Monday, April 27, 2009

Hipster Owls and Pretty Kitties


Sometimes, I really want to love a comic. The initial pass doesn't quite impress me, but there's a spark of something that keeps me following the comic in the hopes that it'll eventually gel. But after a while, it hits me that I'm putting off reviews simply because I don't like a comic as much as I think I should.

Case in point: Tiny Kitten Teeth by Becky Dreistadt and Frank Gibson, a comic I discovered through their awesome guest strip on Octopus Pie. It stars Mewsli, a nervous and impoverished young everycat who has just moved to Owltown with his pet kitten. No sooner has he stepped off the bus than he is greated by the dubious, apparenlty self-appointed welcoming committee: Hootenanny Owl and Regal Begal. Before Mewsli even makes it to his new home, the hip kids of Owltown have bought him clothes, dragged him to a party, gotten him wasted, and coerced him into a strange and slightly larcenous night on the town. These and subsequent adventures serve the dizzying dual purpose of showing Mewsli the time of his life and hazing him into an early grave.

So why am I so eager fall for Tiny Kitten Teeth? Just look at it. I'm a sucker for great art, and Tiny Kitten Teeth has it in spades -- or, more accurately, fleurs de lis. Dreistadt handpaints the comic with gouache then inks the images, creating a brilliant color palette, which, combined with the kitschy, 1960s aesthetic, gives the impression that Tiny Kitten Teeth is set in a très fabulous tiki party held inside Mary Blair's brain. And she doesn't sacrifice cartooning for this look, either. Her anthropomorphic characters are spot on, sort of hipster meets Hannah-Barbera, and each expresses panic or disdain or mischief or delight or self-satisfaction with a manic humor that makes each panel a sheer delight. Even if the writing were utterly without charm, Tiny Kitten Teeth would earn a slot in my reader on art alone.

And much of the writing is, in fact, quite charming. There's a great running visual gag in which characters down bottles of liquor filled with tiny ships -- making the worm a tiny, segmented sea monster -- a moment where a character wakes to find a horse head in his bed -- with the live body still attached -- and plenty of snappy, self-important dialogue. Plus, the characters have over-the-top personalities so neatly matched to their crazed -- but strangely refined -- cartoon bodies that you can practically hear the cool and withering voice actors in your head. Just about any individual page of the comic is bursting with fun, with a tight sense of voice and flair.

The trouble is in how all these individual pages fit together. Much of the plot of Tiny Kitten Teeth involves major overreactor Mewsli being jerked around by the other residents of Owltown (mostly Hootenanny). Mewsli is constantly being thrust into social situations where he doesn't understand the rules, committing faux-pas after foot-in-the-mouth, and falling for sundry pranks, only to be rescued or relieved by one of his new acquaintances before he has a complete meltdown. These incidents -- showing up for a party in the wrong attire, waking up next to an obnoxious stranger, not knowing his roommates' names, neglecting his kitty, and thinking he'll have to pay for an expensive brunch -- are too faint to hold up to the rest of the comic, and they're so easily resolved that we get the impression there's nothing at stake. The episodes either need to be punchier and more self-contained, or build on one another, getting progressively more intense and frustrating until Mewsli reaches his breaking point, stands up to the junior residents of Owltown, and make way for a whole new series of plots.

Let's face it, Tiny Kitten Teeth can get by on its good looks and personality. But if its stories can live up to the promises of its dialogue, humor, and art, it can easily step from a likable charmer to a comic to truly love.

[Tiny Kitten Teeth]

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