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Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles Volume One
posted May 21, 2003
Neil Swaab, $12.95
The most interesting thing about the first volume collecting Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles is that it presents the alt-weekly strip's first 140 cartoons without excising any of them for content. So instead of a greatest hits collection culled from the early material that most directly relates to where the strip eventually finds its voice, the reader gets to experience cartoonist Neil Swaab's progression as writer and artist in blow-by-blow detail. The development in the art style hits first. Swaab begins with a fairly conventional indy comix approach, but eventually slips into grotesque figure-drawing that evokes Renee French in the characters' general lack of posture and tiny, animal-like facial features. The strip by book's end is much easier on the eyes than the first few awkward efforts.
It's the writing where Swaab makes the greater strides, and it's the writing on which an alt-weekly like this will ultimately be judged -- the static imagery and sparse backgrounds cast the art in a supporting role like it or not, drawings that provide mood and indicate basic visual rhythms. The writing shows promise. Swaab eventually abandons the tired cute-things-commit-atrocities shtick to mine much of his humor from the enthusiastic but laidback embrace with which his characters greet hideous taboo. Things like child sex, animal torture, and a callous Jesus Christ are met with grins from the two leads for the finger they raise in the direction of standard morality, and, more importantly, the decline in tedium that comes with active deviancy. Pete Sickman-Garner explores similar territory at various points in his Hey, Mister comic book stories, but the strip format and Swaab's static approach to ongoing narrative in Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles really puts the focus on the nastiness of the individual concept. When that day's spin on the basic routine is sound, the individual strip is amusing. When it's not, the reader can't turn the pages fast enough. The interesting result is that 140 weeks in, the feature is still almost entirely conceptual. Strips that hit their punch lines right away scan similarly to strips that showcase involved dialogue. What will come next in the cartoonist's development is the ability to use the writing not just in service to concepts but as a way to develop them. Tom Spurgeon