Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Review: RASCAL RACCOON'S RAGING REVENGE! by Brendan Hay and Justin Wagner (Oni Press, 2011)

What would be the consequences if Wile E. Coyote finally did manage to destroy and/or eat the Road Runner? Or if Elmer Fudd's aim at Bugs Bunny were for once true? This ambitious graphic novel tackles the great philosophical conundrum of Toon-dom, and, when all is said and done, counts as at least half of a success. The immediate fallout from "Meanie" Rascal Raccoon's presence at the demise of "Merrie" Jumpin' Jackalope (and I'm wording that description carefully for a good reason, as you'll see) is funny and very believable, while Rascal's subsequent sojourn into the world of the human "Pen Men" to give his broken life some new purpose (and, just perhaps, to win over Jumpin' ex-wife and Rascal's ex-flame, the luscious, hot-pants-sporting Janey Jackalope) is... well... philosophically problematic, at best. At the very least, the latter adventure opens up a very big can of worms regarding the extent to which the denizens of "Toonie Terrace" possess free will or are the puppets of forces beyond their control. Writer Brendan Hay's overarching approach is "whatever works... and is funny," but I wasn't entirely convinced by his explanation of the dilemma, and the ending is particularly underwhelming. Still, thanks in great measure to the charming artwork of Justin Wagner, this is a fun read and well worth an investment by anyone who enjoys those Golden Age Toons of yesteryear.

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It's fitting that Rascal Raccoon -- who actually looks a lot more like Wile E. Coyote with a ringed tail than an adult version of, say, POGO's Rackety Coon Chile -- gets the title to himself. Though a "Meanie," complete with a cloud-shrouded dump of a lair on the literal "bad side" of Toonie Terrace and a big line of credit with the gadget-suppliers at Pits (get it?), he's actually pretty likable from the off. His crabbiness is understandable, given Jumpin' smart-aleck comments and annoying, Newton-esque repeated-phrases shtick ("You old wheeler! You old dealer!"), and despite the occasional (OK, make that reasonably frequent) moment of despair, he seems to enjoy his scheming in a manner that Wile E. never did. It's almost too bad, therefore, that he doesn't actually cause Jumpin's death; he's simply "present at the de-creation" when the despised "jerk-a-lope" is struck by a couple of semis (I assume that Hay was being ironic here, recalling how often Wile E. was smashed into by trucks, trains, etc.) The other Meanies, of course, treat Rascal like a hero... but then, he realizes just how empty his life has really been. I imagine that the guilty knowledge that he took credit for the kill-shot was a major reason for Rascal's quick degeneration into a bar-haunting ne'er-do-well.

Rascal's pal Monty Boombast (imagine a combination of Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and Speedy Gonzales -- and then stand back) triggers a new ambition in the ex-"arch" (short for "archenemy," don'tcha know) when he tells Rascal about the "magic pens" that the "Merries" get from allies in the mysterious world of the "Pen Men." This is cleverly played as a creationist vs. evolutionist conceit (Rascal thinks that Toonies evolved from "silent, black and white animals" rather than being "creatified" by some outside agency) and gives Rascal a new target to pursue, but it also begins to blur the distinction between the world of the Toonies and the world of humans. The point of cartoons like Duck Amuck and Comicalamities is that the breaking of the divide between worlds was portrayed as atypical. Here, the barrier seems more like a permeable membrane.

Rascal gets Jumpin's ex Janey to lend her "magic pen" to the cause by claiming that he wants to bring Jumpin' back to life, and away the duo go into a human world that, at times, seems almost as cartoony as that of Toonie Terrace. The expected amount of fun is poked at theme parks ("Toonie World"), Korean assembly-line animation studios, clueless CEOs who are living off the progeny of long-dead creators, "furry" fans and cosplayers (a bit of a surprise, actually, given the outfit that published this book), and overwrought cartoon fans with too much time on their hands. (The mock-critical essay "The Rise of Rascal Raccoon" that follows the story reminds me of nothing more than a cross-breeding of the notorious "Elmo Aardvark" article that ran in WILD CARTOON KINGDOM and the "Please Get a Life Foundation" segment that ran on Animaniacs.) We also get some teasing hints (though no more than that -- this isn't one of Oni's regular titles!) that, despite Janey's understandable anger at Rascal for taking the credit for her husband's death, they might actually strike up a relationship at some point. The problem is, I can't really get a handle on how, exactly, the human creation of "Toonie Treats" led to the "real" denizens of Toonie Terrace going through their repetitive paces, or even if there was a cause and effect relationship. Case in point: Rascal looks horrified when he watches some old cartoons and rips into the CEO for "allowing" him to sustain all that punishment. He even clearly references one of the injuries he's seen. But, in the very next panel, the CEO claims that "nobody [at the studio] makes you do anything." I confess to being as confused as Rascal was. Some references are also made to the fact that Toons have a harder time bouncing back from pratfalls in the human world than they do in Toonie Terrace, which shows at least some awareness of the dilemmas involved here. To be frank, though, I think that my friend Matt Plotecher did a much better job of handling this matter when he brought Darkwing Duck into the Rescue Rangers' world in his fanfic "There and Back... Again?".

Not surprisingly, Rascal finally slips back into "Meanie" mode and creates a monster that's destined to destroy Burbank... until Rascal himself has a change of heart and literally erases the monster himself, nearly killing himself in the process. (Luckily, Janey helps him step back from the brink.) Vowing to get out of the "arching" business for good so he can be "the only idiot in control of me" (but I thought the human world had no control over him?), Rascal returns with Janey to the world of the Toonies...

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... just in time for Jumpin' to come back to life. And Rascal doesn't even seem to be that surprised by the development. Say wha'? Rascal, the other "Meanies," and the grieving "Merries" sure didn't evince any such advance knowledge of Jumpin's eventual return earlier in the story. The return to the status quo ante is certainly consistent with the "permanent reset button" used in classic Toons past, but, in this context, it comes totally out of left field. Since he has renounced "Meanie-dom," Rascal now faces a life of inventive tinkering (with, it must be said, at least some hope of success). It could be counted as a happy ending for him, but, from my perspective, the tale just sort of peters out. Rascal even figuratively throws up his hands when he says that, despite his apparent success in building a "video thing" that literally allows the Toonies to see their own cartoon adventures, he "still doesn't quite get the rules" of how the two worlds relate. You and me both, pal.

Despite its flaws, RASCAL RACCOON'S RAGING REVENGE! is very enjoyable. On a slow day during a comics convention, you might even be able to get a really good discussion group going amongst your Toon-fancying peers as to how to untangle the various philosophical issues raised herein. Or, you might just enjoy looking at Janey Jackalope in hot pants. It's your choice... and that's a good thing.

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