The key to successful comedy is knowing when to land the joke. With her three new kids’ titles, Montreal author Elise Gravel demonstrates a talent for comedic timing, firmly establishing her status as one of the funniest writers working across all genres in Canada today.
A scene in Arlo & Pips: King of the Birds, the first instalment in Gravel’s entertaining new graphic-novel series for HarperAlley, finds greedy crow Arlo hiding a rotting fish from a group of marauding gulls. They’re coming at Arlo and his tiny avian friend, Pips, from all sides, like something out of The Birds. “Are they watching?” Arlo whispers to Pips, standing quietly with the stinky carrion tucked inside his beak. “Yes,” says Pips in the next frame, which is dominated by rows of gull faces shocked at the disappearance of their targeted snack. Visual jokes like this work not only because Gravel lets them breathe, but because she conveys so much storytelling through her characters’ simple expressions.
Arlo is always bragging about his species’ many talents, like his amazing memory capacity, collecting prowess, and ability to create tools. And while Gravel backs up his claims with factual pullouts about crow intelligence, Pips is there to take Arlo down a notch whenever he acts too boastful. But like the best buddy comedies, there is a give-and-take and a sense of true friendship between the pair – Gravel’s humour is never mean – even though it is clear Arlo’s brain is that much bigger.
The Wrench may look like a throwback with its mid-21st century palette, but its content is of the moment. Poor Bob, who appears to be a cross between an alien rabbit and a pig, breaks a wheel on his tricycle. And so he heads to Megamart, a gaudy general store. He is immediately distracted by a mustachioed salesperson in a cowboy-style uniform who could be a stand-in for the Beatles’ Blue Meanies. The wily salesperson convinces Bob that wrenches are boring – what he really needs is a fridge-hat.
Bob is sure his friends will be dazzled, but instead they admonish the gimmicky headpiece: “‘Weren’t you supposed to buy a wrench?’ asked Paulette.” And so Bob trudges back to Megamart. This exchange happens two more times, with Bob being persuaded to buy musical pyjamas and then an ear-piercing Screaming Machine. At this point, Bob runs out of money. Recalling that there may be a few bucks stashed in his closet, he opens the door only to have all his useless purchases fall out and land on his head. (Bob clearly has a shopping problem.) Then he notices among the many games, electronics, and toys – his wrench!
Although Bob gets bonked on the noggin, Gravel does not do so to her young readers. The gentle anticonsumerism message is embedded in an entertaining story, which sees Bob eventually achieve his mission of fixing his tricycle. Does Bob learn a lesson? It’s unclear, but that’s fine. The Wrench is an excellent primer on the value of time and money before the allowance years hit.
In Not Me, the payoff lands in the final illustration. When a father (wearing a cute CBC shirt) asks who left dirty socks all over the floor, his two kids blame Not Me, who turns out to be a portly cookie-munching monster. Sputtering denial, Not Me emphatically blames the stubbly pink creature, Not True. The blame game continues until Dad sends all four on a time out. It’s only then that the real culprit is revealed. Not Fair, with his bag of dirty socks, gets away with the crime with a sneaky “Muah ha-ha!”
Like Bob in The Wrench, it’s unclear what the future holds for shifty-eyed Not Fair. Not a problem though because the takeaway lesson – making excuses has consequences – is already established. So will Dad ever discover the truth? The delight is in not knowing.