Open Source: Zig and Wikki

Posted by on March 27th, 2010 at 8:40 AM

Rob reviews the Toon Books debut of Nadja Spiegelman & Trade Loeffler, ZIG AND WIKKI IN SOMETHING ATE MY HOMEWORK.

By this point, it’s a given that any new Toon Books release is going to be impeccably well-designed and attractive.  The covers of the books combine a large splash image with two smaller panels above to make the reader understand that this is not just a picture book, but a comic book.  The size of the books are small enough for young readers to hold but large enough for them to enjoy the pictures.  The Toon Books line has created, sui generis, its own tradition as the perfect comics for new readers.  Series editor Francoise Mouly has cleverly brought in the cream of alt-cartoonists interested in doing comics for kids and children’s illustrators interested in doing comics to create a line with a great deal of appeal, especially in schools and libraries.

ZIG AND WIKKI represents a new undertaking for the line.  According to a publisher press release, there was apparently interest in a book that was more directly educational than the stories published to date.  This book not only delineates the concept of the food chain (complete with bite-sized infographics), it does so in the story framework of an alien boy trying to complete a homework assignment.  In essence, this is homework about homework.

The authors are two relative newcomers.  Nadja Spiegelman’s last name is an obvious giveaway as to her connection to the Toon Books line, but it’s clear that she has an intuitive understanding of how a comics page is constructed.  Trade Loeffler’s art feels more than a little generic and perfunctory, even if clearly conveys the ideas of the story.  It’s just nothing that I’m thrilled to look at in terms of its lushness (like the entries from this issue’s guest editor, Geoffrey Hayes), the way it creates a world (like Eleanor Davis’ STINKY) or the relentless energy that comics can convey (like the Jay Lynch/Dean Haspial MO AND JO or Harry Bliss’ LUKE ON THE LOOSE).  One can sense Hayes’ hand at work here perhaps in the way several of the pages used a more open panel design, allowing information to be conveyed in a more fluid manner.

The story follows Zig, who needs to finish his homework assignment of finding a pet to bring in, and his impish friend, Wikki, as they fly around the galaxy and stumble upon earth.  Wikki is a sort of anthropomorphic computer upon whose screen pops up random bits of information pertinent to the environment at hand.  Landing in a swamp, the duo encounters a fly, a dragonflying trying to eat it, a frog trying to eat the dragonfly and finally a raccoon trying to eat the frog.  When the animals do something odd, the reader (through Wikki) gets an infographic that tells us why flies spit on the food or how frogs eat their own skin.  The book plays up the grosser (and hence, to kids, cooler) aspects of animals and how they prey on each other.

Spiegelman pulls out all the stops to keep up the reader’s interest on every page, despite the fact that this is essentially a natural science lesson with a story very loosely attached to it.  We get chase scenes, costume changes, funny character designs and spaceships in an effort to keep the eye on every page.  The main problem with the book is that it’s aimed at an age group (perhaps around 6 or 7) that would probably demand characters with a little more meat on them.  The concepts discussed are a bit out of the age range where the thinness of the characters would be less of an issue.  Zig in particular feels generic, with no particular desires other than to finish his homework. Even attaching one or two additional personality traits to straight-man Zig would draw the reader much deeper into the story.  I’ll be curious to see how Spiegelman gets around this difficulty in future volumes, because the concept itself is gold.

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