Review of the Day: Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug
Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug by Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash. Harcourt Children's Books. $12.95.
Sometimes a book just falls into your lap without rhyme, reason, or explanation and you’re left gaping like a fish until someone’s able to tell you something about it. Well “Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug” fell into my lap and due to its very nature I’ve been left gaping for some time. I gotta say, this is one of the weirder creations to float down the river, and I’m torn between being utterly charmed by it and marching over to Harcourt Books to DEMAND the story of its creation. Basically, what we have here is softy Megan Montague Cash joining forces with Mark Newgarden to produce a picture book about a curious dog. Who is Mark Newgarden? Well, in a recent interview with MrSkin.com I learned that he’s an alt-comic mastermind with the book, “We All Die Alone,” already under his belt. He’s lived in a converted funeral parlor, has a great take on Tijuana Bibles, and once deconstructed the comic strip Nancy. The next thing you know he turns around and produces something called, “Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug.” An inconsistency? Not in the least. Though he’s curbed his style to the world of wordless picture book adventures, this title uses its misleading simplicity to lure the reader into a false sense of complacency. Then, BAM! It ratchets up the weirdness meter to 110%. With a clear sense of its artist’s comic-laden past, and a firm grounding in what makes a picture book “good,” Newgarden and Cash have produced the weirdest bit of kidlit fluff I’ve seen in a very long time. Their tongues are planted firmly in their cheeks and they know how to play for laughs by balancing out visual humor with sheer out-and-out ridiculousness. Impressive.
A single black dot makes a leap off a pure white page towards a sleeping terrier. The pup wakes up and begins his day only to find himself somewhat entranced by the insect in his presence. Without thinking much about it he proceeds to follow the bug around a single city block. Slowly the situation grows more and more surreal as Newgarden and Cash begin to play off of expected norms. When pup and bug meet their identical twins it’s a great excuse for a series of panels where they try to get the other to do something different. Things get curiouser still. Giant dogs follow tiny bugs. Hundreds of dogs follow hundreds of bugs. And then, in a kind of coup de grace, hundreds of gigantic bugs follow hundreds of tiny dogs. Exhausted and more than a touch weirded out, Bow-Wow heads for home where pup and insect can settle down for a good long sleep.
It’s not really fair when a reviewer is handed a book with a blurb like this on the back cover: “What an odd, sweet, surreal, and hilarious adventure from Newgarden and Cash. It’s what Crockett Johnson, Ernie Bushmiller, and Rod Serling might have come up with if they shared a bench at the doggie park. I love it!” Well thank you sooooooo much, Lane Smith. First of all, being that Newgarden’s a huge Bushmiller fan, I suspect Mr. Smith was being coy with his references. But the fact of the matter is that this nails the tone of the book perfectly. I’m jealous. I could never have paired these three artists together, and yet that’s exactly how the book feels. Reality is upended suddenly and regularly in this title and it’s a joy each and every time. I’ve tried to pinpoint the exact moment the book won me over, heart and soul, and I think it had to be when Bow-Wow runs into an enormous dog following an enormous bug. Still, there’s a subtlety to the illustrations in this book that rewards the careful reader. I’ve never seen a book so perfectly perform the old look–blink–look-again move. And when Bow-Wow’s face is reflected in the kaleidoscopic eyes of the lead bug, his oh-come-on-now expression (raised eyebrow and all) is priceless.
The problem with books that look this simple is that adult readers will often skim it once, assume there aren’t any noteworthy details, and put it down without a second glance. Kids, on the other hand, are bound to be rewarded time and time again whenever they re”read” certain sections. Did you notice that when Bow-Wow meets his virtual twin and his bug does the same, everything the dogs do the bugs do? If the dogs put on green cat masks, so too do the bugs. Balancing on balls while donning fezzes? So too do the bugs. The art in this book is fabulous and suggests a fun but twisted mentality. Now will someone please explain to me why it is that Garbage Pail Kids, that insane construct of the mid-1980s that, to any sane and rational mind, had NO redeeming qualities, managed to jump-start the careers of such artists as Art Spiegelman and Bow-Wow's own Mark Newgarden? You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but this book bears the weight of some serious alternative kid-fare.
Of course, the sheer simplicity of the title lends itself to a couple difficulties here and there. For one thing, forget trying to suck any authorial/illustrator information out of it. I had naturally assumed that Mark did the illustrations and Megan the plotting, but a quick glance at what passes for a publication page and you can see that this book was “designed by Megan Montague Cash.” So… so huh? We must assume that she is the artist here. There’s no sign of a title on the cover either. I appreciate the simplicity of the design, but this seems a bit silly. At the very least, mention who did what.
The wordless picture book is a peculiar beastie. They can serve as ways to get illiterate or struggling readers interested in the world of books and literature without scaring them off. How different is “Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug,” from the “Polo” adventures by Regis Faller, after all? Kids also often get assignments in school requiring that they find a wordless picture book and write a story about it for class. “Bow-Wow,” is a bit too simple for that particular assignment, but for anyone collecting picture books of the wordless variety, I won’t hesitate to recommend it in a heartbeat. There are only so many times you can hand someone an Anno or Lehman's “The Red Book” without feeling a bit drained.
Newgarden and Cash (sounds like an insurance company if you say it just right) have a business future together, no question. With its silent movie references, clean lines, and crisp storytelling, “Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug,” is a keeper. It’s fun and funny and bound to be overlooked unless you start telling your friends and neighbors about it pronto. I may find the design just a bit much here and there, but all in all this one’s memorable.
On shelves June 1, 2007.