gag, Gary Larsen, who could add things that required time to appreciate.

However, this isn't a flaw in Barnett's work at all. It's more the nature of the beast. The point here isn't how lavishly she could depict a kitchen--it's the idea of a bird getting baked into a cake by another bird or the shock and tears a banana sheds when it arrives too late to prevent suicide by banana bread.

Not all of the jokes worked for me, of course, but that's also the nature of the beast. What one reader finds laugh out loud funny another could see as a dud. Overall, I thought there were quite a few good jokes, and a few that were absolutely brilliant, like the dictionary that cheats at Scrabble.

As is evident from the samples included here, Barnett's art is uncomplicated, doing only what it must to convey the gag. It's not unlike what you might see from a mini-comic, where the emphasis is on the point of the story rather than the technical quality of the linework. You can tell it's an apple/bird/french fry/talking pile of poop, and that's what's needed. Again, that's why this is something you need to compare more to newspaper gag strips instead of a graphic novel. The comparison is much closer.

Every once in awhile, Barnett will show off her art chops, with pieces that resemble inspirational posters by have a great, sarcastic wit instead. A well-textured snake dismisses the reader as common, for example. In another, a rooster demands the reader's accountability. These indicate that Barnett understand the ability to draw in a more technical style, and rejects it as necessary for the jokes.

Me Likes You Very Much isn't going to be for everyone. It takes a certain kind of taste for that odd combination of low-brow jokes with sophisticated humor to work, which is why fans of Henderson will find much to appreciate here. I liked this very much, and I look forward to seeking out more from Barnett in the future.

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