Friday, January 13, 2006

Books (Comic Strip): Frazz: Live at Bryson Elementary

One of the more common comic strip clichés is "kids hate school" (of course, this isn't restricted to comic strips). Calvin & Hobbes is probably the best example of this ("best" as in both "best example of" and "best executed"), but it's hard to get away from. FoxTrot first caught my eye because it actually had a character who loved school. Of course, Jason's a geeky science nerd type, another cliché, but a well-done one.

Jef Mallett's Frazz takes a rather different approach. It's set almost entirely in a school (a grade school -- most of the students seen are 6 to 9 years old) and covers a much wider range of school experiences than any other strip. Frazz: Live at Bryson Elementary is the first collection of the strip.

The strip centres around its title character, "Frazz" Frazier, a successful songwriter and grade school custodian who has taken upon himself the job of making sure school is fun for the students, even of some of the classes aren't. Most prominent among the students is Caulfield, named for Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye -- the first of a great many literary references in the strip.

Caulfield squares off against Mrs. Olsen, one of those teachers who really has no business being a teacher. He isn't a Calvin to her Miss Wormwood, though -- Calvin's smart, but lazy. He wants everything handed to him on a platter. Caulfield (aided and abetted by Frazz) is smart and enthusiastic about learning. He reads Hemingway and Faulkner, for example. He's just bored to death by Mrs. Olsen's classes, and hates regimented learning. Truth be told, for all I love Calvin & Hobbes, I identify with Caulfield more than Calvin. I had the good fortune of getting into an "Advancement Program" for bright students who were being held back in the general classes. Unfortunately, those sorts of programs have fallen out of style lately, often in favour of giving the smart kinds Ritalyn to keep them from getting bored and impatient.

Frazz is the kind of guy who could have turned Calvin into a Caulfield. The Foreword by Gene Weingarten points out that Frazz could even be Calvin, a "brilliant underachiever" (and with the same hair), grown up having finally learned to love learning. (Frazz was also a student under Mrs. Olsen when he was in grade three, 21 years earlier. Perhaps "Wormwood" was her maiden name?) Though Mallett says he didn't mean for Frazz to be adult Calvin, you can definitely see the influences Watterson had on Mallett's writing. Curiously, one the places it shows up best is in the use of pacing and silence in the strips -- which could get me 'way off track into a discussion of Scott McCloud's "Count Basie" analogy for pacing comics, but I'll save that for some other time.

The Frazz world is a little broadly populated than the Calvin & Hobbes, too. Bryson Elementary has popular, inspirational teachers as well as Mrs. Olsen, and lots of students other than Caulfield (though Olsen and Caulfield are the ones whose name sticks in my memory). It's not all stuck in school as well -- Frazz is an avid mountain biker, and is often off riding, especially in Sunday strips.

One of the best things about the strip is that it's not just Caulfield and Frazz who are well-read -- it assumes the readers are as well. The jokes work best if you know something of Salinger, Hemingway, Faulkner, and so on. (At one point Caulfield gets his Walkman confiscated by the principal, and Frazz mentions that it might not have happened if Caulfield had explained he was listening to a Faulkner book on tape. Caulfield says, "That's ok, I was getting tired of changing tapes in the middle of sentences anyway.")

And, as if to emphasize the strip's literacy, two of the three blurbs on the back of the book are by Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. (Coincidentally, the first time I encountered Frazz, it was in the middle of a story about Frazz reading Hiaasen. I think the book was Tourist Season).

The third blurb is by 1988 Giro d'Italia champion Andy Hampsten, just to cover Frazz's fondness for cycling.

Wikipedia has a good entry about Frazz which covers its literary allusions in more detail.

I don't actually know if Frazz is running in any Toronto papers. I should see. I follow it online, and I will certainly be buying all the books. My only fear is that a comic strip that expects so much literacy from its readers may not be able to survive long.

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