Marc Bell, 64 pages, Drawn & Quarterly, drawnandquarterly.com, $24.95
There is probably no living artist who can depict a lunatic quivering with pleasure as he devours an entire block of President’s Choice medium cheddar cheese better than London, Ontario cartoonist Marc Bell. Your mileage with Stroppy, Bell’s first full-length graphic novella, will depend on whether you find his absurdist storytelling and dialogue as charming as his art.
The story concerns Stroppy, a Popeye-forearmed cog in a factory where Minion-like natives are lobotomized to provide cheap labour for vile tycoon Monsieur Moustache. Like Bell’s drawings, the plot is loopy and rubbery, with the announcement of a song-writing competition setting off a chain of disasters that brings Stroppy and a gang of fellow travellers into conflict with the Gallic tyrant, who happens to be a tin-eared Billy Joel wannabe on the side. Bell aims a few broad swipes at easy one-percenter targets, but none of the jokes here really bare teeth — though he’s clearly influenced by the body humour of ‘70s comix, he doesn’t go in for their transgressive, bad-trip satire. Stroppy’s sensibility is pure cornball, old newspaper strips recreated from memory on psychedelics.
The book only really hits its stride in a late sequence set inside a mini-golf course themed as a “Greatest Hits” record for the Stroppy-verse’s most popular act, the All-Star Schnauzer Band. Composed as a series of splash pages, each “hole” is modelled on the lyrics to a nonsensical Schnauzer Band classic such as “Hot Dog Juice on My Feet” and “Father Ocean Wears the Water Trousers.” These gag-laden Rube Goldberg machines showcase Bell’s remarkable imagination and ability as a visual humorist — there’s an almost childlike pleasure in just following the motion of the ball, noticing how everything fits together. Freed a little from the constraints of the narrative, loose though it is, these pages recall both the screwball energy of his mini-comics work and the scope and detail of his fine art exhibitions. (JM Francheteau)