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From Liniers’ Macanudo to Frazz and The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs

Michael TaubeWhile I mostly write about politics, history, economics and current events, I’ve always enjoyed crafting the occasional column about books. A person cannot live on a diet of politics alone, after all!

With this in mind, I present to you a rather unusual cornucopia of books. The topics range from comic strip adventures to a memorable society of hand puppets.

Let’s begin with the brilliant Argentinian cartoonist Ricardo Siri, who uses the nom de plume “Liniers.” (This happens to be his middle name.) He originally studied advertising but moved on to comics. Some of his previous work includes Bonjour, Conejo de viaje (Travelling Rabbit) and El globo grande y mojado (The Big Wet Balloon).

His most famous creation is the long-running Macanudo (Cool). Launched in 2002, it appears on the back page of La Nación, a conservative-leaning Argentinian newspaper. The main characters are Henrietta (Enriqueta) and her teddy bear, Mandelbaum (Madariaga). They’re joined by a bizarre cast of characters, including penguins, gnomes, aliens, cows, witches, Oliverio the Olive, Martin and his imaginary friend, Olga the blue furry monster, and even Pablo Picasso.

An unusual cornucopia of books involving comics and hand puppets

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Liniers released the strip’s first English-language collection, Macanudo: Welcome to Elsewhere, last year through Fantagraphics Books. The adventures are whimsical, avant-garde and a fine example of meta-humour. The subtle influences of comic strips of yesteryear, such as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, Richard F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid and Johnny Gruelle’s Mr. Twee Deedle, are impossible to miss as you turn each page.

To call Macanudo anything less than exceptional would be a gross misrepresentation of Liniers’ genius. In the search to find a successor to Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, this is the strip that most closely resembles it.

Ironically, there is a comic strip with a main character that’s the spitting image of an adult Calvin. Jef Mallet’s Frazz, which started in 2001, focuses on school janitor Edwin “Frazz” Frazier, staff members and students at Bryson Elementary School. While the resemblance between Calvin and Frazz is uncanny, the comparison essentially stops there.

“I’m flattered by the comparisons,” he told the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten in a Jan. 24, 2005 column, “but honestly, it’ll take me the rest of my career to get anywhere close to being worth mentioning in the same sentence as Bill Watterson and Calvin. I learned a lot from following Watterson, but then, so did every other cartoonist of my generation. I just didn’t bother to conceal it very well, it seems.”

I recently picked up Frazz 3.1416, a collection published in 2008. (It’s the last of three published anthologies, although several Kindle-only editions have been released.) The wonderful interplay that Frazz has with teachers and some students, including Joseph, Rosie and the brilliant but often bored Caulfield, is magnificent. The strips are humorous, poignant and remarkably philosophical.

“The humour and calligraphic drawing in ‘Frazz’ reflect Watterson’s influence, but the strip doesn’t feel like a pallid imitation,” columnist and comics historian Charles Solomon wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 9, 2005. Indeed, as he wrote in the book’s forward, “The characters’ expressions often reveal subtle emotions, in the tradition of Peanuts: worry, curiosity, incomprehension, suspicion, annoyance.”

That’s a very accurate portrayal – and a rather humbling comparison, at that.

Finally, let’s venture into the magical world of Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Created by Burr Tillstrom, these three puppets extraordinaire starred with Fran Allison in one of the most important shows during the Golden Age of Television. They, along with several supporting puppets known as the Kuklapolitans, first came on the airwaves in 1949. The show had a massive following, winning a Primetime Emmy Award and Peabody Award. Other great puppeteers, including Jim Henson (Muppets) and Shari Lewis (Lamb Chop), cited Tillstrom as an influence.

Tillstrom published The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs in 1984 with illustrator David Small. It’s a fairy tale (of sorts) about a king, queen and their daughter, Princess Mildred. They didn’t have much money but heard about some treasure buried across the mountains. The king excitedly went off on an excursion but didn’t return. The queen and Mildred were forced to leave their castle for a dark, spooky place with a dragon living in the basement. And so the adventure begins.

I purchased a near-pristine copy on Etsy (thanks to Camilla at MullinandKnoxBooks) and was rather impressed. The book was written in the style of the great puppet show, which appealed to adults and children alike for decades. It was also lavishly drawn to engage young, curious minds with vivid imaginations.

Tillstrom was working on a TV musical adaptation of The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs but died in 1985 before it was completed. Mark Milano, who created the tribute page and released three DVD sets of Kukla, Fran and Ollie with the Burr Tillstrom Copyright Trust, included some musical numbers on one of them written by Rich Maisel. This provided a small taste of what was to come, but will never be.

Fortunately, we can enjoy the splendour of all three books as often as we want.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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