Review of the Day: Tiny Tyrant
Tiny Tyrant by Lewis Trondheim, illustrated by Fabrice Parme. First Second Books (an imprint of Roaring Book Press). $10.50.
The French are different from you and me. They like their graphic novels smart, colorful, and consistently amusing. What other nation could claim the wonders of “Asterix and Obelix”? Who else has the chops to give us Joann Sfar on the one hand and then turn around to toss us the partnership of Lewis Trondheim & Fabrice Parme on the other? First Second Books, never afraid to co-opt the foreign so as to market it to one and all, has now brought us a title from the aforementioned Trondheim & Parme pairing. Now I’d like you to bear in mind that I am not a pushover on the subject of French GNs. To be frank with you, I love French graphic novels for teens but have never found one for younger kids that gave me anything but a vague sense of nausea/the willies. The “A.L.I.E.E.E.N.” and the “Sardine in Space” books do nothing for me. “Tiny Tyrant”, however, is another matter entirely. Telling various tales surrounding a pint-sized ruler with very little common sense, I think First Second has a winner on its hands. It’s hip. It’s hilarious. And it’s something I’d hand any kid if they looked at me mournfully and asked if I didn’t have any comics on my library shelves.
Meet King Ethelbert. You can call him, Your Majesty. As the six-year-old ruler of Portocristo, Ethelbert’s not just a pain. He’s a menace to the very society he rules. If he’s not conjuring up dinosaurs out of a laboratory or shrinking the world around him, then he’s fighting with his insufferable cousin Sigismund or kicking Santa Claus in the rear. Ethelbert isn’t all bad, of course. I mean he’s perfectly nice to Princess Hildegardina (though that might be because she’s three times as rich as he is and he wants to prevent his cousin from marrying her). And he sends a guy over to India for an all expense paid vacation (though, to Ethelbert’s mind, it was the worst punishment he could conjure up). All in all, he’s not the kind of monarch you’d necessarily like, but he does happen to be a king you’ll have a hard time putting down. This book is a collection of the best "Tiny Tyrant" stories from eight different French volumes.
Basically the book won me over to its charms right from the start. In “Safety First” Ethelbert finds himself in the care of a bodyguard. Not content to get just any old protector, however, the king decides to test his new servant in the hopes of finding a chink in the man’s admirable abilities. So what do you do when you want to test your new bodyguard? You put a price on your own head, naturally. When groups from all over the globe start showing up, the sheer variety of them is delightful. Everyone from The Family Farmers Liberation Front to a Michigander ambush performed by the Dastardly Detroiters, takes a hand. Not for the first time would I wonder to what extent translator Alexis Siegel and (uncredited) Edward Gauvin added their own personal touches to these exceedingly funny bits of wordplay. Princess Hildegardina, for example, speaks with a lofty convoluted speech that frequently leaves Ethelbert tongue-tied himself. How many of these words are direct translations of the French and how many the delightful vocal curlicues of Siegel and Gauvin?
I would like to point out that not just anyone can do humor and I credit author Lewis Trondheim on some of Ethelbert’s finer ridiculous aspects. When a group of Ethelbert lookalike robots takes over the palace his doubles offer a list of demands that are exceedingly magnificent in their silliness. For example, “I wanna see a death match between a giraffe and a penguin.” If I can take nothing else away from the book, let me at least take that.
Were it not for the book’s bookflap, I might not have noticed that artist Fabrice Parme draws quite a lot of inspiration from “the classic animation of Mr. Magoo and The Pink Panther.” Thinking about it, you can definitely see the mod influences here. And I was particularly taken with the look of Ethelbert himself. It's difficult to tear your eyes away from those eyebrows that float about a foot above his head and are roughly the same size as his body from the neck down. Lest you believe this penned by an American artist, however, I did find a couple instances here and there that were particularly daring by U.S. standards. For example, in the story “A Mountaintop Inheritance”, Ethelbert and Sigismund fight over their now deceased great-great-Aunt’s inheritance. As their squabble disintegrates over a single gold ingot, they start pulling various firearms at one another from a host of weapons lying on the floor. Trust me when I say that it works, but you can definitely see the horror that will grace some parents’ faces when they come to that part of the book. Then again, we all grew up watching Warner Brothers cartoons where pulling a gun on someone was an act of humor (much as it is here) so I don’t think any lasting damage will crease your own tiny tot’s head as a result. Still, keep an eye out for squeamish adults. They may have something to say about this section.
I find it more than a little coincidental that “Tiny Tyrant” is getting a release on the exact same day as David Horvath’s picture book, Bossy Bear. Look me in the eye and tell me these two books don’t have a lot in common. Right here. Right in the eye. Now tell me. Can’t do it, can ya? Yeah, no, I didn’t think so, and why? Because the color scheme is frighteningly similar. The drawing style has some pretty familiar elements. Plus there’s the mild fact that both books are about crown-wearing tiny tots with egos the size of Goodyear blimps. A good pairing? Not necessarily since there’s the difference in age level to take into account here. Still, should you wish to get your nine-year-old and five-year-old nieces and nephews some related gifts, this wouldn’t be an unlikely pairing.
On its own “Tiny Tyrant” is sure to amuse plenty of kids and adults alike. If petulant dictators with little education and even less interest in the the plight of the common man are your cup of tea (and in this day and age, how could they not be?), you may find in this book a fun house mirror for our times.
On shelves May 1st.
Follow the link for a preview of the story Picture-perfect Children.