Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Review: Johnny Boo and the Mean Little Boy, James Kochalka (Top Shelf, 2010)

Story and art by James Kochalka
Full-colour, 16.51 x 23.50cm, 40 pages
 Price: $9.95 (US)
Released: August 2010

Returning in the fourth volume of his beloved Top Shelf series is James Kochalka’s immensely lovable Johnny Boo. A world away from Kolchalka's previous release from Top Shelf, the Superf*ckers collection, he revisits his similarly charming, but much less profane, "all-ages" characters that have won over sprightly youths and miserable oldies alike. This time, the “best little ghost in the whole world” and his comma-shaped sidekick, Squiggle, deal with the timeless dilemma of learning to make new friends whilst also accepting that old buddies need to make new connections too.

In Johnny Boo and the Mean Little Boy, Kochalka offers up a fun interpretation of a situation we all had to deal with as children. Namely, the perceived rejection of your BFF deciding to play with someone else for a while. Disheartened but undeterred by Johnny Boo’s exclusive play-date with new-found friend Rocky the Rock, Squiggle decides that it’s time he spent some time with one of his other friends too. Excitedly flying through the bold blue and green shapes that make up the book's leafy environment,  his plan is halted when he realises – shock horror – that he doesn’t have any other friends.

Tenacious to a fault, Squiggle confidently resolves to rectify this, eventually encountering the titular Mean Little Boy. Initially assuming the butterfly-hunting youth to be engaging him in a friendly game of chase, the poor little guy finds out the hard way that sometimes people don’t want to be friends; rather they just want to stuff you in a jar because they think you’re a flying insect. Uh-oh.

The characters are as loveable as ever, and it's obvious that Kochalka is someone who understands how to navigate the perilous terrain of entertaining children without being patronising or overbearing. Peppered with fun interjections like “SUPER SWOOSH!”, “HOORAY!” and, of course, “BOO!”, it’s definitely a fun book to read aloud, and a perfect way to start brain-washing encouraging kids to enjoy comics from an early age. Rather than enforcing a didactic moral onto his readership, the American Elf creator reaffirms the importance of the bond of friendship gently and with a lot of energetic humour. One ridiculous strap-line we kicked about was "it's a fable for the Facebook age: not so much about the quantity, but rather the quality of your friendships”. 

One of the many reasons Kochalka’s ghostly “all-ages” characters have attracted so much success is because they straddle the gap between the sensibilities of children's and adults' humour. Ostensibly cartoony in the way characters flit from sentiment to sentiment, the ebullient dialogue between them nonetheless mirrors the unaffected (and sometimes absurd) bluntness of children’s speech. Adults (that is, children over 21) will find a lot of joy in the way the creator pares-down the themes of the story to make something relatable and, most importantly, funny. It's definitely the kind of comic that has the ability to remind a reader of their time as a child and the importance of retaining an appreciation for a silly, super-fun, story.

Featuring the universally funny statement of "I hope you PEE your PANTS", I defy anyone, five to seventy-five, not to at least smile a little whilst reading Johnny Boo and the Mean Little Boy. Rendered in Kolchalka's trademark rounded, colourful illustrative style, fans of the series will find more of what they love here, and newcomers will no doubt be just as enamored. With the three previous books of the series currently in print over at Top Shelf's website (with this one available for pre-order), readers of all ages who feel like making a couple of an awesomely cute new friends (or just reaffirming their bond with some awesomely cute old ones) can do so today.

To hell with Casper, we’ll take Johnny Boo any day!


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