May 31, 2016

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All-Ages or Small-Ages #9 (Grumpy Cat - Volume 1)


See all of the past entries of All-Ages or Small-Ages here.

There are a wide array of all-ages comics out there from the classic Archie comics, through the  Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney, all the way to the original properties such as Lumberjanes. You might look at one of these books and think that, as an adult, it doesn’t have much to offer you. As someone who has discovered a deep fondness for titles such as this, I’ve been surprised by how rich and complex the stories can be. All-Ages or Small-Ages? is a feature that takes a look at the books that fall under this banner and attempts to analyse whether or not their assigned label is apt; is it a book that you can read along with your children?

You know who Grumpy Cat is; you may not have been aware that she (maybe not the pronoun that you would expect) starred in her own comic, but you know who she is. Basing the creation of media on an internet sensation may sound like a distasteful cash-grab, but you need to remember that people’s tastes are different. While superheroes may serve as an entry-point for some children, others may prefer a sillier approach. The world famous heroine of this eponymously titled book, Grumpy Cat, is joined by her so-called younger brother, Pokey, on a series of adventures that take them to places that you’d never think they would. No, honestly; there’s no way you ever thought they would.

This first volume is made up of three single issues which can each be broken down into at least two shorter stories. With a myriad of writers and artists contributing to this anthology series, as you would expect, there’s a range of quality to experience. Some stories explore the innate humour in cat logic, while others experiment with time travel. I’m going to say that again for anyone standing in the back: Grumpy Cat travels through time. There’s a lot of self-aware ridiculousness in this series that should come off as delightfully weird, but instead feels like throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Each story lacks any sense of consequence, making them primarily suitable for a younger audience to experience.

Grumpy Cat herself has had a defined personality since that fateful first picture spread like wildfire across the internet. Seeing those preconceived notions solidified here feels disconcerting in the same way as seeing someone’s face after only hearing their voice for so long: it doesn’t quite mesh with what you thought it would be, but it eventually makes sense. With so many writers attached, you might think that the portrayal shifts significantly between stories, but it actually remains pretty consistent. I applaud whoever put this book together and maintained such a strong sense of cohesion across it all.

However, it’s unfortunately not a characterisation that works with an older audience. Grumpy is so unrepentantly moody (it is in her name) that it feels draining to read in big chunks. Her enthusiastic brother Pokey comes up to her with these exciting ideas and thoughts and it becomes a bit disheartening to see him so consistently rebuffed. That might be me putting too much of myself into his place, but it’s difficult for me to ignore. As a comparison, it feels to me like watching Disney’s Peter Pan: as a child he’s this epitomisation of youth and bravery, but watching as an adult, you realise that he’s just an asshole.

Pokey is a character that hasn’t been as visually defined, so suffers from a lack of a consistent look. There are stories where he looks to be of a similar age and size to his older sister, as above, but there are others where he appears to be a kitten, as shown below. As a child, these aren’t details that you’re going to notice; you just recognise the black and white patches and dive right in. As an adult you’re trying to piece these varying versions together into a sequential timeline (perhaps that’s just my X-Men showing). My personal favourite depiction is him as a small, exaggerated kitten. It matches with his verbal diarrhea and allows his enthusiasm to truly bubble over into his wide eyes and excitable face.

Unfortunately, this version is one of the less used versions, pushing him very close into the role of the Scrappy Doo of the book. Pokey is always the instigator of the adventures, either bringing across a map or a mobile phone and badgering the titular character until she joins in. Although you might expect this to turn the character into an irritating, blathering idiot, all of the writers know when to draw the line. He's firmly locked-down as endearing and never crosses over like so many cartoon characters do. 

It would take far too long to discuss the specifics of each of the individual stories in turn, so I’ll instead focus on the couple that drew my attention. One follows the feline duo dealing with their owner’s mobile phone and their struggle to understand it. Instead of anthropomorphising the cats, it approaches the story from the perspective of demonstrating what cat logic would look like if we could understand them. Their attempts to talk into the phone are heard as meows and even the way that Pokey carries the device is believable. I found this type of story far easier to get into because, even though the characters are given human speech bubbles, they’re still very much grounded in reality. Seeing them behave like real cats is  more engaging for me; unfortunately, this kind of story was a rarity.

However, the story with my favourite visual representation of Grumpy and Pokey is the Ken Haeser pencilled birthday party adventure: "Grumpy Birthday to You". Pokey is describing the ideal birthday to the older sibling that he desperately wants to impress and the way that Haeser draws him is so immensely wide-eyed and youthful that you really want his forethought to pan out. On top of that, it brings in the secondary character, the family's dog, with an adorable final page spread of him looking so absolutely helpless and adorable that it almost made me forget everything that came before.

There are little moments where you start to think that this series isn’t that bad; it has a scattering of genuinely amusing moments and references that land. Everything is wrapped up in a bundle of overly simplified plots and general lack of depth that it becomes very difficult to get engaged in. I like liking things; I can embrace the ridiculous if it serves the tone of the story. However, this volume doesn’t have enough substance that allows an older audience to get attached and, honestly, that's extremely OK; this is unquestionably a high quality book for its intended younger audience. There’s an adventure suitable for every child and they’re likely to come away with a stronger affection for both comics and the internet sensation that so many people already adore.

Let me know if there's a comic that you think I should be checking out. I'm always on the look-out for some more hidden All-Ages gold. Contact me at mark@thegreengorcrow.com or head over to check out the podcast that I co-host You Know What I Like...? on SoundCloud.