REVIEWS

Petey & Pussy: Puppy Love

The surface simplicity of John Kerschbaum's work has always belied the complexity of its underlying structure. To be sure, the humorist is first and foremost a gag man, dating back to his Xeric grant-winning series The Wiggly Reader back in the 1990s. His drawing style is pleasant and almost bland, as he rarely sells gags simply by drawing funny pictures. Instead, he prefers to lure readers in with this approachable style and spring bizarre, visceral, and sometimes horrifying gags on them. There are few cartoonists who integrate word and image in such a commanding fashion, as his gags depend on that fusion in order to succeed. He's not primarily a funny writer or funny craftsman (though he is both of those things); instead, he's a funny cartoonist.

His high level of craft is sometimes not immediately discernible. Working with a standard nine-panel grid, no single page or image really stands out on an initial flip-through. One can only see what he's doing upon immersing oneself in the rhythm of each page, because he will frequently set up a gag several pages in advance, while at the same time advancing a series of smaller jokes in the grid set-up. Take the beginning of Kerschbaum's new book, Petey & Pussy: Puppy Love, where the senile owner of Pussy the Cat and Bernie the Bird is at her computer. She's punching it and poking it in order to make it work and even talks into the mouse like it was a CB radio transmitter. At the same time, we hear someone screaming "La La La" and interspersing it with "Kill Me!" That buildup continues for a couple of more pages and reaches its end three pages later, as we first see Pussy, in his usual pose outside the mouse hole. Kerschbaum has created not only his own rhythm but his own reality as well, as the three main pets have human heads and speak English. None of this is ever addressed, nor is it necessary.

This book is a sequel to the original Petey & Pussy book, which itself was a continuation of these two creations of Kerschbaum's. Petey is a stray dog and Pussy is a house cat, both with the heads of middle-aged men, complete with receding hairlines. This is the first time that Kerschbaum has written a full-length story for one of his books, and he takes his time steering through plotlines surrounding all of his characters. Pussy is trying to hide his online gambling from his owner, the old woman who only occasionally flirts with lucidity as she gets up to increasingly perverted activities in her apartment. Bernie is at first despondent, as the woman keeps poking him with a pencil to make him keep singing, but then perks up when Pussy tells him that the newspaper at the bottom of his cage has more than one page. Later, a mirror is introduced into his cage, which he mistakes for a window. Petey has gotten the sister of local tough dog Rex pregnant and is told to take the litter of pups with him. One of those pups, Puff, proves to be particularly resilient and resourceful.

Kerschbaum slowly builds up these plotlines and weaves them together, throwing in surprises and callbacks along the way. One of the ways he keeps the reader off-balance is by simultaneously giving the animals human feelings and problems but not abandoning the idea that they are animals. Pussy is powerless when presented with a cat toy dangling from a string that may or may not have catnip on it. And Petey is trying to have sex with as many dogs as possible, turning into what he refers to as a "fucking machine."

The gags and even the cuteness of characters like Puff are often turned on their head by sudden, shocking scenes of visceral violence. Let's just say that very few of Petey's kids live for very long, and Puff himself is loyal to his dad to a vicious fault. These scenes are simultaneously horrifying and hilarious, and Kerschbaum continues to build on them. Even in the book's endpapers, there's a gag that reaches a hilarious conclusion. Also, the book's endflaps fit together to provide commentary on minor characters in the book, providing callback after callback. No detail is too small for Kerschbaum to pay attention to. I'm guessing book designer Jacob Covey had a hand in putting that together.

Kerschbaum's style of humor is at once enormously sophisticated, refined & complex as well as crude, scatological and slapstick--sometimes in the same panel. Petey and Pussy are most definitely animals, but they are driven by instincts and lusts that are sometimes hard to distinguish from that of a person. Petey is very much a dog-as-person (always looking to get laid or drunk) while Pussy is very much a cat: short-tempered, prissy and vicious. They are short-sighted, selfish and base, yet they talk, think and philosophize like people. Kerschbaum doesn't belabor that point in a ham-fisted manner, preferring to make it part of his gag mechanism, but the similarities he gives his animal characters to people is not accidental.

The book is not at all dependent on having read any prior Petey & Pussy materia. Each of the multiple storylines is pitched at a different level of intensity and style. That Bernie the Bird has limited intelligence essentially renders his humor one-note. That's why he's used sparingly in the story, as a sort of jolt of adrenaline. Petey's story is a quest gone horribly awry, with each look-in more awful than the next. Pussy and his owner each have their own twisted agendas that surprise each other, but Kerschbaum lightens up some of the grosser humor there by turning away at just the right time. Puff is a marvelous comedic lightning rod, because everything he does is extra funny because he's so cute, no matter how violent. What Kerschbaum does in this book is less like a traditional narrative and more like a juggling act that gets more and more complex and dangerous-looking, but it all resolves neatly in the end.

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