June 14, 2016

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All-Ages or Small-Ages #11 (Plants vs. Zombies Lawnmageddon)


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?

If you owned a computer in the late 2000s, you played a version of Plants vs. Zombies. At some point during that playthrough, you thought something along the lines of: “I wonder what the actual narrative is here”. Don’t lie. I know you did. What do you mean you didn’t? Well, honestly, neither did anybody else. However, if this first volume from the supremely talented writer Paul Tobin and artist Ron Chan is any indication of the rest of the series, then maybe we should have been worrying about it. If you’ve not got any experience with this franchise, you shouldn’t worry about jumping in here. Everything that you need to know about the base concept is in the name: plants are there and so are zombies; they fight each other.

As it wouldn't be easy to extract a hard-hitting narrative from what is essentially a tower defence game, Tobin instead does something incredibly astute. Steering into the skid, he takes the light-hearted tone that you remember from the game and extrapolates it out into an unapologetically insane story. Although it does progress through a few noticeable story beats, all of the enjoyment of this series can be found in the moments in between. A significant portion of wackier narratives with a younger inflection have the same trappings: a grating protagonist and a lack of cohesion. Fortunately, while this is an unquestionably strange volume, it holds together extraordinarily well.

Tobin’s comedic stylings stand out against his most famous work, the horrific (in the best way) Colder and all of its subsequent sequels. If you come into this expecting something akin to that series, but honestly why would you with the subject matter, you’ll be extremely disconcerted. The sense of humour in this book is something special and delightfully strange. Jokes aren’t shaped around needless pratfalls or forced misunderstandings, but instead come from a place of, for lack of a better word, spontaneity. When you, as a reader, start to get drawn in to the narrative progression, the book will effortlessly, but drastically, shift sideways.

Nowhere is this humour more clear than in the most recognisable piece of continuity from the games: Crazy Dave. Maintaining his incoherent rambling and grunting, he remains the only person who sufficiently prepared for the eventuality of a swarm of zombies attacking the town. With his niece, Patrice, serving as a translator, there are multiple bait-and-switch moments in their conversations where, as you think a spectacular plan is about to emerge, it’s instead about something completely inane. As much as I’d like to say that it's a trick that only worked on me the first time, it’s a shrewd comedic beat that repeatedly and consistently landed.

As previously mentioned, there’s a basic underlying plot that drives the characters forwards along their adventure: zombies attack the town of Neighborville and the protagonists are attempting to destroy them. It honestly doesn’t get any more complicated than that, but it doesn't need to. If you enter into this story expecting a series of hijinks and incredulity, then you’ll have a far greater chance of enjoying it as a self-contained story. For the majority of the volume, this mindset will serve you well. As the humour started to drop out and the story took the main focus, the shallowness of the actual narrative did become abundantly clear.

It would be remiss to complete a review of this series without mentioning the fantastically tonally appropriate art from Ron Chan. Tying into an already established property means that you need to match the stylings of the original work, as a general rule, to ensure that you can instantly look at it and recognise it as part of the world. All of the most famous plants and zombies make an appearance and it’s surprisingly fun to pick out all of the little details that he puts into the background. 

Crowd shots make up a significant portion of the panels in this story and it’s amazing how consistently Chan is able to make each shot feel different. With books like this, where you’re required to convey both scale and the personal weight of the story, it would have been easy to fall back on tracing and endless repetition. It never felt like this was art getting churned out by rote so, if there are instances of this, then they’re so insignificant and unnoticeable. From the beginning until the very end, everything feels alive, vibrant and exciting.

With the two children created for this story serving as point-of-entry characters, both the writing and the art flesh them out as very distinct and interesting people. Nate initially seems like he’s going to serve as the sole male protagonist, like a lot of younger cartoons seem to, but this is a far better series than that. Bringing in Patrice to serve as a counterbalance, there’s something here for every child to enjoy and relate to. Both of them are as capable as children can be and they get an equal chance to demonstrate just how much they can do. They speak with a contagious confidence that sometimes makes you forget their inexperience; however, there’s an ignorance to them that prevents them from becoming an archetypal arrogant child.

In spite of how much I found myself laughing out loud when reading this volume and how much I enjoyed it as a whole, I’m struggling to decide whether or not I would recognise it as fully all-ages. There’s an innate and conscious ridiculousness to it that tickled me, but there were also moments where the lack of a substantial narrative driving force jumps out at you; it starts, if only very slightly, to become a slog. You’ll come away from this series not knowing what the hell you just read, but for some reason you know that you want to read more. I’m more split about this decision that any of the previous entries but, from a standard of how much I liked it, I have to say that this is all-ages.
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.