Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

The Leechin’ of Super-Pets

Posted by Don MacPherson on November 21st, 2008

Petey & Pussy original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: John Kerschbaum
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
Price: $19.99 US

Petey & Pussy is weird. Like most comics readers, I learned to know and love the medium through the super-hero genre, so material such as John Kerschbaum’s cartooning is the sort of thing I found alien, confusing and even off-putting in the past. In recent years, though, my curiosity about such storytelling, found more on the periphery of the industry, has grown. Petey & Pussy is often harsh. It’s extreme and arguably non-sensical at times. But you know what? It’s entertaining. And not only that, behind all the cartoon animals, gross-out humor and cursing, there’s some honestly. Kerschbaum explores people at their best and their worst. He explores nature and the undeniability of instinct. Kerschbaum’s use of anthropomorphic animals blurs the line between the traditional cartoons of yesteryear and a modern examination of behavior, both animal and human. Ultimately, his cartooning is pretty funny, once one gets past the more low-brow, base elements that nevertheless seem appropriate for this odd book.

Petey is a loud-mouthed, simple dog who enjoys indulging his baser instincts. Pussy is, obviously, a cat, although one with poor vision and a lack of patience for those around him. And Bernie is a sickly bird who desperately wants to end his torturous existence. All are owned by a withered old woman who barely knows how to take care of herself, let along pets. When Pussy loses his glasses, he and Petey embark on a mission to retrieve them, and it leads Pussy to try to strike a truce with the mouse in the wall he’s been trying to kill for some time so he can recruit him to help. Meanwhile, another tenant’s former pet runs loose in the building. And by “runs,” I mean “slithers.”

Kerschbaum’s overall style for the world of Petey & Pussy is one that’s clearly influenced by the underground comics of the 1960s and ’70s. There’s really only one main exception, and that’s the artist’s design for Pussy. He’s far more reminiscent of Gary Larson’s characters from The Far Side, at least as far as appearance goes. There’s an interesting contrast between the simpler look of the animals and the gory detail to be found in some of the more over the top scenes. The cartoony or exaggerated tones that dominate the look of the book shouldn’t fool the audience about the depth of Kerschbaum’s craft. The scenes featuring a reptilian player in the “drama” really stand out. He conveys that one animal incredibly convincingly; it’s surprising, given the tone of the rest of the artwork. One also gets a strong sense of place from the backgrounds; it really feels like we’re in New York or some other major U.S. city.

The greatest strength of this book is Kerschbaum’s decision to keep throwing the switch on the animal characters’ behavior. At times, they act like people. At others, like animals. When it’s the former, they’re usually embittered or cruel. But when it’s the latter, the creator highlights the quirks of animal instinct, of the adorable appeal of pets and even the more disgusting (and sometimes ludicrous and silly)┬ábut perfectly normal things they’re apt to do.

Kerschbaum both lampoons and pays tribute to the conventions of classic cartoons, and by cartoons, I mean animation. Petey, Pussy and Bernie clearly owe some of their existence to Sylvester and Tweety (and Hector), to Tom and Jerry, to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote and to any other number of cartoon comedy teams. Kerschbaum points out that in many of those classic ‘toons, the characters are unbelievably awful to one another, that the comedy stems from cruelty. He’s not necessarily criticizing that, but merely demonstrating what so many people have been laughing about or dismissing as saccharine entertainment for children.

When it comes to the human behavior (or the personification of the animals), as I noted, it leans toward the darker side of how we look upon our fellow man. Pussy is often hateful, dismissive or mean-spirited. But there are times when real friendship shines through, especially when Petey and Pussy are together. Kerschbaum uses these characters to expose our worst attitudes and actions, but he also demonstrates that there’s good in everyone as well. Petey & Pussy is surprisingly engaging as a result. 7/10