Uncategorized08 Dec 2008 09:20 am

Mixed Media and Metaphors

by Michael H. Payne

Love Puppets #1 – http://www.topshelfcomix.com/ts2.0/love_puppets_ch1/1
Love Puppets #2 – http://www.topshelfcomix.com/ts2.0/love_puppets_two_ch1/1

When I first read Polu Texni’s mission statement, the part about “the intersection where different media, styles, crafts, and genres meet” made me think immediately of the webcomic Love Puppets by Jessica McLeod and Edward J. Grug III.  I wrote to Editor Dawn and asked if she’d mind me popping in here to let folks know about the comic, and she said not at all.  And so here we all are!

McLeod and Grug–his pseudonym’s inspired by the main character from a series of Australian children’s books–are an affianced couple living in Perth, Western Australia, and they’ve been making comics together and separately for quite some time now: The Bizarre Life of Charlie Red-Eye <http://www.moderntales.com/comics/charlieredeye.php>, a strip Grug co-created over on the Modern Tales site, began back in 2003, for instance, and you can find quite a passel of their work on their respective WebComicsNation pages– <http://webcomicsnation.com/jessica/> and <http://webcomicsnation.com/grug/>.

A reader glancing quickly at those pages will see a lot of talking animals and cute little creatures: McLeod’s Space Rabbit with his monocle and round see-through helmet, or Grug’s Hugo Hensen, all shaggy and orange.  But settling in and actually reading the comics will show that they don’t necessarily conform to the same definition of cute as one might apply to, say, a Disney cartoon or the standard illustrated picture book.

The comics there are cute, have no doubt about that.  But they’re what I’ve been calling “the New Cute” for the past couple years in the articles I’ve been writing for various webcomic review sites.  I define the New Cute as “small but not picayune; pleasant but not condescending; optimistic but not sugarcoated,” and I conclude that this sort of cuteness “requires an acknowledgment that the world is a rough and scary place but then turns around and decides to smile anyway.”

A surprising number of webcomics fit into this category–like I said, I’ve been writing about them for a couple years now–and Love Puppets is almost quintessential New Cute.  At its core, this is a “slice of life” comic, its stories chronicling the everyday adventures of people going about their regular lives.  It’s just that in this case, all the people happen to be puppets.

Hand puppets both traditional and more “Muppet” like, rod puppets, marionettes, the cast features a regular melting pot of puppets, and the stories so far have centered on a coffee shop/book store called The Café Literati: the first issue follows Alex, a cat puppet, her friend Callie, an elephant puppet, and Sam, the rabbit puppet who works at the café, while the second issue centers on Mr. Johansen, the big furry monster puppet who owns the place.

As the series title suggests, love figures into the stories, too, but I don’t want to spoil things by getting too specific.  Suffice it to say that the depth and breadth of emotion displayed here goes well beyond the usual puppet show, and the characters transcend the limitations of their stiff felt arms and ping-pong ball or coat button eyes to become real flesh and blood.  McLeod’s stories and dialogue give us people with all their warts and dreams, but she never forgets that they’re literally not human.  She gives us a world much like ours but always suited to the puppets who live in it.

As for the visuals, Grug’s artwork is constantly, delightfully surprising.  Little touches–the wrinkles in the cloth backdrop of the sky, seeing the bottom edges of the puppets in some frames–never let the reader forget that this is indeed a puppet show, but drawing it as he does gives him a chance to expand the horizons and create crowd scenes that might be a little difficult to stage with actual puppeteers.  Still, having participated in my fair share of puppet productions over the years, I’m pretty sure I could duplicate every pose he puts the characters into.

In short, it’s my kind of tour de force, a character-driven drama of the “slice of life” variety mixed with the cardboard and faux-fur usually found in productions meant for children.  Each half feeds the other, the whole, as they say, becoming more than the sum of its parts.

The world of webcomics is expanding everyday, and it’s mostly available free of charge to anyone with an internet connection.  The comics come in a wide variety of styles and flavors, ranging from those that are extraordinarily popular for reasons that I personally can’t understand to those that trundle on for years in well-deserved obscurity.  McLeod and Grug are in the “up and coming” category these days, Love Puppets appearing as it does on the website of Top Shelf Comix, one of the premier independent publishers.  It’s a very hopeful thing to see, and I can hardly wait for the next issue.


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